Customers who wanted espresso drinks but didn’t want to wear masks yelled at Lily Anderson at Clyde Coffee during the pandemic.
“One time, a man had to pull his wife out because she was screaming at us,” said Anderson, manager of the Missoula coffee shop.
Anderson, trying to keep workers safe, got tough with them: “I would say, ‘Get out. We’re not going to serve you. If your mask isn’t on your nose, I will not serve you.’”
At times, she and the small staff were berated, and other times, they had to double as counselors. Over and over again, they had to hear about how hard COVID-19 was for other people.
“You’re the one comforting them. You just hear it all day long,” Anderson said. “Mentally, the job is much harder than it has ever been for I would say all service workers.”
In fall 2015, Clyde Coffee opened in the Hip Strip neighborhood adjacent to downtown Missoula. Owner Glenda Bradshaw said she had written a business plan and created a small space perfect for people to sit close together indoors for long periods of time — a plan COVID-19 demolished.
When the pandemic hit, Bradshaw, Anderson and the staff closed the shop quickly, and during the course of the last year and series of orders from the Governor’s office, fire season, coronavirus highs and lows, and winter, they reopened, closed again, and Bradshaw contemplated shutting down altogether.
All told, the coffee shop business in the U.S. dropped 24 percent in 2020, some $36 billion, mostly due to COVID-19, according to Allegra World Coffee Portal in a January report. Allegra World Coffee Portal is a coffee market analysis group.
“The U.S. coffee shop market is enduring the worst trading environment in living memory, with the COVID-19 pandemic piling extraordinary pressure on hospitality businesses across the country,” said CEO Jeffrey Young in a statement.
In fact, if Bradshaw looked at a list of pros and cons, she said it probably made more sense to keep her other job in finance. But she’s an entrepreneur at heart, and the challenges lit a fire under her to be creative and find a way to make it work.
“I couldn’t close it. I love Clyde so much,” Bradshaw said.
In one way, the pandemic gave them time to work on the new Clyde. The work means the place where staff member and ceramicist Krissy Ramirez found her Latin community in Montana and the artsy bistro described as “the gayest club in Missoula” will continue to be a neighborhood anchor.
“I miss espresso. I miss making lattes. I miss socializing with new people,” said Ramirez. “And to be honest, I met more Latin people because of Clyde Coffee.”
Sometime this summer, the cafe that hung in the balance in 2020 is reopening in a new location a couple of blocks away. The new space is bigger and brighter, it will accommodate more people, and it has room for the crew to expand into roasting, something Bradshaw and Anderson have wanted to do for as long as Clyde has been open.
On another high note? “I got engaged over quarantine,” Anderson said.
She and her partner were cleaning the house one day, and they had a conversation that amounted to this: “We should do this forever.” They walked to the jewelry store, bought each other rings, and they now have something to look forward to. Anderson is relieved.
“I truly have control issues. I know I do. So it felt good that a big life decision was a mutual choice rather than someone springing it on you,” she said.
Ramirez moved to Missoula sight unseen because she’s a ceramicist who was heading to the University of Montana as a post baccalaureate. Montana and UM ceramicists are renowned for their art.
“I moved here specifically because Montana is ever growing with the ceramics community, and it’s literally a hot spot for ceramic artists,” Ramirez said.
She went on the job hunt to earn extra money to attend the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, the equivalent for ceramicists of Comic-Con. When she went to Clyde for the first time, she wanted to be part of it.
“I saw these cool handmade mugs made by Amy York,” she said. She thought to herself: “‘How cool would it be if I could work here and I could make coffee cups for the coffee shop?”
She dropped off an application at a time the shop wasn’t hiring because she liked the vibe so much, and eventually, Ramirez landed a job. There, she found not only a paycheck, but an unexpected community. She’s from a border town in Arizona, worked in New Mexico, speaks Spanish, and was feeling deprived of culture.
At Clyde, she ran into a couple of guys playing barajas, cards, and learned they were from Peru, and they had a Spanish night together. She also invited some Latin nurses to Clyde.
At one point, she even called home to share the news she’d connected with a Latin community: “Mom, I found friends!”
“But then COVID hit and everybody was very skeptical to hang out with new people,” Ramirez said.
Coronavirus infections meant she couldn’t work in the studio at the University of Montana, either. So at least temporarily, the pandemic put a damper on her newly found Latin friends and her clay community.
Anderson has worked since she was a teenager, and when the pandemic hit, she wasn’t disappointed at first.
“In March, to be fair, it felt like fun. We get two weeks off. It was kind of nice to relax for the first time in years. … I’ve been working since I was 15. It was the first time I wasn’t working. … And pretty quickly, you realize, oh no. We are stuck doing this. And now I know people who are getting sick.”
At the shop, she managed logistics. Businesses needed hand sanitizer to open: “But where do you find that?” Everyone was trying to buy it at the same time. She slashed their food items to reduce the amount of time people would spend at the store.
“I just went through the menu and looked at how long everything takes to make and cut anything that was longer than five minutes,” Anderson said.
