‘Use us or lose us’ says coffee shop owner

Alchemista is one of the best-loved coffee spots in Norwich [credit: Alchemista Facebook]

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, independent coffee shops are being hit particularly hard.

After almost a year of ongoing lockdowns and a new average of sixty UK stores closing every day, the owner of Alchemista Coffee Company says that many independent coffee shops “won’t be around anymore” after the pandemic. He asserts that COVID-19 “will take some businesses down. There’s no two ways about it.” 

Dennis Bacon, who has owned the Norwich-based coffee spot Alchemista for three years, warned that if people don’t put in the effort to be proactive about supporting their local businesses, then those businesses will not survive. “People are dreadful, because they moan about these small independents disappearing from the high street. When was the last time you went to your local pub? If you don’t support local businesses then they go, it’s as simple as that.”

He elaborates, expressing that “a lot of these lovely little independents won’t be around anymore, and that ruins people’s dreams, as well. They want to create something quite special for their customers, and that isn’t really the case with Starbucks, or Costa. I’m not saying [they’re] bad, but it’s a completely different offering.”

While the business has not closed, Dennis Bacon’s plans for franchising the coffee shop in 2020 were completely disrupted by the pandemic. “We had a massive level of interest in it with the British Franchise Association— they had a record number of inquiries from all over the country. We were going to open one of two new [shops] last year, but because of COVID, didn’t.”

The usually bustling Norwich city centre is uncharacteristically deserted [credit: Maja Anushka]

Ancestors Coffee Company opened its doors on Magdalen Street in 2017. It is owned by Ceiran Trigg and partner Deanna Lawrence, who run the shop as a family business. Unlike Alchemista, Ancestors has stayed open throughout lockdown as a takeaway service.

Ceiran and Deanna’s decision to remain open has introduced a new challenge to their lives: juggling their business and the unfamiliar world of homeschooling. “Finding the time to take on homeschooling duties while operating the business as a delivery and collection service, you effectively go from a full-time job to three full-time jobs simultaneously.”

The majority of retail businesses have successfully transitioned their sales online, but independent coffee shops are in a unique position. Dennis Bacon explained why coffee shops have been particularly affected: “A lot of coffee shops rely on footfall— both retail footfall and office footfall. In the case of Norwich, Norwich Union (Aviva) has shut two of the biggest offices and those same people are now going to work from home. If you haven’t got people who are working or people that are shopping going for coffees, then your sales are going to be hit.”

Footfall has, indeed, plummeted. With thousands of employees, tourists, and football fans all following the government advice to stay at home, the usually bustling city centre is uncharacteristically deserted. Statisa reports that the United Kingdom’s commercial footfall dropped by as much as 81% in April 2020, following the announcement of the first national lockdown. 

COVID-19 restrictions have already forced many well-loved businesses to close. Only a few months ago, historic Norwich cafe Britons Arms shut its doors permanently after almost seventy years of service. The decision to close was made, in part, due to the pandemic, co-owner Sue Skipper told the Eastern Daily Press.

When discussing whether government help has been sufficient, both business owners say that they are pleased. Ceiran said: “As a small family run business, with very few members of staff and relatively low overheads, the financial support from the government has allowed us to have no financial stress during the entirety of the pandemic.”

Dennis Bacon also expressed gratitude: “I think it would be very easy to criticise the government. There are certainly things I’m not particularly happy about, but, I think with the scale of the problem, they’ve done reasonably well. We’re grateful for what we’ve got, it could have been a bit better, but then again it could have been worse.”

In terms of looking ahead to the future, Dennis Bacon is “positive, but wary”. He says “The future of Alchemista is, I think, good, it’s just a bit uncertain in terms of scale over the next year or two because there’s going to be fall-out and attrition. Nothing’s guaranteed.”

Ancestors Coffee has stayed open throughout lockdown as a takeaway service [credit: Maja Anushka]

Ceiran Trigg also brings assurance to fans of Ancestors. “We have a number of plans underway which we are very excited about. Everything is on track and the pandemic hasn’t slowed them down, in fact, they have probably accelerated them and made them easier to accomplish.”

While the issue of low commercial footfall is not one that will be remedied anytime soon, local businesses continue to survive on local support. Ceiran emphasises the importance of social media interaction as a way to support the shops you love, even during these times of social distancing. Supporting local businesses is about spending, but it is also about following. “We mostly use social media, and engagement on those platforms are an often overlooked way of supporting a business.”

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