South LA

Covid-19 Through the Lens of LA Coffee Shops

Local business owners share their experiences adapting to pandemic changes as customers become tired of mask mandates and safety protocols.

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As life returns to a sense of normalcy, businesses across LA are dealing with the various hardships and transitions that have resulted from two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coffee shops from South Central to Beverly Hills have had to rapidly adapt to changing health and safety protocols, especially in the face of the Omicron variant.

At La Monarca Bakery and Cafe in Boyle Heights, owner Alejandra Barba explained the problems COVID has created for her business and highlighted the overall sentiment regarding the virus and the vaccine.

Barba said some residents have begun to no longer wear their masks. Although she said the majority still practice social distancing and keep their facial covers on, a considerable amount of customers have told her they don’t believe in the virus or the vaccine.

“People don’t want to get vaccinated,” Barba said. “That’s why I think the neighborhood is one of the areas more concentrated and infected [with COVID-19].”

Barba shared that customers have become fed up with the mask mandate and as the third year of the pandemic looms, she believes people are ready to return to a sense of normalcy. She has seen some customers who do not want to comply with the mask mandate take their business elsewhere. She has also noticed a reduction in customers who dine in and the amount of time they spend at the cafe.

Barba further highlights that while people have begun to dine in again, the closure of nearby businesses has also left an impact by decreasing the numbers of daily customers and larger corporate orders that the cafe was once accustomed to.

Business owners have had to alter the way their cafes function. Layouts have changed to accommodate social distancing. Owners have also had to manage shortages in products, a rise in the cost of materials and ingredients, and difficulties with requiring proof of vaccination from customers dining in.

Jared Grant, owner of Cali Street Cafe in Culver City, praises the city’s vaccine accessibility but said he also lost several customers due to the closure of several nearby medical offices.

Before the pandemic, Cali Street Cafe was a hot spot for workers nearby, but the amount of walk-up customers has dwindled since.

“We were just kind of dead in the water,” Grant said.

Many working Americans rely on coffee shops like Cali Street Cafe, according to Grant. Barba and Grant both called attention to a change in customer flow that originated from the pandemic.

This is not an issue that just affects small businesses, said Lupita Salcedo, the store manager of a Starbucks in Exposition Park. Salcedo shared that large corporations like Starbucks are dealing with the ripple effects of the pandemic. The recent Omicron peak only further demonstrated how dependent Starbucks was on the presence of student life.

“When we don’t have students on campus, our business drops,” Salcedo said. “Even though we have Uber Eats, our business comes from students.”

Meanwhile, Suzy Hovanesyan, the owner of Cafe Sheera in Beverly Hills, said her business did not face any drastic changes during the Omicron peak, however, she did make note of the experiences she has had with residents.

“You hear these comments a lot where they’re like, ‘I’m just done, I have to live my life and I have to go back to normal,’” Hovanesyan said. “If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. I’ve done everything I can.”

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Hovanesyan said these attitudes and feelings in large part stem from the exhaustion people feel.

Cafe Sheera has maintained a consistent flow of customers over the last few months, who also dine-in and indulge in the luxury Beverly Hills experience. For many months prior, residents said they craved that social experience.

“They still miss the experience of that interaction of sitting across the table from each other and having coffee and sharing a little bit about life,” Hovanesyan said.

As business booms once again, Hovanesyan said it is important to consider why areas like Beverly Hills are able to more quickly return to normalcy. She explained that one reason is age, as Beverly Hills tends to be an older demographic where residents are more diligent about their personal health.

“In 2021 we saw a huge uptick in people wanting to get out and socialize,” Hovanesyan said. “Ironically, we realized that our 2021 numbers were far stronger than our 2019 numbers pre-pandemic.”

Hovanesyan said seeing businesses like Cafe Sheera thrive offers hope of returning to life before COVID, highlighting how vaccination rates and attitudes towards the virus can have an impact on the prosperity of businesses, their long term viability and the surrounding social life.