RESTAURANTS

Looking for a cup of joe? Downtown Cedar Rapids shops still aim to serve

Coffee shops face 'absolutely, significantly different' operation models during the pandemic

Stephanie Barnes, manager, makes an iced Earl Gray tea with clove, brown sugar and orange syrup and topped with cream fo
Stephanie Barnes, manager, makes an iced Earl Gray tea with clove, brown sugar and orange syrup and topped with cream foam at Lightworks in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Restaurants have had to quickly adapt to the pandemic. Lightworks has shifted to take-and-bake offerings and fewer dishes from their pre-COVID menu. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The large garage door that has been a fixture of Lightworks Café in downtown Cedar Rapids is no longer just an interesting part of the coffee shop’s physical structure. During the pandemic, it has become a very functional part of day-to-day business for those looking to pick up coffee or a quick meal to go.

“It’s kind of like a stationary food truck,” said Manager Stephanie Barnes, noting that they added the ordering window at Lightworks to accommodate walk-up and call-ahead orders when they decided to stop dine-in services early in the pandemic.

“Since we are located in the MedQuarter, a lot of our business came from professionals working in the area, as well as downtown, who would stop by for lunch,” Barnes said.

She noted that when you operate a coffee shop in a city’s downtown, you rely on those working in the office buildings surrounding you to patronize your business.

“With many people working from home now, we don’t have the big lunch rushes we used to have,” she said. “We also do not see the usual busy morning coffee rush before people go to work.”

While Lightworks maintain its regular coffee menu, Lightworks changed its food offerings, making it an “absolutely, significantly different” year of business, she said.

The grab-and-go style for their food menu is so customers can order and leave as quickly as possible without having to be around many other people for very long. Barnes said it now offers cold-cut sandwiches, various pastries and of take-and-bake options for the customers who work at home.

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“We have completely changed our style of service for the protection of our family, staff and our customers,” she said.

“We hope our efforts to protect our community allows those who take COVID seriously to feel comfortable coming to us, knowing they can pick up a quick coffee with having little to no physical interaction with someone.”

Lightworks hasn’t been alone in making major changes to the way they do business to adapt to pandemic challenges.

Matt Georges, proprietor of Greyhound Café, located inside the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library, said he was thankful to have had a drive-up window already built into the coffee shop pre-pandemic.

“We have been doing a vast majority of our sales now through the drive-through, even when the library was open,” Georges said.

He added traffic was a little better during those few weeks.

“We love being inside the gorgeous CRPL and are very happy to have a drive-through window so that we can be open and serve customers safely.”

Other adaptations have included installing Plexiglas and using a basket to pass food and drinks without hand-to-hand contact.

Dash Coffee Roaster across the river has made some shifted as well, having to make tough choices throughout the year on times to close its doors, go to limited hours and change to carryout only during different seasons of COVID-19.

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“We have really lucked out with our location in Kingston Village,” co-owner Rebecca Weinbrenner said. “As our neighborhood has developed over these past few years, we’ve become known not only to the downtown business clientele, but also to the residents of our neighborhood, as well as for our convenient location right off (Interstate) 380 for those passing by.

“We have seen less business meetings during this time, but we have been fortunate to gain more new regulars although things look slightly different, we have maintained a very steady flow of guests.”

Offering online ordering options as the pandemic began was a huge help at Dash. “We are fortunate to be in an industry where it’s quick and easy to pick up coffee and breakfast to take with you,” Weinbrenner said.

Some coffee shops have had to make major changes to staffing as well.

“Because business is nearly half of what it used to be, we don’t have the need for a full staff anymore and we have had to adapt our menu to what is feasibly possible for a skeleton staff,” Barnes said.

Weinbrenner noted that as owners and operators of Dash, they have been able to make changes quickly as things change daily. “This certainly hasn’t been a year to remain stagnant,” Weinbrenner said.

“We have been so blessed by our community. I can’t sing their praises loud enough in how they have shown up and gotten Dash through a year that could have been incredibly difficult, both financially and emotionally.”

The next few months could be especially challenging.

“Because we require customers to order from outside, we worry about what will happen when winter weather hits,” Barnes said.

“Like many other restaurants, we won’t be able to have a patio for customers to use anymore. We are worried people will not want to wait as long outside for their order which is why we are focusing on the grab-and-go, take-and-bake options.

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“We understand people miss our regular hot food menu, but we had to find a way to adapt. Maybe getting a hot coffee will help with the wait. In the meantime, we are doing what we can.”

At Brewhemia, in the New Bohemia neighborhood, customers now can go upstairs to the Olympic South Side Theater to drink their beverages.

Though a large portion of their biggest customer demographic isn’t working in proximity to downtown coffee shops, local establishments continue to adapt. That’s the one lesson local coffee shop owners said they’ve learned.

“This year has certainly taught us to adapt quickly and always be ready to be flexible,” said Weinbrenner. “We haven’t had much control on what happens this year. It seems like every two weeks we’ve had to adapt and make small changes or big decisions.”

And she noted those adaptations don’t look the same at every coffee shop.

“We all have had to make hard decisions this year. We just ask that everyone has grace for business owners during this time. We are all doing our best.”

Barnes agreed.

“You never know what is going to happen. You will also not be able to please everybody and, honestly, it’s OK. As much as I want people to enjoy our food and drinks from actual tableware sitting at one of our tables instead of from a to-go container, we have to do what is best for the health and safety of our community, even if that means risking our business.”

Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse, in the College District, closed its doors in March when restaurants were ordered to shut down temporarily due to the coronavirus. In August, owners announced the closure would be permanent after being unsuccessful in finding a buyer for the business.

Cafe Saint Pio in Czech Village had to close for a couple days this year unrelated to the pandemic but due to the Aug. 10 derecho storm — one day in September and in October for window reinstallation — it noted on its Facebook site.

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The message to the community from coffeehouse owners is loud and clear: Support local as much as possible.

“When you think about getting a coffee somewhere, think about your local coffee shop,” Barnes said.

“We are getting by based on the support of die-hard regulars and we have added online ordering to hopefully try and find new customers,” Greyhound Cafe’s Georges said. “We really appreciate when people try our coffee and food and tell their friends about it. We advertise, but word of mouth is really big in the restaurant industry.”

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