How Peoria-Area Coffee Shops Contended With The Pandemic
When your business plan was all about brewing up a closer community, what do you do when that community has to stay outside?
That was the situation many Peoria-area coffee shops found themselves in during the pandemic.
The problem was particularly acute for thirty-thirty Coffee Co., 734 Main St., a Downtown shop in the 110-year-old Kickapoo Building, the only flat-iron structure in central Illinois.
With no drive-thru service, thirty-thirty, so named because most specialty coffee is farmed between 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the earth’s equator, had to adjust, said co-owner Steve Elmore.
“We had to shift gears. Instead of encouraging people to hang out, we had to do a lot of adapting,” he said.
To better handle curb service for its customers, the shop had to make it easier to place orders, said Elmore, who runs the business along with wife Haly Elmore and Dan Williamson.
“We hadn’t necessarily embraced technology, for example, allowing people to order ahead with smart phones,” he said.
Despite the adjustments that included taking care of their employees, Elmore said the café took a 50 percent hit in its business as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. “What hurt us the most was the pandemic’s second wave—from October through Christmas. The holiday season is the busiest time in the coffee world,” he said.
Despite the restrictions on businesses that served the public as a result of the pandemic, coffee shops continued to open in the Peoria area.
Café Santa Rosa opened in Peoria’s Junction City shopping center in July 2020 while the Taste of Grey coffee shop opened in West Peoria in November. Leaves & Beans opened an outlet in Pekin in April of this year.
“Our original opening date was March 27 (2020) but, of course, everything then went down the drain,” said Rafael Vidal, general manager of Café Santa Rosa, referring to the stay-at-home orders and business closings issued last year in March that accompanied the onset of the outbreak.
Opening last summer—without a drive-thru—was a challenge, said Vidal, the son of store owners Heber and Marta Vidal.
“We were confident enough that our business model was so unique that it would be enough to attract new traffic and get foot traffic in,” he said.
“We are a farm to cup operation, one of only three in the country that we know of,” said Vidal, noting that his family owns a coffee farm in Columbia that provides beans to the Peoria café and other customers.
James Cross, owner of the Leaves & Beans coffee business in Peoria Heights, said he’d been planning to open a store in Pekin before the pandemic.
The Pekin store opened in April of this year once Cross convinced Pekin officials the outlet’s drive-thru lane wouldn’t create the same traffic problems created by the line of drive-thru customers at the Starbucks store in Pekin during the pandemic.
“We probably do 30 percent in sales of what they do,” said Cross, who also operates a Leaves & Beans outlet in Morton.
But Cross doesn’t resent the national coffee powerhouse. “We’re very thankful to Starbucks for educating customers about coffee. Starbucks is the gateway for people to learn about quality coffee,” he said.
But coffee shops aren’t the only thing proliferating in the Peoria area. So are coffee roasters. “I think there were two other roasters when we took over Leaves & Beans in 2008. Now I’ve lost count. I think we’re over 10 places that roast their own coffee beans,” said Cross.
David Grimm opened the Regulator Roasting Co. in East Peoria in May 2020. The location at 400 E. Washington St. is where the Eysals coffee house was located before closing in 2017.
But Grimm didn’t reopen the coffee shop. He roasts beans from Peru, New Guinea and Costa Rica and roasts them in 15-pound batches, selling them in one-pound and half-pound bags at area farmer’s markets and over the internet.
All this roasting and the rise in the number of area coffee shops doesn’t worry Cross. “Peoria is a very large area but people tend to stick to their commuting route and a coffee shop is all about the commute,” he said.
Elmore, on the other hand, thinks the area’s coffee cup may be about full. He said it was gratifying to hear that thirty-thirty, since opening in 2011, has inspired others to start their own businesses but believes the coffee community may have reached its limit.
“I think we’re approaching that threshold in terms of what Peoria can bear but I think we have to wait to see Covid’s impact on people’s finances,” he said.
But the coffee shop isn’t just an urban phenomenon. In 2015, Stacy Unhold and her partners opened One Eleven Coffee in Wyoming, a town of 1,400 in Stark County, some 30 miles north of Peoria.
“We saw downtown (Wyoming) falling apart. We wanted to give back,” said Unhold, born and raised in Wyoming.
One Eleven was opened in a 19th-century building that once housed a market, hardware store and bar over the years.
“For a long time, (the building) just sat. We did a lot of remodeling but kept the rustic feel,” said Unhold.
“We did take a hit during Covid. Luckily we have a drive-thru,” she said.
Adjustments were made, said Unhold. “We prepared a lot of ‘take & bake’ meals. We set up outdoor seating. Businesses in town sponsored tables and chairs,” she said.
Coming out of the pandemic, One Eleven serves as a catalyst for downtown development in Wyoming, said Unhold. “We’ve seen seven businesses come in since we opened and another store is coming,” she said.
Business is back for coffee shops across the area. Elmore thinks all the activity may reflect a pent-up demand.
“This summer is an atypical year. People have been cooped up for a very long time and are coming out much more often than they normally would at this time of year,” he said.
The atypical year is likely to continue. Elmore wouldn’t give details but added “big plans” are in the works to celebrate thirty-thirty’s 10th anniversary in November.