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Business & Economy Commentary

Opinion: The future of coffee shops in the age of isolation

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Tucked away in a red-bricked nook in Boston stands one of my favorite coffee shops. Well, stood. Traveling in the heartland of Boston last September, it was a shock to notice that my once favorite place to work and rest from the winter was now only an empty building. This is now a familiar scene as businesses are placed under the pressure of the pandemic. But it is also familiar because we seem to be leaning towards an age of isolation.

Even before the pandemic, we were increasingly isolated from human connection, especially in the millennial generations. Instead of a phone call, we preferred text. Rather than letters, we received emails. In place of in-person meetings, a FaceTime chat was more desired.

This is a trend of isolation from human connection, not connection in general. In truth, we are more connected to each other than ever, but the paradox is, it is not evident if we’re better off.

In some sense, cafes acted as some kind of a barrier to this isolation. Of course, a coffee shop is not merely a coffee shop. While the boldness of the coffee and the richness of the cream are quite important in picking the right cafe, so is the shop’s environment. This is to say, that the cafe serves as a community center to communicate with those you know and those you have yet to meet. 

The paradox is that the economy now incentivizes coffee shops to create a more isolated customer base. 

As a result of the pandemic, it seems that the coffee shops most apt to continue to operate are those that focus on E-Commerce operations. This has become an increasingly lucrative business, both with coffee shops being difficult to access (in El Paso, this is due to long drive-thru lines) and with more people brewing coffee at home. 

If people cannot reach the coffee shop, then the next best thing is to send the coffee shop to the people. One sees this with the increasing popularity of food-delivery apps and the rise of companies like Trade Coffee, a subscription-based coffee bean delivery service. 

Simultaneously, if a cafe is a community gathering place, aside from the coffee, the most important aspect of a cafe is the amount of square feet it occupies, for ample space is needed for group tables and social areas. The issue here, especially in larger cities, is the cost of real estate in business districts is increasingly unaffordable for cafes to set up shop. As such, it seems natural that in the post-pandemic world cafes will gradually occupy less space while focusing more on roasting and packaging their products rather than in-person services. 

Another change to consider is that while the pandemic has been difficult for all businesses, we cannot neglect that smaller businesses have been more affected than larger ones.

In the coffee business, this means that as a local coffee shop goes out of business, a larger percentage of the market becomes available for expansion by large chains like Dunkin Donuts

Yet, it is also true that local mom-and-pop businesses (coffee shops, diners, etc.) provide a deeper sense of connection and community than franchises. An independent coffee shop usually takes on its own persona — a student coffee shop, for example, or an artsy cafe for bohemians. 

Suppose you’re a returning customer with a local business. In that case, you often get to know the establishment’s owner or family, regular customers seem more regular, and your experience at the shop is more unique. In the post-pandemic world, I believe that independent cafes will thrive the more they lean into developing their unique persona.

Of course, coffee shops are not going away anytime soon. It is very probable that after the pandemic the number of coffee shops will bounce back and continue to increase. The community always needs a place for leisure, a place for groups to gather, and a mini-workplace away from the office (especially with work from home).

Perhaps this year-long quarantine will remind us of the value of human connection over the frustrations of Zoom. As a college student, I am quite looking forward to a warm cup of coffee at a cafe to slow down a busy day and appreciate the quaintness and simplicity of the environment I find myself in. I may have to find a new go-to cafe, but for now, I suppose I will follow wherever there is bold coffee and rich cream. 

Cover photo: Patrons gather at Hillside Coffee and Donut in West El Paso. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

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Ryan James Solis

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.

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