The New Normal of Café Reopenings: Southwest—Part Two

With sometimes conflicting information from state and local authorities, Southwest cafés decide what’s best for them.


Cover photo by Lee Dockery

As stay-in-place orders begin to lift, and cities across the U.S. deliberate about what reopening will look like, cafés are carefully considering their next steps. In this four-part series, we’re talking to cafés from different regions in the country about what reopening, or operating at larger capacities, means to them. (Read part one here.) In today’s part two, we’re looking at a couple of coffee businesses in the Southwest, Bennu Coffee and Cartel Coffee Lab, and finding out how state and local reopening protocols will affect their current operations, if at all. 

Bennu Coffee has two locations in Austin, Texas, and were building out a third location when COVID-19 hit. Not exactly great timing. They pivoted quickly, keeping Bennu Coffee East and Bennu Coffee on Congress operating at reduced hours (both locations were originally open 24 hours). Bennu East makes use of a previously unused tiny walk-up window for contactless ordering, while Bennu on Congress allows a limited number of customers in the café at a time, with taped marks on the floor to indicate safe social distance while waiting in line. Masked staff and customers are separated by a plexiglass barrier. Customers are encouraged to order online, and drinks can be run out to their cars once they arrive. Bennu also offers their own in-house delivery seven days a week. Delivery is free with an order of $30 or more, which is relatively easy to do now that Bennu offers half-gallons and gallons of cold brew and Iced Bennu drinks, as well as grocery staples, a new bodega-style addition. 

Even though the governor of Texas has lifted the stay-at-home order and permitted restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity, Bennu is sticking to their current protocols for now, which means contactless ordering, and in-house coffee and bodega-style grocery delivery. Photo by Lee Dockery.

Finding new ways to connect to their community, including #bennuforyou, a pay-it-forward initiative, has helped Bennu go from an 80% loss of business at the beginning of quarantine to now around 45% of their pre-COVID sales. 

The state of Texas has lifted its stay-at-home mandate, but for cafés like Bennu, there’s no hurry to go back to the way things were, especially when it’s a risky move. “Austin is interesting, because our governor and our mayor are kind of at odds. Our mayor had issued some pretty stringent guidelines. The governor of Texas came out and said, ‘No, here’s the plan, and my plan supersedes any mayor’s guidelines,’” says Stephanie Williams, who owns Bennu with her husband, Steve. 

According to Stephanie, the governor said restaurants could open at 25% capacity on May 1, with tables to be six feet apart. There were to be disposable menus, and staff were to sanitize tables between customers. If that went well, Phase Two would be to increase restaurant capacity to 50%. For the team at Bennu, none of these new rules made good business sense. “For me to be having 25% of my customers, but having to pay employees to sanitize everything in between, and buy all this disposable stuff, it just doesn’t make sense financially. Then our employees didn’t feel safe yet either, which of course is our main consideration,” Stephanie says. “We’re not sure that (these new guidelines) keep people safe, and financially 25% is not going to save the day.” 

Arizona-based Cartel Coffee Lab is in a similar position. “In Arizona, the stay-at-home order has lifted,” says Jesse Pangburn, Cartel’s director of retail operations. “We’re still feeling like the data doesn’t really show this as the right time to allow customers into our spaces yet. We really want to, but we’re gonna wait until the data supports a bit more of a trend down(ward), and a sustained trend downward before we decide to open back up.” 

Cartel Coffee Lab has kept their Tempe and Tucson locations open for takeout only, and reopened two more since the shutdown. They are monitoring hospitalizations, new cases, and information from industry peers as well as official guidelines when considering reopening. Pictured from left to right: Michael Kryger, Zoee Alyeshmerni, and Ben Bravenec. Photo by Ty Dahlstrom.

With nine locations, including cafés in ARRIVE Hotels in Palm Springs, Calif., and Austin, Texas, Cartel closed all but two of their shops in Tempe and Tucson as COVID-19 forced shutdowns in mid-March. Keeping their Tempe and Tucson cafés open for takeout only was a responsible way for Cartel to gauge and test COVID protocols like contactless transactions and encouraging customers to wear masks. Since then, they’ve reopened their Old Town Scottsdale and Paradise Valley locations for takeout only. 

As in Texas, the governor of Arizona is eager to get businesses back up and running, but mayors have been cautious. “I think one of the most vocal mayors against reopening was probably our Tucson mayor,” says Ty Dahlstrom, brand associate at Cartel. “The mayor of Tempe, where our roastery is, saw a lot of people not social distancing after some bars reopened, and actually had businesses that are opening up meet some additional seating requirements.”

What feels best for Cartel is to pay attention to multiple sources, like what industry peers are doing, monitoring hospitalizations, and new cases, as well as what local officials say. 

Although stay-at-home mandates have been lifted in their states, Bennu and Cartel are cautiously making their own decisions about operating at higher capacities based on their own comfort levels. It’s a choice both their customers and staff appreciate.

Stay tuned for our next report on the reopening of cafés across the U.S., coming soon.

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Mark Van Streefkerk
is Barista Magazine’s social media content developer and a frequent contributor. He is also a freelance writer, social media manager, and novelist based out of Seattle. If Mark isn’t writing, he’s probably biking to his favorite vegan restaurant. Find out more on his website.