When Foster Coffee opened its East Lansing location on September 20, 2019, they certainly didn’t foresee a sudden closure within a year’s time. No one could have imagined the current COVID-19 reality, forcing restaurants, bars, and coffee shops to close or to transition to take-out orders only. March 13 marked the last day the coffee shop, located at 916 Albert Avenue, was open to the public.
Through trial and error, resilience, and love for the local community, on May 13, Foster Coffee reopened its doors in East Lansing for carryout and curbside pickup.
Co-owners Nicholas Pidek and Jonathan Moore spent part of the two-month gap at the company’s first location, in Owosso, working through the kinks of the newly mandated regulations.
The whole situation hasn’t been simple or painless.
“We had to furlough all of our employees because we saw a precipitous drop in sales everywhere,” Pidek told ELi. “The thought process as a business owner is like, ‘hey, we’ve got 35 people that are counting on us to make the right decisions for their jobs.’”
Pidek and Moore assisted their staff with unemployment applications. They then went back to the Owosso location as the two sole employees of the company, as to not put employees at risk, and tried to figure out how to make all this work in a business that usually involves a lot of close interactions.
The Owosso community strongly supported the shop, and Foster received good feedback about the store’s social distancing markers on the floor, occupancy limits, sanitizing protocols, and online ordering system.
“We were able to take what we learned at the one store and apply that to our East Lansing and Flint stores,” Pidek said. “We were able to get some shields for the register to protect our customers and our staff. We were able to implement some new technology with contactless payment, so the employees only have to touch their side of the screen. The customer doesn’t have to touch that – that was really huge. We were also able to launch our grocery line, which is half gallons of some of our drinks that are cold storage.”
Customers can now visit Foster Coffee’s website, choose from lattes, oat milk lattes, farmers market blend, cold coffee, chai, and horchata options in half gallon sizes, requesting their preferred pickup day/time. The entire menu of flavored lattes, traditional, specialty/seasonal, smoothies, non-coffee options, drip coffee, pour over coffee, and tea is also available online. Options for table pickup outside of the store are available.
Though support has been positive, Pidek realizes it’s not just Foster Coffee that was put in a difficult position.
“I think a lot of the business owners, especially as far as the restaurant and food service industry goes, we’re really in a tough spot,” he said. “All of the CARES Act, or PPE is designed to bring our staff back to work. It’s kind of an interesting spot – we’ve got an incentive to bring employees back, yet we have an environment where customers are coming in less and less. We can’t put our staff in a position where they’re just standing around all day – so it’s just a tough balance.”
Staff and management are still looking at delivery options but are aware of the many drawbacks to partnering with companies like UberEats and Grubhub, especially when it comes to profit margins and employees tips. (ELi recently ran a story on how customers can best support local eateries.)
For Pidek, the hardest part has been keeping up to date with his email inbox – a constant influx of new rules, regulations, and orders.
“In some regards, it’s like getting the wind knocked out of you because I feel like we were just getting to this point where we had a rhythm as a staff, and the beat of Albert Ave, which we really excited about. Barrio was open the week that everybody started to close down. We launched an extended food menu that week.”
But the folks at Foster are no strangers to struggle. When they opened their first-ever retail location, the store’s espresso machine stopped working at their grand-opening event. Pidek is used to pivoting. And though the time is trying, part of Foster’s business model focuses on positivity, and community support.
“I think we are approaching these situations with an attitude of ‘how do we just make the best of this situation,’ and ‘what are the needs of our community,’ ‘what are the needs of our staff,’ and ‘how do we make it work?’
Currently open Monday – Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Pidek wants customers and the community to know Foster is in it for the long-haul.
“We’re not a franchise,” he said. “We’re not controlled by shareholders that have no stake in East Lansing.”
The company tries to keep the money local throughout the cycle of retail. Local and regional vendors include Groovy Donuts, Stone Circle Bakehouse, and MOO-ville.
“We’ve been pretty strategic about where we buy our stuff from, and about 80 percent of our entire company expenses are spent within the state of Michigan,” Pidek explains. “Each store is spending anywhere from 30-40 percent of that store’s expenses within a 10-15 mile radius of that store.”
Having customers spread the word and sunshine-filled photos of latte art really helps.
“Honestly, the biggest thing that helps is when people show, or post a picture of them interacting with Foster, or Blue Owl, or Strange Matter,” Pidek said. “It helps us to repost and get the word out that we are open. I think some people assume we’re still closed – it’s kind of like out of sight, out of mind.”
The City is working on a project to close the section of Albert Ave. near Foster Coffee and Blue Owl Coffee (which has remained open) to allow people to use public picnic tables to enjoy take-out from nearby restaurants and coffee shops. That is expected to happen as soon as next week.