Alisa Morkides sits alone at a table in her flagship Brew HaHa store in Greenville surrounded by dozens of empty velvet-covered chairs and weathered dining tables, wondering when all of her longtime customers will ever be able to return.
We conducted our interview with me sitting at a table across the room.
“It’s been pretty devastating. It all happened so very suddenly,” said Morkides on a sunny day this week when we agreed to meet to talk at a safe distance.
Treading in unchartered waters, Morkides says the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on her business, which typically treats thousands of thirsty and hungry customers each week at her nine store locations.
The entire situation has Morkides concerned and saddened – about the impact on her 140 employees and the countless loyal customers who consider her coffee shops a comforting extension of their home.
“I can’t tell you how sad it makes me feel. My sole purpose of starting Brew HaHa was to be a community center. The coffee is the glue that binds it all together, but it is not the driving force of what makes Brew HaHa Brew HaHa. It’s the people who come and enjoy that experience,” she said.
It has been a tumultuous five weeks for Delaware’s trailblazing coffee guru, who learned with other business owners on March 15th that bars and restaurants would have to close for dine-in business. Her first reaction was to try to hang onto the take-out business. That unraveled within 48 hours.
“At first we said ‘okay, we’re going to give that a shot.’ And two days later, on March 17th we closed because we just felt the pressure. We felt if we didn’t close, people’s health and lives would be at risk. This whole thing is just this combination of a health crisis and obviously an economic crisis, but the health comes first,” said Morkides.
Morkides then spent two weeks developing takeout protocols to limit customer interaction.
Morkides then opted to reignite her take-out business starting with one of her smallest stores – the Delaware Avenue location downtown – where she offers limited hours (8 am to 1 pm Mon – Fri), a full range of coffee drinks and a select menu.
Strategy at Greenville: keep staff to one shift
After ironing out processes there, on April 6th she re-opened the Greenville location under limited hours for lunch and dinner takeout options. Her strategy was to have employees work just one shift. She says that “if we opened for another shift, we would operate at a double loss.”
But Greenville customers are missing their morning coffee and breakfast options, so Morkides is making the adjustment.
Starting Monday, April 20, the Greenville Brew HaHa will be open new hours: 9 am to 4 pm daily – still of course, only for takeout.
Pike Creek BHH will reopen on Monday, April 20
And on that same day, Brew HaHa plans to reopen its Pike Creek store at the Shops of Limestone Hills running with hours from 8 am to 1 pm Monday through Sunday.
Customers may order and pay through the brewhaha.com website and pick up their order in the cafes, where a table with customer orders will be set up a safe distance from the staff for pick up.
When asked if remaining open in such a limited way was a losing financial proposition, Morkides says, “that would be an understatement.”
Morkides says her Delaware Avenue store is generating about 30% of its normal revenue, and the Greenville store, which re-opened more recently, is at about 20% of capacity. That’s tough when her business – and every restaurant like hers – makes about five cents on the dollar.
Without federal emergency payouts, Morkides says Brew HaHa would be losing $100,000 to $150,000 per month.
“We could not survive without federal assistance”
“We could not survive right now without some government assistance – no one can. No one has a war chest that big. It would take a million dollars just to even stay open for takeout because you need people to manage the stores, you have to pay your full rent and utilities, you have legal fees, and I have an accountant and lawyers, and you’re still operating at 20 to 30% of whatever,” she said.
Morkides typically employs 140 employees to run her nine Brew Ha Ha locations in Delaware. She furloughed 100 of them, leaving 30 between the Greenville and Delaware Avenue coffee shops and 10 who are “busier than ever” in her administrative offices.
Morkides is proud that with strong and continued support from the community and careful financial planning, she has been able to make payroll for all of her employees until this latest cycle.
Brew HaHa! COVID Relief Fund on Venmo
Like other restaurants, Brew HaHa set up a COVID relief fund for its employees on Venmo — @brewcrew2020. Morkides has matched the $2,000 in donations that have come in so far.
The coffee shop founder says a big part of her day now is spent helping her staff navigate unemployment and filing for the federal small business grants.
If turning the lights on and managing the greatly diminished customer base doesn’t sound like a wise decision, Morkides said the decision to re-open some stores was the only avenue that made sense.
“We’re not going to make money being open for take-out. No one is. But what we can be is still out there serving the community in a safe way. And we felt like we would be out of business if we just decided to just close our doors and not be open again.
“That was the concern. We want to reopen all of our stores with the whole menu, but it’s not safe to do that now. But at least we can do it in a way that keeps us out there and keeps our people employed, who want to be employed,” she said.
Morkides is aware that her Trolley Square cafe, which remains open for the roasting crew, is also is ideally located for homebound customers who can walk there. She would like to see that location reopen soon but is unable to commit to a date just yet as she is working to strike a balance between staff safety and customer interaction.
Now with Governor John Carney outlining what must be in place for a phased “reopening” of the state’s economy, Morkides realizes that the future could require significant changes to the way Brew HaHa has operated.
That could include having more space inside her shops to ensure safe social distancing, a change Morkides says she is happy to make.
When asked if she has considered eliminating half of the dining tables from each of her locations, Morkides said, “I don’t actually think that would be such a terrible thing. We do have outdoor seating in some of our places. So six months out of the year, you can do that.”
Without adequate testing for COVID-19, Morkides and all small business owners know that they can’t move forward with solid plans for re-opening. But she is beginning to accept the situation as she looks to the future.
“I think just all up and down the chain, with our relationships with our landlords, our vendors, everything is going to have to be reset. They say this is a ‘lost and reset year.’ We’re going to have to reset how the economics of this business works and how community centers can survive, which is such an important part of who we are as human beings.”