Dear Eater SF:
When will coffee shops go back to staying open in the late afternoon? During the pandemic, San Francisco coffee shops cut their hours short, and many are still only open in the mornings, and only open for takeout. But lots of people are tired of working from home, and I miss hanging out and working in my neighborhood coffee shop in the late afternoon.
A Cafe-Sick Coffee Fan
Dear Coffee Fan:
You can’t be alone in longing for a late afternoon respite in a comforting cafe. After 15 months abiding only brief intermissions from one’s home environment (for those who were lucky enough to be able to stay home), coffee shop regulars are missing their favorite table, their shop’s familiar playlist, and that finely honed beverage.
Last spring, coffee shop culture was among the first behaviors to become verboten during the pandemic, right up there with bellying up to the bar. For context, this coffee fan is correct in his observation — within Eater’s guide to 23 of San Francisco’s best coffee shops, as of mid-May, 2021, some are still closing as early as 1 p.m., most are closing at 2 or 3 p.m., and the latest any are open is 6 p.m. Many are just now allowing customers to step inside again for takeout, and far fewer have resumed indoor dining. But they have good reasons to ease back in gradually. Eater SF caught up with a couple of local coffee shop owners to understand why they’re not yet ready to serve cappuccinos and biscotti into the late afternoon hours.
Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters says there’s a “tip of the spear element” to the coffee shop industry. “Coffee shops have been the canary in a coal mine for a lot of social issues in food and beverage — wage issues, hiring practices, fair trade — all of that hit coffee shops before hitting restaurants,” Cho told Eater.
As commutes changed (or disappeared), it also became a question of location. “When the pandemic hit, all of a sudden great locations were terrible locations, and previously quiet neighborhood shops became great locations. Everything was flipped on its head.”
This, of course, included hours. While some San Francisco shops previously kept the lights on into the late evening, switching to window service meant nobody was coming by for coffee past 2 or 3 p.m. “The hours thing varies greatly depending on location,” says Cho. And, when it comes resuming indoor service, there are even more factors at play.
“Part of equity means that these decisions get made by consensus building with the staff,” Cho said of service levels. “We were able to open up the Berkeley shop (editor’s note: for takeout only) because of its size, the airflow, etc — we were sure folks felt safe. In SF, the shop is so small that I haven’t even had that conversation with staff yet,” he said. Neither Wrecking Ball location has WiFi, now or prior to the pandemic, but the Berkeley location is meant to be a community space.
“There’s an inherent tension — money vs. wellbeing. The good shops will be prioritizing the latter.”
The owner of another local shop says it’s the money, or lack thereof, however, that’s led to the decision to keep hours scaled back. Bernadette Melvin, owner of Noe Valley’s beloved Bernie’s Coffee, says she can’t see extending hours due to lack of sales. “I really watched sales decline more as people moved out of San Francisco. We have had approximately 100 customers move out of the city, and California, indefinitely.”
Opening for dine-in is even more far off, she said, due to Bernie’s small size, the fact that Melvin is currently staffing Bernie’s by herself, and the prospect of accommodating lingering customers — Bernie’s is known for free WiFi, and those laptop jockeys might have a hard time understanding the time limits for indoor dining, which have been a factor at different color tiers.
WiFi or not, neither owner says they’re considering later hours right now. They suspect they’re not alone among their peers, either. “Don’t be surprised if your favorite coffee shops, especially the ones that are third wave or progressive, are behind the big coffee chains in getting back to normal,” Cho says to our reader.
If we’ve learned anything from the last 15 months, it’s that it might be more realistic to expect a brand new “normal” for coffee shop customs.