Gulf Gate coffee shop knows how you take it – News – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Gulf Gate coffee shop knows how you take it – News – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Clever Cup Coffee Shop patrons, neighbors, stay loyal through the coronavirus pandemic

SARASOTA — Nobody wants to jinx it by taking an early victory lap. After all, the adjacent pet grooming shop and a vegan restaurant two doors to the south have been shuttered permanently because of the coronavirus.

The bars here in Gulf Gate Village are allowed to reopen, but not all will have the resources to do so. Florida’s unemployment rate hovers near 13%. And, as the American death toll surges beyond 100,000, there are fears that a second viral wave could crash and ruin everything.

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Still, for the first time since the state lockdown in March, The Clever Cup Coffee Shop co-owner Heather Haggstrom reported for full-time duty two weeks ago. And during the struggle for survival over the past two months, the old it-takes-a-village adage has never been more evident.

“This isn’t just about a cup of coffee,” says Haggstrom, a single mother who spent much of her down time trying to steer her daughter through the strange new world of remote learning. “It’s a community. And you see the fruits of your labor coming back to you in such an overwhelming way that it inspires you to keep fighting, to keep pushing, to think yeah — we’re not going away.”

Operating like all other related establishments at a state-mandated 50 percent capacity — 30 patrons constitute a full house here — The Clever Cup has carved out its own unique niche in the competitive coffee market since its inception in 2016. Haggstrom partnered with founder Tracy de Chevron Villette in 2017, and together they began ingratiating their shop with local schools, organizations, and Village businesses.

Normally open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., The Clever Cup slashed its hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the peak of the Florida shutdown, when it was limited to curbside service. But it never closed.

In April, de Chevron Villette says business tapered off by 60%. And, as she reported in a March 29 article in the Herald-Tribune, she was getting excoriated by a few Sarasotans for a) promoting on social media local businesses that stayed open, and b) endangering the lives of her own customers for continuing to serve them.

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One of the Cup’s six regular employees left because of concerns over a compromised immune system; a second took another job. Even so, by shaving their own hours, de Chevron Villette and Haggstrom were able to keep their baristas on the clock and avoided layoffs. Part of that was due to the federal Paycheck Protection Program and loans at generous rates. But the most humbling assists came from neighbors and strangers alike.

De Chevron Villette keeps a running tally of contributors, 30 deep now, purchasing gift cards, T-shirts, coffee beans and mugs, with contributions ranging from $10 to $1,905. Some materialized from out of state. Haggstrom took an order for six pounds of coffee from an old high school friend, and a former mentor from her native Baltimore kicked in $500.

But it wasn’t just about money. When food-servers were restricted to takeout-only, for instance, Lovely Square restaurant decided to give plugs to their Village neighbors across the street.

“I did a post on Facebook and Instagram and said yes, absolutely, during the shutdown, I stopped doing coffee to go and coffee inside and said you can go to Clever Cup for your coffee,” recalls owner Serafin Garcia.

And there were spontaneous communal innovations, like the Curbside Suncoast Food & Drink To Go group on Facebook, which has bloomed from nothing to 9,000-plus members since mid-March. Launched by Sarasota marketing consultant Sarah Lansky, the page reached out to local nonchain restaurants and invited them to post their new hours and discuss their modified menus.

“If you’ll remember, during the early days of the coronavirus, Chili’s had a new commercial, and Outback had a new commercial, and of course our local folks can’t afford that,” says entrepreneur and videographer Kevin Angell. “We wanted to give our local restaurants a chance to survive.”

Angell visited 30 eateries, shot 1- to 2-minute videos with restaurant proprietors, including The Clever Cup, and gave them all an advertising platform on YouTube at no charge.

“I would say the theme I got from them, and most of the time teary-eyed, was that they missed their day-to-day customers,” Angell says. “They miss Jim that comes in and gets his coffee every morning, they miss Elisha who’s always at the end of the bar at the end of a long day. They really miss their people.”

Some of those people, like Clever Cup regular Greg Thornburg, continue to support their favorite hangouts from a distance.

A member of an informal, senior-dominated Scrabble club that followed Haggstrom from Books-A-Million after it closed in 2017 to her new job at The Cup, Thornburg misses those spirited Tuesday evenings of obscure wordplay. With coronavirus sweeping the nation, the club — which can count up to two dozen players during high season — suspended its weekly games on March 10.

“For some of the members,” says Thornburg, “it’s definitely their favorite social outlet of the week. It’s important. A lot of members have activities they do together, like going to church, or mahjong groups. We all miss Scrabble.”

Those associations are not interchangeable, Thornburg says. Loyalty is an investment.

“I think retirees understand the importance of supporting small businesses and how small businesses never really have the sort of lifeline that large corporate businesses do,” he says. “So we took it upon ourselves to buy gift certificates and coffee beans while sheltering at home.

Having retired from the real estate business, Thornburg says he likes The Cup’s post-COVID-19’s prospects.

“If they pull through this well, maybe they’ll be able to expand because there’s going to be a lot of open space for the first year or two after we come out of the pandemic,” he says. “I think they have a potentially good future because they were one of the lucky businesses that could do a certain level of takeout.”

Nobody is forecasting when the state will allow businesses to operate at full capacity. Between now and then, says de Chevron Villette, the Cup will roll with it. Adjustments include changing air filters bi-weekly instead of monthly, sanitizing chairs, tables and counters after each customer finishes, and offering 10 percent discounts for patrons who bring their own reusable cups.

De Chevron Villette also declines to wear a mask and allows her employees to make their own decisions about covering up. Significantly, she says, mask-wearing patrons are often repeat customers.

“I think they feel safe here because they know what we do,” says de Chevron Villette. “What’s making me happy now is, we’re starting to see people bring their laptops in again.”

Haggstrom laments the divisive triggers that masks — or lack thereof — have come to represent. But she doesn’t think twice about wearing them while shopping. That mindfulness extends to social distancing from her parents, whom she hasn’t hugged since February. But COVID-19 has offered a reminder that home is more than a place you wake up every morning.

“We are creatures of habit,” she says. “We crave love and attention and acknowledgment, even if it’s no more than going someplace where the person behind the counter knows how you take your coffee without asking. This is important to people.”


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