Community, creativity and caffeine: What coffee shops reopening means to New Yorkers

“Ethiopian coffee is really about gathering... We want to bring that hospitality, that community feeling"

Published July 23, 2021 1:30PM (EDT)

Happy friend group chatting laughing drinking coffee in cafe (Getty Images)
Happy friend group chatting laughing drinking coffee in cafe (Getty Images)

This article is part of Salon Food's "Coffee Week," a series of stories about America's favorite caffeinated beverage.

On a mid-June evening, Buunni Coffee in Inwood, New York City, was packed with people for an open house to debut their new Ethiopian menu. Shop owners Sarina Prasabi and Elias Gurmu, who are from Nepal and Ethiopia, respectively, bustled through the crowd with bright smiles and samples of free food. 

For many of the customers, it's the first time they'd been back inside a coffee shop since the pandemic started. 

The pandemic hit coffee shops hard. According to an industry study by the London-based Allegra World Coffee Portal, "the US branded coffee shop segment to be valued at $36 [billion], a decline of 24% over the last 12 months predominantly due to Covid-19 disruption." Shops suffered an $11.5 billion decline in sales. Jeffrey Young, Allegra Group Founder and CEO, remarked, "the US coffee shop market is enduring the worst trading environment in living memory."

That's one of the reasons why this gathering at Buunni feels especially meaningful, for both the owners and the customers. Coffee shops are more than just a place to grab a quick drink. They are a real "third place" where visitors can be creative, relax and build relationships. 

According to Prabasi, the reopening of coffee shops across New York means reuniting communities and allowing the businesses centered around serving them to regain some of their identity. 

"Ethiopian coffee is really about gathering," Prabasi said. "So, when we started the business, that was the feeling. We want to bring that hospitality, that community feeling. When the pandemic started, and we couldn't have people here, for us, it was really hard, because not only are we losing business, but the whole identity of the business."

For many people who go to coffee shops, being able to gain access to them again after the lockdown simply means having a place to be productive and away from distractions. Simek Shropshire, 25-year-old  paralegal, says that she and her roommate missed the atmosphere of coffee shops. "We both worked from home, so it would be nice to have a change of scenery," Shropshire said. 

For other New Yorkers, the reopening of coffee shops has creative benefits. Karen Lowe is an artist who has also worked in retail fashion catalogue design. 

"I think we are a social group of people, I think we are people watchers," Loew said of New Yorkers. 

Having worked in retail fashion catalogues, Loew also can't help noticing what people wear; in coffee shops, she sometimes imagines people's lives behind their clothes. Loew's husband, Paul Backalenick, who is a novelist, says that watching people in coffee shops sometimes helps him describe people realistically. 

"I sometimes see somebody who might be a character in one of my books or short stories," Backalenick said. "I will notice how they dress, speak, or how their hair is, or their build, because I can use that as a character."  

And for some customers, being back in coffee shops feels like an immediate mental health boost. Arline Cruz, a 37-year-old health program director, says that visiting cafes has made her enjoy the diversity of the city. 

"I saw girlfriends sitting together, catching up, I saw couples having dinner," she said. "Just to see life in the city, especially because I have been working at home in front of my computer, to see people, to be around people, it feels good." 

Read More from Salon's Coffee Week

By Chuyan Jiang

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Cafe Coffee Shops Ethiopian Coffee Food New York Reporting