Cafes have still largely been able to do what they do best throughout the pandemic, which is serve coffee. But many have found that they’ve become so much more than just a coffee shop during a year in lockdown…
A year on since the whole of the UK went into full lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic the nation is still reeling.
But despite the numerous lockdowns, ever-changing rules and a constant bout of uncertainty for the future, many of Scotland’s cafes and coffee shops found ways to adapt and remain open.
With premises holding alcohol licenses having been forced to stop serving and many restrictions meaning that only takeaways are allowed, many have relied on businesses such as coffee shops for a slice of normality.
As we mark a year in lockdown, and look to the significant easing of restrictions in the coming weeks, we’ve spoken to three coffee shops in Fife and Dundee about their experience over the past 12 months and how they became a beacon of hope for many customers in their local communities.
Rebecca Braid, The Roasting Project
Comfortably nestled in Burntisland’s High Street, coffee shop The Roasting Project is the brainchild of owner Rebecca Braid, who opened the shop in November 2018.
Being fortunate enough to have the means to open a pop-up takeway service in the entranceway of the shop during this most recent lockdown, Rebecca and her team have been able to serve customers for the majority of the past 12 months.
She said: “It has been an emotional rollercoaster. We’re a newish business as we only opened in November 2018 as a roastery.
“There are people who’ve been coming into the coffee house for years and you don’t have a minute to find out anything about them because it’s usually busy. But throughout this lockdown I’ve learned quite a lot about people and it’s been very interesting.”
Serving outside her shop on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Rebecca has learned a lot about the customers she meets regularly and how her coffees have become part of their regular routine.
She continues: “We do have a few regulars. For most of them I don’t even know their names, it’s just that you see them every week and they end up having a chat.
“There’s a lady who has been coming regularly and I don’t know what her circumstances are but she came up to Burntisland for a week to stay with her parents and her whole life is in London.
“She came up with a week’s worth of stuff during the first lockdown, and she’s still here! Every time I see her we always have a laugh about what she’s got on because she still only has that week’s worth of clothes.
“There’s another woman who’s really interesting. She has a best friend who stays in Falkirk and the two of them do virtual walks together. She walks Aberdour or Kinghorn to Burntisland with her headset on her phone. Her friend walks Falkirk to Linlithgow, and they chat the whole way.
“She ends her walk by coming to me, with her friend still on the phone, and she has the same thing every time she comes in – a hot chocolate with marshmallows. She’ll be talking to her friend through everything too, including the cakes we’ll have in stock that day. She tends to come every day we’re open.”
Other customers who used to visit the coffee house regularly haven’t been during lockdown, so Rebecca has found creative ways to make sure they are alright.
She adds: “We used to have this wee old man, I think in his 80s, that comes into the cafe and would sit on his own. He sadly lost his wife this year. When we’re really busy he’d say he didn’t need a table but we’d insist he has one. We have an old school desk that we use for our roasting – when he came in he liked that to be set up in a certain space in the coffee house and he sits there with his iced yumyum and a cup of tea.
“I hadn’t seen him in a while. I got these iced yumyums in from Fisher and Donaldson that he used to like, and I put a post on Instagram with a picture of him as we’d taken one a few months ago when he’d been in one morning. I put a post up saying ‘if anyone knows this man, please tell him we have iced yumyums’ – and the next day he came!
“His great grand-daughter had seen it and he came along and said ‘I heard about the iced yumyums!'”.
Sense of worry
Rebecca is also one of the many cafe owners who have taken on the burden of worrying about regular customers who they know live on their own or are regarded as potentially vulnerable.
She says: “There are a lot of people you’d see come into the coffee house then suddenly you don’t see them and you don’t know what’s happened to them and there’s no way of getting in touch with these people as some of them aren’t online so won’t see us on Facebook or Instagram.
“I do have a huge sense of worry about these people that are on their own. When the lockdown was lifted slightly and two households were able to come in together, these people still came in on their own – but they had us to talk to. For some of them I’ve never seen them again.
“We’re not just providing a cup of coffee – it’s so much more than that and it really is a conversation or a smile. I’m standing out there in the freezing cold, it was -2ºC about a month or so ago and the pavement was covered in snow and ice and our older people can’t get out in that.
“But some people did manage to get out and have a coffee and we’re still standing chatting – with our masks on – but we’re managing to communicate. It’s amazing what the power of a conversation can do and just being that point of contact.
“I think standing at that pop-up bar, seeing the same people coming and seeing the deterioration of people and how much it’s getting to everyone, is tough. But at the end of a cup of coffee and a chat, it’s like we’re ready to go another week.”
