‘It’s an ongoing struggle’: COVID-19 wreaks havoc on Boston cafe culture

Farmer%27s+Horse+Coffee%2C+located+on+Massachusetts+Ave.%2C+is+one+of+many+cafes+who+have+pivoted+with+the+onset+and+continued+rise+of+COVID-19

Matt Yan

Farmer’s Horse Coffee, located on Massachusetts Ave., is one of many cafes who have pivoted with the onset and continued rise of COVID-19

Katie Mogg, news staff

Before COVID-19 struck, students frequented cafes like Pavement Coffeehouse, Farmer’s Horse Coffee and Solid Ground Cafe to study or socialize with friends. Now, students are forced to find alternative study spots as cafes offer little to no indoor dining. Meanwhile, business owners struggle to recover from months of decreased economic inactivity.

How have cafe owners and students adjusted to this stark change?

“[The pandemic] hurt sales quite a bit,” said Andy LoPilato, president of Pavement Coffeehouse. “That whole portion of our business of being a place to study, to meet with friends, to socialize is an essential component of coffeehouses, and what we try to create in our spaces … and that is really specifically what we can’t do right now.”

Lucia Patrick, owner of Solid Ground Cafe located in Mission Hill, saw a similar shift, noting the drop in sales once students stopped coming to cafes at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Most of our clientele work in the area, so it’s people that work at all the offices, all the administrative staff, but also all the students that live on Mission Hill,” Patrick said. “So once universities dismissed all the students in March, we saw a big decline. That was super drastic —it affected us a lot.” 

The pandemic put extra financial burdens on cafe owners. Simultaneously, it created a cultural strain within Northeastern student life. 

“It’s so Northeastern. I feel like it’s such a big part of the culture,” said Isabela Fox-Mills, a second-year sociology major. “Like when I’d go to Pavement, you’d know everyone there.” 

Northeastern’s Director of Jewish Student Life, Ariel Walovitch, tries her best to safely preserve the student body’s cafe culture. Her favorite coffee spot to meet students interested in Jewish campus life is Caffè Nero.

“Most of my coffee dates have been over Zoom,” Walovitch said. “I work with whatever’s best for the student. I will bring Hillel to them through Tatte, Caffè Nero, Caffè Bene or Zoom. I will bring Hillel to them however they want that to be. I let the student take the lead.”

While Walovitch is open to meeting students at the limited cafes offering seated dining, many students now study at places across campus to replace their former study spots. On-campus locations will have to suffice for now, but students miss the unique ambiance that only cafes can bring.

“If it weren’t for the pandemic, I definitely think that I would take more advantage of cafes,” said Gabi Silverman, a first-year combined business administration and design major. “Especially because they’re warm and it’s kind of a nice environment to study other than the places on campus which are much more loud and lively.”

Fox-Mills shares Silverman’s sentiment, explaining that she misses the interior design that cafes used to bring to her studying experience.

“I like being surrounded by people meeting up and being social and different types of people, rather than everyone studying and being quiet,” Fox-Mills said. “Curry is definitely better because people are socializing more, but it’s not as bright and there aren’t as many windows and its decor isn’t as cute.”

While most cafes remain off limits, NU students still have plenty of places on campus to study: dorm rooms/apartments, common rooms, study spaces in residential buildings, the Curry Student Center and Snell Library, just to name a few. 

 The fate of cafe owners, however, is less certain. Many have struggled to remain afloat, balancing unforgiving rent fees compounded by decreased customer turnout.

“In the months of April, May, maybe June and July we were losing money,” said Farmer Horse Coffee owner Meran Atoufi. “And on top of that we had to pay rent.”

Atoufi explained the struggles of business inequity. Certain businesses are paying decreased rent fees to get by during the pandemic, but Farmer’s Horse’s landlord hasn’t afforded Atoufi such a privilege. 

“I have other business owner friends who have got big breaks from their landlords. There are some that got a small break, it all varies,” Atoufi said. “And our landlords did not give us any break.”

Fortunately for Patrick, her landlords provided her the generosity that business owners like Atoufi have been craving. 

“I think we lucked out on our landlords. They have been [forgiving],” Patrick said. “They really gave us a break in 2020. I know of other landlords who didn’t do that. They’re senior citizens, but their parents had businesses in [Mission Hill], so they were just cool.”

While LoPilato also noted his positive relationship with his landlord, the journey has been anything but easy for him.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” LoPilato said. “We are in the thick of it. I have one location indefinitely closed – my Harvard Square location – but the rest have intermittently been open or closed depending on what’s going on.” 

Cafes have continued to serve their customers by offering their products in alternative ways. Solid Ground, for instance, provided cafe shares, or deliverable prepackaged products, when many customers felt uncomfortable leaving their homes.

“[It’s] really just a grocery bag that we publicized every week. Like a bag of bagels and some cream cheeses, half a dozen eggs, things like that,” Patrick said. “And then we would provide delivery ourselves. They wanted to continue supporting us and people also didn’t wanna leave their house, so it was a really good opportunity to bring what we offer to folks at home.” 

Some Northeastern students have taken advantage of similar to-go services to salvage their cafe-related customs, but Boston’s frigid weather is making it increasingly difficult. 

“I go and get coffee at most of [my favorite cafes] still and get it to-go,” Fox-Mills said. “But not as frequently just because it’s more of a social thing. Especially now that it’s cold.” 

Not all students, however, agree that visiting cafes to buy products to-go is worth it. 

“I kinda like to go to the cafe to sit down and do work or chat with friends,” Silverman said. “Plus if I’m not gonna be sitting there and eating, I’ll go to get coffee that’s cheaper from Dunkin’.”

To attract customers during the pandemic when coffee chains like Starbucks or Dunkin’ offer cheaper products, local cafes have gone back to the basics, refining the fundamentals of their businesses. 

“We narrowed our focus and offered less products,” LoPilato said. “We stayed focused on what we do well with – coffee and bagels.” 

Atoufi holds a similar philosophy. He attributes his business’s ability to remain connected to loyal customers during the pandemic to Farmer Horse’s high-quality food and Ethiopian coffee. But Atoufi doesn’t take credit for the quality of his products. Instead, he attributes it all to his wife, Larisa Bulicanu.

“She cares for this place just like it’s her home,” Atoufi said. “Everything that she does, and everything that she makes is made here. She tries to make [Farmer’s Horse products] the way that she makes food for us, for our kids.”

If the pandemic has brought anything to light, it’s to no longer take the human connection that cafes provide for granted. 

“When we can imagine a world without COVID, I think there will be a new appreciation, perhaps a deeper appreciation for the sort of exchanges that used to be seen as typical or mundane,” LoPilato said. “Us having a new appreciation for [human connection] is something we can try to build better and appreciate more.”