It’s happening. For the most part. Cup-A-Joe’s is again opening its doors to the public, for the first time since closing them because of COVID-19. Soon, the daily sight of bleary-eyed socially distanced customers staring intently at a table, waiting for their comfort-in-a-cup and a whiff of roasted air sucked outside by opening the door, will be the stuff of local storywriters inspired by the pandemic.
On May 5th, Cup-A-Joe’s will expand its hours from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and provide walk-in services. You still can’t sit at tables inside, but coffee-seekers will be able to go in, place an order, wait for their beverage, and then leave.
“There will be markers that are six feet apart,” said Brooke Ecerg, who owns Cup-A-Joe with her husband, Ryan Creery. “There will be one at the register, there’ll be one at the bake case, there’ll be four in the line. And then people waiting for their drinks will be off to the side and they’ll be socially distance. I think in June, (Gov.) Cooper said he’s hoping to open up completely. We will still probably do walk-in because I don’t think a lot of people will feel comfortable being in a packed space.”
Pre-pandemic, ‘packed’ was likely the most accurate description of Cup-A-Joe’s, where lines of people waiting for a table sometimes kept the door open and the coffee-scented air spilling out onto King Street. Inside, a stop at every crowded table conversation was just as effective as surfing the Internet: club meetings, discussions about sports, politics, meetings with the mayor, the former mayor, radio personalities, small-business owners and authors. When COVID silenced Cup-A-Joe’s, it silenced conversations and suspended friendships.
“I see it as a community, like Cup-A-Joe Church in a way,” Ecerg said. “We have our regulars that have been coming in for years and some of them even before we even bought the shop, It’s a place where we all get to know each other. Hillsborough is such a tight-knit community and that’s what I miss most and that’s why I want to slowly open.”
Ecerg said she knew COVID-19 would be around long after the initial shelter-in-place had expired, but she and her husband didn’t want their store to potentially contribute to community spread. The shop went through a brief period of letting in one customer at a time. But this still placed her workers at a potential risk.
To further mitigate the risk, Cup-A-Joe’s went to taking orders by phone or through an app. Orders with the customers’ name would be brought out and placed on a table set up in front of the door. For the better part of a year, this was life for the coffee shop and its customers. It’s a method of doing business the owners are glad to do away with.
“We’re seeing lower transmission rates in Hillsborough and Orange County, so we decided to open up for just walk ins to get rid of the app,” Ecerg said. “The app is super confusing for us on the receiving end, because we also have walk ups and phone calls. Before, people were just coming inside and ordering. Now we’re dealing with three different types of ordering systems. In working with the (Orange County) health department, we realized that it was time to slowly open up. No indoor seating, having social distancing. That way people can slowly feel comfortable and for my staff not to get overwhelmed. On a Saturday morning we could see 60 people in the shop.”
Ecerg said Cup-A-Joe never had to let go of any of its employees, although with reduced hours, some opted to find work elsewhere, which the owners understood and respected. She said the most difficult part for her was navigating the pandemic and staying healthy. She and her husband have spent much of the last year planning strategies for keeping the business going, making coffee, building a website and developing the app.
Ecerg admits the experience has tested her patience, but she never wanted to call it quits. “There were days where you’re just angry at everything. Angry at the pandemic, angry at politics. But I love this shop too much.”
Brooke and Ryan bought Cup-A-Joe in 2009 in the original, smaller location on King Street where the Parlour On King Salon & Spa is now. In 2016, the coffee shop moved to its current, larger location. They’re hoping to get back to where they were before the pandemic, but the two are fine to wait until it’s safe to do so.
“In 2019, we had our busiest year,” Ecerg said. “We had the most staff we’ve ever had and we were moving upwards. It was kind of awesome.”