SCV tea, coffee shops, cafés look to bounce back

Thelma Diaz, co-owner of Thelma's Cafe, carries freshly prepaired food to customers. July 22, 2021. Bobby Block / The Signal.

By Raychel Stewart

Signal Staff Writer

Stephanie Inmon is really excited about the potential for events to return locally to her two Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders locations — once she gets the greenlight for good on gatherings, she said.

Inmon was one of countless SCV business owners anticipating the reopening after California hit its COVID-19 goals. Now the Delta variant and vaccination rates have prompted a new round of health concerns, which she’s navigating cautiously, while looking ahead to a real and more permanent return to the community-type events they used to be able to have.

“We would like to be doing (live) music nights, or even a movie night … maybe a kids-friendly movie night, where parents can drink coffee and kids can watch TV,” she said, looking ahead to events she’d like to host once people feel safer gathering indoors again.

“It really limits what you can and can’t do,” she said of the mask mandate, noting that partnership events she’d like to host are also being put on pause, and the coffee shop and roaster is focusing on what it does best: importing fresh, fair-trade coffee that it roasts fresh.

Thelma Diaz, co-owner of Thelma’s Cafe, carries freshly prepaired food to customers. July 222, 2021. Bobby Block / The Signal.

After the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in Los Angeles County to go under stay-at-home orders for most of last year, business at coffee and tea shops in the Santa Clarita Valley have been steadily increasing since the reopening of the state’s economy.

This rebound is vital after many local coffee and tea shops saw a sudden drop in customers last year, after commuters were no longer stopping for a morning coffee, and picking up a quick cup of tea wasn’t no longer part of the daily route.

Strained with the sudden stay-at-home orders, the Daily Harvest Café was forced to close their doors for nearly two months at the start of the pandemic, according to a member of the management team.

Nearly 1 million restaurant employees were temporarily or permanently laid off in California during the pandemic while one-in-six restaurants were forced to close indefinitely across the country, according a March study from the California Restaurant Association.

“Restaurants were the first businesses forced to shut down, and in California, 12 months later, we are still pushing to safely get our dining rooms back open,” said Jot Condie, CEO of the California Restuarant Association, in a prepared statement released in March. “The economic losses to restaurants, our workforce and their communities have been disproportionally enormous. Even with much-needed aid being delivered by the federal and state governments, every restaurant owner in this state knows that for them, the road to true recovery will be long.”

A cook at Thelma’s Morning Cafe prepairs a breakfast dish for a customer. July 22, 2021. Bobby Block / The Signal.

Since reopening at the beginning of May last year, the Daily Harvest Café followed health and safety protocols, such as mandatory face coverings, capacity limits and social distancing, and continued to enforce social distancing even after the state reopened.

During the pandemic, the shop offered outdoor dining and curbside pickup to maintain sales while also regularly having health screenings for employees to ensure no one was coming in sick or spreading it to others.

The shop, which is located on Lyons Avenue in Old Town Newhall, was fortunate to have a supportive customer base throughout the pandemic and has since saw an increase in sales since reopening, the member of management team said, attributing it to the decline in cases earlier this year and people feeling more comfortable dining in and outdoors.

Since the reopening of California’s economy in June of this year, businesses were able to drop capacity limits and social distancing protocols all together allowing coffee and tea shops to resume the usual pre-pandemic business and increase sales.

“The revenue we were receiving last year wasn’t enough to pay for employees and utilities,” said Ronnee Diaz, operations manager at Thelma’s Café in Santa Clarita. “We ended up having to lay off a majority of our staff, so since we couldn’t have dining in anymore, we relied on the third-party delivery services and pick-up.”

Although Thelma’s Café stayed open throughout the pandemic, the family-owned business had their share of hardships trying to maintain the café while also following health and safety protocols set forth by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

To help bring funds into the business, Diaz created a GoFundMe page which allowed customers to make donations and helped the café stay afloat.

“Once outdoor dining was allowed, that’s when things really started to pick up,” Diaz said. “And when the state reopened and we were allowed to have indoor dining, things really took off.”

Thelma’s Cafe has continued to operate through the pandemic. July 22, 2021. Bobby Block / The Signal.

Diaz added since February of this year, Thelma’s Café has been doing better businesswise then pre-pandemic, according to Diaz.

“We’re thrilled about doing so much better now,” Diaz said. “Now we’re just hoping to continue the growth and continue to have customers come in. We’re all happy things are going back to normal.”

Diaz said the growth in business can be attributed to the additional seating outdoor dining has provided the café since now they’re able to offer several customers tables at once.

“Outdoor dining really helps boost the sales again,” Diaz said. “People were wanting to go out and get themselves a fresh plate of food that wasn’t packaged up to be delivered. More people would show up cause there’s more seating. Now we’re doing better than we were before COVID.”

However, the café has been dealt a new hardship they didn’t think would be a problem, finding workers.

A month into the full reopening of the state, Thelma’s Café still struggles to find workers as business has been blooming, Diaz said, adding that people might not be keen on having a part-time position with minimum wage salaries but is hopeful people will fill the open roles in the coming months.

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