How Co-Roasting Spaces Are Grappling With COVID-19 - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Co-Roasting Spaces Are Grappling With COVID-19

When Jeff Wong and Howard Chang launched Shared Roasting in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn near the end of 2019, they set out to provide small coffee businesses with affordable access to coffee roasting equipment, education, and community. From the outset, the demand was strong and the growth rapid, but when COVID-19 spurred café closures across the city, Wong and Chang were forced to regroup. “We were definitely worried when cafés started rapidly closing,” says Wong. “When every single restaurant and coffee shop in NYC was forced to close indoor seating, we had people that were about to join us call and cancel because they weren’t sure if they were going to even be in business for much longer.”

Luckily, an increase in orders from e-commerce outlets offered a glimmer of hope. “We’ve realized that people still enjoy drinking specialty coffee and will make it at home if they don’t buy it from a café,” adds Wong. “You also save a lot of money by making coffee at home, which is important if you’ve been laid off or furloughed from work.”

To accommodate their remaining clients, Wong and Change implemented new safety standards, such as “limiting the number of people in the building, spacing out production schedules so there’s little to no overlap of clients, we require all visitors to wear masks, and we’ve increased the frequency of our cleaning procedures and put up transparent partitions,” Wong explains.

Thus, companies including High Grade Coffee, Bwè Kafe and Nguyen Coffee Supply were able to continue production. “As a growing start-up, we needed the space and flexibility to try new things and evolve,” says founder (and Imbibe 75 Person to Watch) Sahra Nguyen of the relationship. “While importing and roasting specialty Vietnamese arabica and robusta beans are quite uncommon in the craft coffee scene, Jeff and Howard foster a super inclusive coffee culture that aligns with our brand mission. It’s definitely more than just a facility to show up and roast; they are true partners in any coffee business as they work to constantly offer solutions and improve our operations. We would not be able to roast or run our business without them.”

The current state of Shared Roasting mirrors the experience that many other co-roasters around the country are facing as COVID-19 persists. In some ways, the co-roasting model is relatively well positioned to function under the logistical restrictions the virus poses. Most are situated within expansive warehouses, allowing for proper social distancing protocols to be followed without too much hassle; Schedules can be staggered, and sanitization practices can be easily implemented. And with people drinking coffee at home more than ever, a percentage of the demand for quality beans has remained strong online, which is a lifeline for both the coffee companies and the co-roasting businesses. Despite losing a significant amount of revenue, many seem to be doing well enough to stay afloat.

But hardships have come in other guises. Some co-roasting spaces also have an on-site café where they showcase house beans, like at CoRo Coffee in Berkeley. There, the “coffee room” was the first to shutter, taking a significant portion of the company’s revenue with it. “We re-opened for to-go service about a month later, but there wasn’t enough revenue to keep it open. We couldn’t keep operating at a loss, so we had to close the coffee room, which was our community space,” says co-founder and CEO Floy Andrews. “It had only been open for two years, so we were just hitting our stride. We were full all the time, so that was really hard to have to close.”

The sense of camaraderie and community that fueled the café also wove through the co-roasting side of the business via classes, public events, and educational seminars. All of those have also disappeared, another casualty of the pandemic. “We’ve had to turn away enthusiastic [novice] roasters because they aren’t essential businesses,” Andrews says. “Training and education was also a fun part of what we do, but that’s too complicated right now, and cuppings were a vibrant way of bringing people together twice a month, but that’s also not possible.”

At Buckman Coffee Factory in Portland, Oregon, Cassy Gleason shares a similar story. “It’s been a cascading impact of hurt,” she says. Between balancing a significant loss of revenue—a 75% drop, she says—with the elimination of the normal hustle and bustle of their community space, she feels weary under the ongoing burden. “We were a real hub for activity and sharing of knowledge, but all of that has been put on hold. To lose all the public facing, community-building aspects that we’re so proud of, and have given so much to us and the Portland coffee community, that’s been a real heartbreak,” she says.

For both companies, there is no clear path to regaining their footing. “We’re doing our best with mandatory masks and other safety measures, but how do we get our business up and running again without letting more people in the door? That’s how we increase our risks too, so it’s a moral dilemma and a financial dilemma,” says Gleason. “The feeling of responsibility weighs heavy on my heart. There is very little consensus regarding the right way to go.”

Andrews takes a small measure of comfort in knowing the purpose of her business remains stronger than ever. “Everyone is going through periods of depression and freaking out, but we’re also still a space where people can get out and make something happen in the world for themselves,” she says. “We’re still offering that stability.”

At Buckman, small acts of kindness have kept Gleason hopeful. The landlords of the building allowed a reprieve on rent, and she finds solace in helping the clients who continue to use the space. “I love seeing the roasters in here; it creates a feeling that we’re all in this together. They might get tired of me reminding them to bleach after themselves, but yeah,” she says.

The bigger picture is what matters the most. “If we were to close, that would not be good for these roasters,” says Gleason. “The vast majority of people roasting in our space are only able to call themselves roasters because of access to the facility, so that’s not lost on me. I feel very confident that we’ll come out of this standing. We’ll make it through.”

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