The New Normal of Café Reopenings: New York City

As an uncertain winter approaches in New York City, one shop boldly launches and a beloved brand reemerges.


Cover photo courtesy of Gertrude

Since COVID-19 first landed in the United States, New York City has been ravaged by roughly half a million confirmed cases. The financial toll on independent food and beverage establishments here has also been severe, and specialty coffee has certainly been no exception. With fears of a recent uptick in infection rate becoming a full-blown second wave, and with no meaningful governmental relief guaranteed, café owners and workers remain unsure of their futures. And yet, the city adapts and carries on.

In the Upper West Side neighborhood Shweta Khare has called home for seven years, she has achieved her dream of opening her first café with Gertrude. Meanwhile, across three boroughs, Partners Coffee has begun the process of reopening their six brick-and-mortars.

Shweta began searching for sites to launch her café in 2018, after the birth of her child and leaving an accomplished career in consulting. She signed the lease on the space that was to become Gertrude in January 2020, just two months before the pandemic brought the city to a screeching halt. “March through May were very uncertain times for me,” she explained. She thought seriously about packing up and returning to Australia with her family, but ultimately decided it was now or never. “If it can be done safely, and it can, I have to do it,” she added.

As you approach the entrance that Gertrude shares with a residence and another street level business, you’re greeted by a friendly staff member with a point-of-sale setup on a table directly after their door—a common COVID-era modification for restaurants that aren’t taking part in the newly restored indoor dining permissions. I ask Shweta if she made any adjustments to their plans for construction, which began in June, based off of health restrictions. She tells me she elected not to do so after some consideration, as a permanent build-out aimed at social distancing would’ve reduced their already scarce room for in-house baking, food prep, and eventual seating. 

Shweta Khare’s Australian concept Gertrude has been welcomed by the Upper West Side neighborhood with open arms. Photo courtesy of Shweta Khare.

Their menu has started off scaled back from her initial vision, but this gradual rollout of new items, and a slow expansion of their operating hours, allows her to lay a strong foundation for the full café she envisions when restrictions can be safely loosened. 

The community is looking forward to that as well, having already embraced this new addition to the neighborhood with open arms. Shweta happily tells me, “Our Google reviews have been full of support and appreciation for having something new to visit, and people are pleased with the precautions we’ve put into place.”

Meanwhile, Partners Coffee closed all of their stores in accordance with city guidelines in mid-March, but no one knew it would be at least two months before their doors would begin to reopen. Amelia Evans, Partners’ HR director, spoke to me about their long road to returning to service. 

“When talks began in April about getting back into the shops, some of our staff members said there was nothing that could be done to make them feel safe leaving their houses. Of course we understood and respected that, being at a time when people only left home to go to grocery stores,” she explains. It then became a continuously evolving conversation of what, exceeding legal obligations, could be done to make the highest number of staff and guests alike feel most comfortable. Thus far, those changes have included greatly reduced occupancy of employees and customers in stores, a complete redesign of the ordering processes and flow of people through the buildings, and the removal of seating (which has remained in effect since the reintroduction of indoor dining at the city level). “Luckily, we’ve seen the reduced traffic in stores line up really well with our lower number of baristas per shift at this point,” Amelia adds.

The Williamsburg flagship roaster-café reopened in late May, as the logical choice to go first of their six locations. “By only opening one store at a time, we were able to learn a lot about what’s working and what isn’t during this time,” Amelia says, adding, “We’ve honestly been grateful for this opportunity to reimagine barflow by aligning our stores in different ways.” Since then, the Long Island City café has returned to operations, followed most recently by the quaint West Village location. 

The setup at Partners Coffee has included a wide range of artisanal groceries to take home. Photo courtesy of Amelia Evans.

The surprise hit of the reimagined Partners cafés has been a market set up in the spaces that once held indoor seating. A wide variety of artisanal, local, and healthy food sourced and curated by The Good Trends line fills the shelves, refrigerators, and freezers throughout all three reopened cafés. Margarita mixers by Hella were hard to keep stocked this summer. Partners branded clothing outsold previous records by far, perhaps showing an increased interest in repping your local coffee provider among regulars. Near the end of our conversation, Amelia laughs and says, “You didn’t used to come home from Partners with an armful of ingredients for dinner that night, but hey—for us it’s kind of ‘adapt or die.’”

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Tommy McLarney is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based barista, bartender, and bicyclist. He’ll do anything that starts with the letter “B.” Find him on Twitter, if you like real bad jokes.

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