Andrew Scott, Heaven Scent and Heavens Above Coffee Shops
Along the road in Kinross-shire, owner of both Heaven Scent and Heavens Above coffee shops in Milnathort, Andrew Scott, has felt that his business has become a part of the community during lockdown.
He says: “One of my cafes did get shut down as a result of Covid but I opened up another one during the pandemic that has had to open, close, open, and it’s currently closed but it’s going to soon reopen again.
“The coffee shop is properly part of the community. If you could go to the cafe with your mum, your brother, a date or a business meeting and it feels non-intrusive then it sort of ticks the box for everybody. So lockdown’s been really interesting because there have been a huge number of people who’ve come in and said ‘thank God you’re here, it’s a slice of what used to be and like we can see light at the end of the tunnel’.
“Financially, we’d have been better off being closed and we’d have lost less money. But my mindset was that for every day we are open, yes we will lose more money, but we’re reminding people that we’re still there. We’re giving people that little sort of ember of encouragement and hopefully they will start to support us again as time goes on.
“When people come to me and say ‘we’re so glad you’re here, thank you’ or that they’re in for their coffee or cake fix, I can’t help but think that’s why we’ve done it.”
Looking after the fellow man
Similarly to Rebecca, Andrew has been looking out for his customers.
He adds: “We also have regulars who, if they haven’t been in any of those four days, we will call or text to ask where they are and if they are ok. It might just be that they didn’t fancy it or their friend came down with Covid and they didn’t want to chance it.
“Between lockdown one and two, and two and three we had a lot of potential food wastage. So we turned those into sandwiches and donated stuff to local foodbanks, gave stuff to local care homes, just looking after the fellow man.
Another role of Andrew’s is as a hospitality consultant for his business Victus Consultancy. Through that he has food and drink clients up and down the UK and advises them on how to navigate change. Many of his cafe clients have expressed concern about the future.
He continued: “What’s interesting with other coffee shops, and what I’ve been hearing is, that right now we can all open purely for takeaway and I think the consensus is that coffee shops are terrified for when normality does come back because we think we’re all going to become a lot quieter.
“The cafes have got the captive market of everyone who usually goes to the hotels or restaurants coming to us at the minute. But when people have more options they might think ‘oh we’ve supported that coffee shop for the last few months’, we’ll now go and try x, y and z.”
Barry Thomson, Pacamara
In Dundee, one of the few hospitality businesses on the city’s bustling Perth Road to have remained open for a number of months is Pacamara, owned by Barry Thomson.
He said that when they reopened after the first lockdown in the summer, customers were grateful to have a sense of normality.
“It took us a couple of weeks to make the plans to reopen but from the time we decided to reopen to the time we actually did reopen, it felt very right.
“The reaction we got from customers when we reopened was really pleasantly surprising. It was nice and very encouraging.
“I remember driving along Perth Road at the start of the first lockdown and it was like a ghost town. People were scared – scared to come out of their houses and really didn’t know how the situation was going to develop.”
Similarly to Rebecca and Andrew, Barry has felt it was important to make sure his regular customers were OK.
He added: “People have had so many of the things they took for granted – freedoms – taken away from them, and, I feel anyway, one of the very few normal things that people have been able to do is get out. Something just as simple as having a wander, getting a coffee and having a bit of a chat.
“A lot of our customers are regulars and tend to know the staff, even if not by name, they know them enough to be able to have a bit of chat. There are so few options available that that’s one of the normal things that people were able to do before and have fortunately still been able to do since we reopened.
“We have seen the impact it has and unfortunately we’ve lost a few customers over that time, including a few who have sadly passed away. I don’t know if it’s because everything has been so different that we have noticed these things more.
“There are customers who used to come and see us maybe once a week or every couple of weeks, who are now in to see us maybe four or five times a week. It’s almost a part of their daily routine. Others who used to come to us and sit in four or five times a week, we haven’t really seen them for months.”
Managing to stay open throughout most of the recent lockdown and in the summer, Barry says he feels strongly that they are providing a service at Pacamara.
He added: “It has been nice for us to feel like we’ve been able to contribute in that way. It’s been nice to feel like we’ve been providing a service. The feedback from customers has been that they’re so, so grateful we’ve decided to open this time and it’s been really nice.
“We’ve been open eight years now and I can’t remember a time remotely as challenging as this. And that feedback from customers certainly keeps you going when you’re having those really tough days. There’s been a lot of feedback on social media and it’s just people appreciating what we’re doing, it’s nice.”