Cafes as Workspaces during the Not Quite Post-COVID Time

Working from home all the time is not enjoyable, I need to get out of my home office and type in a different environment.

I am not alone.

Today, every table at Hamilton's downtown coffee shops was taken by someone working on a laptop. One person, taking up a table of four, even brought their own second monitor to a cafe.

I managed to find a seat at a cafe on the eastern edges of the downtown, ordered my usual there, and sat down to write on my tablet.

It is a beautiful change to see the cafes all busy.

I write this from the viewpoint of someone who lives downtown and remembers the how deserted the downtown was during the height of COVID.

Naturally, me being me, I was observing my surrounding and trying to get a sense of who is working at these laptops, why, what it means for the revenue of these cafes, if it is impacting the "regulars" who frequent these places, and how long the present trend may hold.  

On the who, many appear to be McMaster students, both from their clothing on also from the colour and layout of what appeared to be course websites on their screens.

Chatting with small business owners downtown recently, there is a noticable increase in the number of students during the past few weeks. This is not surprising, there are a growing number of in-person activities resuming and the physical resources of the libraries are available again.

[A few weeks ago I enjoyed my first post-COVID on-campus dinner at the University of Toronto and it was very enjoyable to sit at a table of 16 people conversing.]

The Salvation Army thrift store was busy this afternoon, with many people in thier early 20s among the shoppers.

Returning to the cafes.

Demand for workspace in cafes is pushing students further out of the core. Durand Coffee is now busy during weekday business hours with young people using laptops.

Ditto for Cafe Oranje where I ended up this afternoon.

Why is answered by the simple fact we people need the stimulation of being in different spaces. The public library continues to have limited seating, and for McMaster students space on campus is limited as well. Additionally, many of them have no in-person classes - why travel to a campus when you have no reason to be there?

What does it mean for revenue? Each cafe owner I've spoken to speaks positively about having customers again. One states their weekend revenue has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Weekday revenues are still below pre-COVID, obviously. Until workers return to offices, the profitable morning to-go coffee sales are going to be missing. The profitable lunch business has yet to fully return, but I am noticing increase lunch sales.

The sit-in coffee and snack crowd (the demographic I am part of) help cover the overhead so long as they do not overstay their welcome and do not cause customers to go elsewhere due to a lack of open tables.

[Cafes are an interesting business, they cannot be too empty either as some people will walk past an empty cafe.]

The "regulars" do not seem to mind. As I was sitting for about 25 minutes having my tea and snack, three "regulars" came into the cafe and had to order take-out due to a lack of open seats.

Of note, two specifically stated how pleased their were to see the cafe busy again and at capacity. I've heard the same at Durand Coffee and Relay Coffee in recent weeks. I think everyone understands the urge to be out of the house, even if it is staring into a screen just the same but in a different location.

So, is this a new normal or just a short-term trend.

I submit it is a short-term trend. McMaster is resuming many in-person classes in January. Students will need to travel to campus, and will remain in West Hamilton during the day as a result. [No point travelling 30 minutes to downtown only to travel back to campus shortly thereafter]

Campus life will resume more quickly than I believe people assume. My own observations at the University of Toronto is many things are back to pre-COVID with masks being the only difference.

The students are being exposed to more of Hamilton, this is an opportunity for downtown cafes to experiment with evening hours and incentives to draw back students as their seek places for group study this evening.

Government offices are slowly planning a partial return in January. This will bring back the daytime lunch crowd, and daytime coffee meetings.

Interestingly, I am not seeing many students or people in their young 20s passing by my usual spot in the Farmers Market. I have thoughts about why that may be, which sounds like a good blog post to write while drinking coffee at Lina's in the coming days.