During the pandemic, Strange Brew Coffee, a neighborhood coffee shop in Greenwood, has seen a major uptick in cranky customers, who shun masks.
Toni and Dan Carr run a coffee shop in Greenwood that is like a cozy kitchen meets community center meets artsy thrift shop. A social hub in the heart of a state known for its hospitality, they said they rarely encountered rude customers.
Until the pandemic.
The coffee shop, named Strange Brew, was embroiled in an online fight with a customer in late October over its requirement to wear a face mask.
A customer marched off when she wasn’t served because she refused to wear a mask. Soon after, someone who looked like that customer posted a review of Strange Brew on Facebook that accused a barista of spitting in her friend’s drink, an allegation the Carrs say is not true.
Evelyn Carr, with her parents Dan and Toni Carr, owners of Strange Brew Coffee, Greenwood, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. The shop has had to navigate an increase in upset customers, as they don’t want to wear masks, and resist the store’s curbside option. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
The incident raised so much attention that the shop decide to lean into the controversy by selling mugs that make fun of the situation.
While the whole encounter was strange, confrontations with customers who do not want to wear a mask have become routine for businesses across Indiana, making working in retail and restaurants more difficult.
Since Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered in July that people wear masks in restaurants and stores, the baristas at Strange Brew have had near daily encounters with people who storm off once they are told they need to wait for their order outside if they don’t wear a mask, the owners said.
“It’s pretty unfair that we’re the ones put on the front lines of this,” Toni Carr said. “We’re asking employees to risk themselves and be at risk, so I’m going to ask customers to wear a mask and protect them.”
Mask wearing is central to the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, a global pandemic that has killed more than a million people worldwide and more than 250,000 in the United States. Some Americans, however, have interpreted the safety requirement as an infringement to their personal liberties and refused to enforce or follow the requirement, despite the pleas of governors, mayors, health officials and others, including in Indiana.
On Wednesday, Indiana state lawmakers voted against requiring themselves to wear masks when the General Assembly meets in January. The Republican majority said lawmakers should wear masks but doing so shouldn’t be required.
‘No one is accepting a universal truth anymore’
OnNov. 12, MashCraft Brewing Co. in Greenwood closed early after a patron refused to wear a mask and threatened employees.
“We’re closing tonight due to violent threats toward our staff from someone who didn’t want to wear a mask. After a bad exchange in our building and multiple threatening phone calls from the individual after leaving, we are closing to protect our staff,” the company posted on its Facebook page.
Most people wear masks, but the vocal minority who refuse to create a daily problem for the retail and restaurant industry, said Patrick Tamm, the president and CEO of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association.
The incident at MashCraft was the first time Tamm heard about a business closing early due to threats from a confrontation over the mask requirement. However, he has heard of customers confronting each other over coronavirus safety rules.
“I would love to be able to say it happens in this type of place or location, but really it’s across the board,” he said.
The most violent confrontation over a mask happened at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, where a security guard was shot and killed after a dispute over the store’s mask requirement in May.
Similar confrontations have been reported across the country, prompting chain stores such as Walmart to advise its workers to avoid confronting customers over its mask requirement.
Tamm said he hasn’t heard of any violent confrontations in Indiana.
It’s been frustrating to the industry that some people don’t seem to understand that masks allow businesses to stay open, he said.
“We’re telling you to do so so we can continue to operate, so your neighbors can make a living,” he said.
Throughout Indianapolis, businesses have posted their mask requirements on the doors. The very occasional person will come through a shop quickly without a mask, and sometimes no one says anything. Other times, confrontation erupts. Businesses lose customers.
The problem is that not everyone accepts that masks will help prevent the spread of the disease, said Levi Kinney, the owner of Moe & Johnny’s in Broad Ripple. In fact, not everyone even agrees there is a deadly pandemic raging across the across the country, he said.
Wearing a mask protects the wearer as well as others nearby by reducing transmission, according to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
“No one is accepting a universal truth anymore,” Kinney said. “Everyone has subjective truths they subscribe to.”
He has heard conspiracy theories about how the pandemic isn’t real but rather concocted to control the population. Even more troubling, he has heard people spread conspiracy theories about how the vaccine is going to implant a microchip in people who take it.
“I hate what I’m about to say: The conspiracy theories have really started to disseminate into our daily lives,” Kinney said.
Unlike the daily problems at Strange Brew, Moe & Johnny’s only encounters a customer who refuses to wear a mask every few weeks. However, Kinney said some people have told him that they won’t be returning once the weather gets too cold to sit outside because they don’t want to wear masks.
Restaurants allow patrons to take off their masks when they are seated and eating or drinking but must wear a mask when they walk in and walk around the establishment.
Because mask wearing is political issue, some neighborhoods are more accepting of the requirement than others. But it’s hard to tell where someone stands on the subject.
He finds himself walking on eggshells when asking customers to wear masks or discussing the issue because he is unsure how they will react.
“It makes my industry damn near impossible,” he said, referring to the lack of consensus on mask wearing.
Moe & Johnny’s closed in-person dining around the start of the month and is currently doing take-out only.
The story of Strange Brew
Strange Brew has a devout customer base that rallies behind it. So much so that when the coffee shop had to switch to takeout only during the early months of the pandemic, a group of guys tailgated in the parking lot to support them.
“This place is like your community center,” Mike Watkins, 75, a regular at Strange Brew. “The friendships that come out of this are incredible. You come in here on a given day, and there may be a dentist, company owner, school principal on and on and on. It’s just a real gathering place, and there’s no place else like it.”
Watkins, Dave Kenison, 72 and Chris Jones, 46, have started their mornings at Strange Brew every day for more than a decade. They wear masks.
It’s one small way they can help protect the business during a fragile time. They said they don’t know what they would do without it.
It’s where they come see friends and make new ones. They know the names of all the baristas and tip generously.
It’s the kind of family-like place Toni and Dan Carr envisioned when they opened Strange Brew in 2004.
“We both kind of liked the idea of having regulars and friends that are good customers and you know that whole 90s ‘Friends’ coffee shop vibe,” she said, referring to the hit 90s sitcom set in a New York City coffee shop.
But like many businesses during the pandemic, Strange Brew hit a rough patch.
Some regulars stopped coming in when the shop posted the mask requirement. And even though pleasant and polite customers vastly outnumber the difficult ones, the latter are the ones who ruin Dan Carr’s day.
“I have one bad moment, and I think about it all day,” he said. “Your adrenaline gets going, and you don’t want to overreact.”
Dan Carr has a personality that works well for deescalating. He is easygoing and blunt. But that doesn’t make the job easy.
Rachel Van Winkle, a 27-year-old Indianapolis resident who takes orders and enforces the mask requirement, had to get over her anxiety over confrontation quickly.
“Sometimes people come in and pull their mask down to place an order, and I’m like, ‘Hey, can you pull that up for me.’ And normally they’re fine about it. But sometimes people will just get annoyed. But I’m just trying to do my job,” she said.
Learning to let things roll off your shoulder and mustering up the courage to confront someone are two important skill sets that have become paramount in a pandemic.
The shop is trying not to take the bad review fiasco of 2020 too seriously. It is selling “SPIT FREE SINCE 2005” mugs.
The profits from the mugs are going to charity.
Contact IndyStar business reporter Binghui Huang at 317-385-1595. Follow her on Twitter @Bhuang2012
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