How America's Coffee Shops Are Giving Back (and Keeping the Lights on)
Plus, how to help coffee shops help healthcare workers.
The idea from San Francisco’s Andytown Coffee Roasters was simple, and the appeal that went out just hours after California’s statewide shutdown was straightforward. Any customer with a few extra dollars could donate enough for a cup, or maybe even thirty cups, and Andytown would happily deliver to area hospitals.
Barely 24 hours later, they’d counted $20,000 in donations. Two other small businesses climbed aboard—a juice bar, a granola maker. Things snowballed from there, and in almost no time at all, Andytown, at this point just trying to keep some kind of revenue stream going so they could stay in business, was making up to four major hospital drop-offs in a single day. To date, owner Lauren Crabbe reports they have been able to raise more than $60,000 for the program, allowing Andytown to add back at least partial hours for nearly half their employees.
On the other side of the state, at Augie’s Coffee in Redlands, catering manager Daniel Storll was having a relatively dismal day, cancelling two months worth of upcoming events. While scrolling through Instagram, Storll and his colleagues happened upon news of the Andytown initiative, and they knew they wanted in—if only they had any idea where to start.
Food and drink donations aren’t rocket science, and for major brands like Starbucks, which has pledged to fuel frontline workers free of charge until May 3, giving away the odd tall drip coffee is an easy choice to make in difficult times. For small business owners already under an extraordinary amount of stress, the process is far from simple. Giving is a beautiful thing, but how about keeping the lights on, at a space that has often become a vital community gathering point? And how will this help bring back all the employees you had to send home?
Andytown’s appeal, says Storll, seemed to be the perfect idea—a way to keep things going, while also doing good in the community. But first, they had to make connections at hospitals, at a time when hospitals are already under extreme duress. How to find the right people to speak to?
“I started cold calling, but it’s so much better when you know someone—in reaching out to our regulars via social media, it turned out that our regulars were some of the right people,” says Storll.
The Augie’s setup is simple, like Andytown’s, which Storll says they basically copied—buy a cup of coffee (or more) for a frontline worker, on the same site Augie's is using to take mobile orders for pick-up, and they’ll make the drop.
In a short period of time, Augie’s has counted $5,000 in donations. (Turns out, says Storll, this translates to a whole lot of coffee.) Quickly, partners began reaching out, eager to help. Minor Figures and Oatly donated oat milk. Two of their importers, Crop to Cup and Finca Loma La Gloria, each donated 50 pounds of green coffee, helping them to stretch their donation dollars even further.
Like Andytown, they’ve quickly found themselves with a lot of work on their hands. One local hospital in Riverside, Calif., asked if they could donate a gallon and a half of coffee to each department. One catch—the hospital had 35 departments.
“We did it: 700 cups of coffee,” Storll laughs. “It was so much, we spent all day brewing, and we used so much water at our warehouse, the supply straight up just shut down for twenty minutes, in the middle of everything.”
The red tape can be frustrating—hospitals, he says, are sometimes justifiably suspicious of small businesses attempting to pull off public relations stunts, and, of course, there is the usual protocol to follow. Being patient, Storll says, and willing to drop your ego and just listen to what they need, is key.
“A lot of it is just being willing to stay on hold for two hours,” he says.
The rewards, however, make it all worthwhile.
“One of the things I’ve heard now, at least a dozen times, is how thankful people are that we’re here. You’re baristas, you make coffee, you never asked to be on the frontlines here, they’ll say,” Storll recalls. They tell him that they’re already Augie’s customers, and how visiting their shops has always been a bright spot in their day, and that’s exactly the kind of encouragement he needs right now.
“It’s wild, the amount of gratitude we in the service industry have been receiving,” he says.
While they’re happy to keep busy, the model isn't necessarily expansion, Storll insists; they’re already short-staffed, with many of their colleagues sheltering at home in order to protect older parents, or in isolation with roommates or partners who work in the healthcare sector. This is something shops and roasters across the country can initiate themselves, he says.
Things certainly seem to be trending in that direction. Each program, and there are plenty of them popping up now, might look a little bit different, but they all have the same objective—help your favorite coffee business help others.
Woods Coffee, a long-time fixture in hard-hit Whatcom County, Washington, launched a Coffee for Caregivers Fund. In Denver, Brew Culture Coffee has made it easy for customers to donate online towards bulk coffee delivery to hospitals. Concerned citizens in Hamilton, New York, realizing the need went both ways, started a fund of their own, to enable their preferred local, FoJo Beans, to keep busy serving first responders and healthcare workers. In San Diego, one loyal patron of Yipao Coffee donated a sizable sum of money to his favorite roaster, allowing them to bring coffee to local healthcare facilities.
Nate Young, co-owner and roaster at Tampa’s King State Coffee, isn’t quite sure how their own fledgling program will pan out, but he’s optimistic. Like so many others on the fast-growing American coffee scene, King State’s shop has not been open that long, and they’re new to the whole juggling act on a good day, let alone during this extremely challenging moment. Their customers, however, have made it easy on them.
“People have been sending money left and right,” says Young. “We’re already sending 25 pounds of coffee to an ICU unit in New York.”
While he’s happy to see the project growing, he’s doing this for more than King State, he says. Like others jumping into the pool have pointed out, he hopes his doing so will inspire others.
“Seeing other people do it, that is the goal here—I hope us getting involved sparks something,” Young says. “I’d love to see us all doing this together.”