Poached eggs were out, breakfast burritos were in: “You can buy this and leave immediately.” She had to explain to customers the reason they weren’t serving avocado toast anymore: “I’m sorry, but we cannot get avocados right now.” (“We never let anyone sit inside. We got a couple of meanie Yelp reviews.” She figured sooner or later, an empathetic customer would drop a big tip for the staff, maybe a Ben Franklin, but it never happened.)
She figured out how to schedule the staff so people could have the hours they wanted and still qualify for unemployment. The store lost two or three workers right away.
“People decided to move home. They didn’t want to be paying for their apartment,” Anderson said.
They had staff meetings via Zoom or in Bradshaw’s backyard to talk about whether and when to open and how, and they hired Jack Metcalf from Real Odd Good Job to build a little stand that stood at the front door so people could walk up for coffee.
“That felt really safe. Going to work never felt scary,” Anderson said.
But they had to figure out how to make things pencil out. Just being open wasn’t making money, Anderson said. “And you have to staff more to cover all the cleaning procedures that you have.”
She and Bradshaw contemplated all the options, and Anderson dealt with the additional stresses of being a supervisor. “It’s hard to explain to my peers because not many people my age are thinking about this. They don’t have employees. So that was one of the hardest things is I felt a lot of guilt when I know my job is secure, and for a moment, I didn’t know if everyone else’s was.”
They closed for the final time right before Thanksgiving.
Bradshaw had created a funky, quirky space with bright orange ceiling tiles, pink church pews, and revolving art shows. The place attracted younger people, such as students from nearby UM, and neighbors. They served savory breakfasts in addition to coffee and lots of tea as well.
Clyde’s personality built on itself as customers who appreciated the artsy vibe became staff and drew their community in the door. “I always thought that there was a feminine edge to it,” Bradshaw said. “But mainly, it was a little bit alternative and arty.”
But baristas pulled espressos in tight quarters, and customers enjoyed them sitting close together. “I had written a business plan to open in the worst location for COVID.”
A couple shots of stimulus money helped, but Bradshaw knew she couldn’t subsidize the business to the tune of $3,000 to $5,000 a month for nine months. She also had another job.
“I was so stressed out, and I was tired, and I was trying to be a good full-time employee at a financial organization which was experiencing explosive business” processing stimulus loans and consulting, Bradshaw said.
She felt like a derelict boss at Clyde, but she knew her employees wanted to be good to her, and she wanted to be good to them too. Soon, she figured the options were to close the shop or reinvent it.
Bradshaw had noticed the businesses that survived COVID-19 offered not only a service but a product, a pattern she’d thought about earlier, and if she was going to keep Clyde alive, the cafe would have to evolve.
“It forced us to think about our business, and I’d always wanted to roast our own beans, and it just wasn’t possible in that location,” Bradshaw said of their small site on the Hip Strip.
In January, they signed a lease on much larger space with features that would allow the business to grow. It has patio seating, more room indoors, and space for roasting.
“COVID has been nightmarish. I think I was either going to have to close Clyde or go into a lot of debt at that location to keep it,” Bradshaw said. She doubled down on Clyde at a new location, 741 S. Higgins Ste. A. “If I’m going to go in debt, I’d rather do it with something I feel is going to be a more lasting business.”
Ramirez has been talking with her Latinx community on social media, and they may be getting together soon. “The last time we chatted, there was some talk about having a carne asada (barbecue) when the weather gets warmer, and we can go play some soccer.”
Soon after the pandemic hit, her partner built her a space in a corner of their small apartment, 700 square feet, to work at home, and ceramicist Julia Galloway loaned her her old wheel. She knew she needed more space to work on larger pieces, and in June, she and other artists started the Wildfire Ceramic Studio.
“I’m super grateful because honestly, if it wasn’t for the people that I met at the university and you know, having this clay community around, I don’t know what I would be doing to be honest,” Ramirez said.
She ended up working at Clyde just three months, and she isn’t sure if she’ll go back as a staff person. Bets are she’ll be a customer, though, and maybe someone whose cups will eventually be shown there.
“I have not been part of an employer that really treats their people like family, and that’s something I really admire about Glenda and Lily. It was really easy for me to jump on board and feel like I’m part of their company, which is really sweet,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez is also a child care worker, but she hasn’t received any unemployment. She had sold her car before moving to Montana, so she was able to tap that money she’d saved, and she isn’t worrying about the $1,500 or so she might be owed by unemployment even though she’s completed paperwork.
“I’m honestly not expecting anything, but that’s OK,” she said.
Bradshaw and Anderson are working on the new Clyde. Bradshaw said she wants to maintain the culture of Clyde and attract the same customers she did before, along with new people.
“Because of the size and location and parking, I hope we can fold in a new customer who might have gone into old Clyde and felt like, ‘I don’t belong,’” she said. She’d love for it to be a mashup of a sophisticated patio space, like the one Italian bistro Caffe Dolce had, with the quirkiness of a coffee shop.
As for Anderson, she figures sooner or later, she’ll be due a breakdown of sorts. She’s worked more than she did before COVID-19.
“I keep saying I think I have not thought a single thought of my own in my brain. I’m just cruising, (doing) what needs to be done. And I have been lucky enough to work this entire time since March,” she said. “I’m sure at some point, I’m going to have a big breakdown, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
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