Amid Remote Work Trend, Coffee Shops Struggle to Lure Customers Back



Office buildings on West 42nd Street near Bryant Park. Photo by Elena Luwa Yin

Barista Arslan Juma waited for rents to drop before he opened ARVACI Coffee in Midtown last November. But his business had a slow start because of the pandemic, said Juma, who found himself sitting all day inside his shop watching TV, because there were hardly any customers. 

He decided his coffee shop needed to operate seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. “I can’t close whenever I want,” said Juma, adding that foot traffic has picked up but is still slow.

It’s been more than a year since New York City lifted the COVID-19 restrictions for businesses, but new data shows that employees are in no rush to return to in-person settings. And the rise of hybrid and remote work has put a strain on small businesses. Now Midtown coffee shops that count on local office employees as customers are trying to cope with the new trend.

According to a survey by The Partnership for New York City, a non-profit that advocates for the private sector, only 9% of Manhattan employees have returned to the office five days a week, and 77% of workers want to continue with a hybrid model.

Juma said he thinks coffee shops in residential neighborhoods have an easier time than Midtown shops like his that are surrounded by office buildings with remote employees.

Zibetto Espresso Bar is located at the entrance of 1221 Avenue of the Americas, a skyscraper near Rockefeller Center.

The espresso bar had to close during the shutdown in March 2020, reopening that June. “We literally had five customers,” said Costanza Stallone, the bar’s supervisor. “Five customers from 8 to 5 p.m.”

Stallone has seen an increase in customers since last year, most notably when Zibetto broke a record selling about 700 cups of coffee one day in 2021. Yet, the day-to-day number “is not crazy” compared to pre-pandemic levels, she said, adding that Tuesdays to Thursdays are busier when office employees come in a few days a week.

“A lot of businesses cater to people that go into their workplace,” said Matthew Nagler, an economics professor at City College of New York

But some businesses might not reopen at all, because people have a different working model right now, said Nagler, who explained that the way people spend money changed during the early stages of the pandemic when businesses shut down for safety precautions. “People just don’t want to take a risk,” he said. “A part of it is just governed by the habit.”

According to a report published by the National Coffee Association, in 2021, the number of people who had coffee at their workplace went down by 55%, and 33% fewer people bought coffee at cafes and coffee shops.

Faith Lee is the owner of Bird & Branch, a specialty coffee shop in the Theater District. “We are not seeing as many people five days a week,” said Lee, who had to close her shop for three months during the shutdown.

To keep her business going in 2020 and last year, Lee set up a pick-up window for web orders and sold coffee, baked goods and apparel through her online store. It was the biggest operational change she made, said Lee.

She also launched the “Give COVID the Bird” fundraiser during the shutdown, where she and her team delivered about 3,000 breakfasts and care packages — all purchased by online customers — to more than 50 hospitals in New York. Much of the revenue during the shutdown came from the fundraiser, said Lee. “As small businesses, we are corporate and retail at the same time.”

Many shops and small companies have created business models that are based on lower foot traffic inside the store, said Nagler. 

“They just really tried to think creatively about what is sustainable now,” he said.