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Coffee and bakery shop storefront in D.C.

Coffee shops, caf茅s grapple with post-pandemic, remote work trends

Remote employees opt to work in coffee shops and caf茅s but the shift isn鈥檛 enough to meet pre-pandemic business levels.

For General Manager Moses Lee, the Memorial Day rush at Le Pain Quotidien off 17th Street downtown was welcome. It was actually unusually busy, he said.

Lee said the caf茅 had steady business every day before 2020, with many federal and bank employees stopping for coffee and lunch.

Since then, he鈥檚 seen a dramatic shift.

鈥淲ith the pandemic over, we were expecting it to get better, but we鈥檙e still struggling,鈥 Lee said. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 see the sales that we used to have. People are working at home, the rent is still going up and while some of the places and businesses are still here, the people are not here.鈥

Federal and municipal leaders have pushed to end remote work for government employees in the District. In March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser could only work remotely twice per week.

President Joe Biden last August urged his cabinet to for the city鈥檚 about 160,000 federal employees. A study last fall found that over two-thirds of all federal employees were some of the time, affecting in the downtown D.C. area.

But Lee said the combination of fewer government and private sector workers 鈥 a in 2022 鈥 has made the struggle worse. Nearly half of the city鈥檚 workers are from private companies as of 2022.

鈥淭raffic may have picked up on the streets and on the Metro, but we haven鈥檛 seen the bank employees return to these buildings around us,鈥 Lee said.

 

Businesses in D.C. and nationwide mostly focused on surviving during the pandemic and lockdown. Le Pain Quotidien is still in that mindset, Lee said.

A few streets away, Roasting Plant Coffee off of L Street was quiet Monday during the holiday.

Ezana Wright said he鈥檚 already used to the slow traffic from remote workers.

Still, coffee shops and caf茅s are uniquely positioned compared to restaurants and stores because many of them are places where remote workers can escape their homes and work elsewhere.

鈥楶eople want coffee鈥

Sydney Skelton, acting manager and employee at Compass Coffee off H Street downtown, said coffee shops had changed their business models and are surviving better than other local businesses.

At Compass Coffee, there鈥檚 been an increase in people coming in and staying to work over longer periods of time. Skelton said some coffee shops, including Compass Coffee, are leaning into the experience by offering ceramic mugs and free WiFi for customers to help entice remote workers to come in.

鈥淚鈥檝e definitely seen a hard increase of people in here,鈥 Skelton said, 鈥渨ith their laptops or people have headsets on whereas before (the pandemic), people were just coming in to grab coffee and leave.

鈥淭here鈥檚 a lot more of the work-from-home crowd base that have made caf茅s and coffee shops their second office, as opposed to sitting in their house for a change of scenery.鈥

With its location near federal buildings and the White House, Skelton said she doesn鈥檛 anticipate losing business as federal employees return to in-person work, but the business model is shifting once again. Wright similarly said business models will shift, but he鈥檚 not deterred.

Skelton said she鈥檚 not worried that coffee shops like the one she works at are surviving and thriving through the post-pandemic waves. People want coffee, she said.

鈥淭here’ll probably be a lot more commuter traffic and a lot more come-and-go traffic,鈥 Skelton said. 鈥淭he flow won鈥檛 stop.鈥

Karoline Leonard

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