Independent coffee shop owners in Oklahoma City’s metro core have remained in business by being creative and adjusting to challenges every day. The latest and perhaps biggest challenge has been the social distancing rules put in place to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, owners are using the same ingenuity that brought them into existence to survive this latest challenge.
One closed in April rather than put employees (who they continued to pay) at risk and slowly drain resources when most of their customers had been sent home.
Others that have customers who live nearby or naturally pass by have had a slight advantage and have stayed open by delivering orders at curbside and expanding what they offer to sell.
And one that has always had a strong drive-up trade has added home delivery of coffee and other products recently added to their menu.
The following are independent and locally-owned coffee shops in geographic order starting downtown.
Clarity Coffee at 431 West Main Street opened again Monday with a new social distancing arrangement that would allow the shop to get back into business again. The shop was closed throughout April.
The emptying out of downtown Oklahoma City office buildings starting in late March presented a difficult set of decisions for Steve and Chelsea Willingham, owners of Clarity Coffee.
The shop is in the first floor of the Arts District Parking Garage in easy walking distance of workers in some of the largest office buildings downtown as well as City Hall and the municipal building across the street where most of the City of Oklahoma City government workers office.
Most of their traffic is from people walking to their location from their offices many times in groups.
Clarity closed its doors at the end of March before the last of the workers downtown who could work from home were sent home.
“We were shutting down the cafe … before it was a requirement for everything to go,” said co-owner Steve Willingham. “We had already started moving that direction.”
Willingham and wife, Chelsea founded, own and operate the shop.
He said the primary consideration was the safety of their baristas and the safety of the community “interacting with hundreds of people a day.”
They ended up deciding to borrow money to continue to pay their employees even after the shop was closed.
“That’s a decision that we’re proud of,” he said. “That we were, step one, take care of the team…, step two, let’s take care of the community.”
Monday he and the rest of his employees were back at it in a shop that had all seating furniture stacked to the back with walk-in and online orders only.
Moving out from downtown, more people travel by and live by the other coffee shops we’ve been following.
Isaac Williamson, owner of Coffee Slingers, 1015 N Broadway Avenue, told us April 1 that they were going to stay open even though they were not allowing seating and doing only curbside delivery.
“It’s a new routine for us. I mean, we’ve got things in the shop set up totally different,” Williamson told us on the run to deliver drinks ordered on the phone to customers at the curb.
Coffee Slingers has parallel parking spots where customers can drive up and pick up orders made over the phone. And near N.W. 10th and Broadway, they have some advantage of more people who drive by on the way to someplace else. In addition, they have more people who live nearby.
The company is also in the roasting business and has cultivated customers beyond its midtown location which has provided some ongoing income not dependent on an open shop.
As of Friday, Williamson said that they are going to continue to do the same for the protection of his employees and the public.
Also in Midtown, just blocks to the west, Elemental Coffee has adopted the same closure of seating. They have adjusted by allowing customers to sit outside in their covered seating.
Customers can walk in to order and pickup or can call and order.
It’s a big shift for one of the first coffee businesses to combine a vibrant space for seating and interaction along with a roasting operation on the same site.
We talked with Manager Michelle Bui about how Elemental was addressing the challenges of social distancing.
“Luckily, we still have some staff that want to work and we also understant that there are some who are a little paranoid,” Bui said.
They are happy that their regulars are still coming in to check on them.
Elemental is as much a hangout as a place to get coffee for many of their regulars, so no seating inside continues to be something to adjust to for customers as well as staff.
“It feels weird that people aren’t in here sitting,” said Bui. But, she’s glad to still serve them.
Bui said that during social distancing they have had more-than-usual online orders for their bagged coffee.
“We still get a lot of people coming in,” Bui said. “Quite a few people just do a lot of walking around in this neighborhood.”
Like the other shop owners we’ve talked to, owner Laura Massenat told us that they “aren’t making any changes at this time and not ready to allow inside seating yet.”
Not Your Average Joe
The location at at 1227 N. Walker Avenue near St. Anthony Hospital that locals might still identify as Hanks Coffee is now being operated as a nonprofit called Not Your Average Joe.
It’s in a unique location for core city coffee shops in that there are recently-built living quarters across the street and a neighborhood street at that.
One evening when we were getting some shots of the building there were regular passers-by on foot and bicycle even at a late hour.
We talked to Tim Herbel who is the executive director of the nonprofit that runs the shop. He was pitching in to run the shop that day even though his larger-scale roasting company, Compadre Coffee Roasters, demands much of his time.
He was covering some of the staffing bases because the nonprofit hires adults with special needs. “Since they’re high risk, they’re mostly staying home,” said Herbel.
He said Midtown “doesn’t allow a drive-through” but that really doesn’t affect their business that much. They have a walk-up window that has made it convenient to continue to serve their customers even thought they have closed seating inside. Seating on the patio is still available.
“You know, our customers are super loyal and I mean, the fact that we’re still open is a service St. Anthony’s,” said Herbel. “They need to be caffeinated during this time working long, long, long hours. So the nurses and doctors and support us.”
Vintage Coffee is located at 5001 N. Western Ave Street near the intersection of N.W. 50th and Western.
The shop located in the basement of a converted church has always had a strong drive-up business with many of their customers stopping in on their way to someplace else.
However, their popular seating inside has been closed for the safety of their workers.
Owner, Allen Swan said that they have been forced by the social distancing circumstances to expand to operating their own delivery service because other delivery options take up “all and then some” of their small profit margin in fees.
Swan said they don’t plan on opening their inside seating “until we’ve got compelling evidence that we can keep people healthy, that I can keep my workers healthy, that I can keep my customers healthy.”
They have also started delivering fresh dairy products from Red Ridge Creamery near Enid. It’s a move they probably would not have made without the pressure of the pandemic but the direct relationship with state producers from farm to Oklahoma City table has promise.
He said they are also starting to deliver other locally-sourced goods as well such as cookies from One Smart Cookie, bread from Big Buns Bakery, and hand sanitizer from Prairie Wolf distillery in Guthrie.
Classen Coffee and The Red Cup
Classen Coffee at 2515 N. Classen Boulevard near N.W. 23rd and Classen is another coffee shop that had a vibrant in-shop culture that had to be shut down under the pandemic.
However, their equally-strong drive-through business continues to keep the company open.
The Red Cup at 3122 N. Classen Boulevard is one of the oldest coffee establishments in the the City and is a hub for long-standing friendships as well as a place for small groups to discuss culture and politics.
A sign on the door of The Red Cup gave notice of why it is currently closed:
“A couple of our employees were unwittingly exposed to the coronavirus. We are closing for at least two weeks to see if any of us develop symptoms.”
Monday, we found a sign instructing customers to call or reach out on Instagram and Facebook to order.
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Editor’s note: Oklahoma City Free Press was born on a laptop in several of Oklahoma City’s coffee shops. We value the long relationship we have had to the independent shops in the core of Oklahoma City and the setting they have provided for energetic creativity and dialogue.
Because the current pandemic is so fluid we may have missed yet another change to a shop’s response. If so, please write to editor (at) freepressokc.com.