Northborough coffee shops challenged yet united by COVID

Though+the+pandemic+has+made+it+difficult+for+coffee+shops+to+thrive%2C+some%2C+such+as+Lalajava%2C+have+grown+stronger+as+companies+through+community+support.+

Annabella Ferraiuolo

Though the pandemic has made it difficult for coffee shops to thrive, some, such as Lalajava, have grown stronger as companies through community support.

Yahya Ibrahimi, Staff Writer

COVID has challenged businesses to survive during a global pandemic that has threatened sales, revenue and their very livelihood, but in many ways local business owners have found these challenges have helped their community become stronger. 

Due to the pandemic, local restaurants and coffee shops have shut down or have had to reinvent themselves to work in a world with minimal to no physical contact or face-to-face interactions. Cafes are traditionally places for people to relax and socialize, but COVID restrictions have challenged the owners of Northborough coffee shops like Aero Coffee Roasters, Lalajava and Armeno Coffee Roasters to figure out this new normal.

Peter Femino, the owner of Aero Coffee Roasters, a new coffee shop on 318 Main Street, has had to face the difficulties of opening a business during the pandemic. Femino decided to open a new shop closer to his home before closing down a chain of his Boston Common Coffee Company shops. He says in his 23 years in the coffee business that he has never experienced anything like COVID that has affected his business in the same way.

If it wasn’t for the support of the community, then our doors might be closed now”

— Peter Femino

“It’s been a challenge,” Femino said. “There have been positives that I can take out and get; obviously the negatives are your sales aren’t what you expected. And a lot of my revenues were based a lot on wholesale and all of those numbers were down, and at the same time, opening a brand new shop and nobody knows who you are or what your product is.” 

Aurora Boyers, 22-year owner of Lalajava, a coffee shop at 290 W. Main Street, said she has gotten the chance to make some positive changes to her store that she hadn’t been able to do before the pandemic began, but at the same time she believes it has been a drastic change from the normal and there will be some negative effects to her business.

“In the beginning weeks [of being open with COVID restrictions], it was a big, big, big learning experience,” Boyers said.

According to Boyers, after working and interacting with people during these past few months, it has gotten easier for most of her employees.

“I think our employees seem to be getting through it really easy [now], even though I can see some of them are really stressed out,” Boyers said.

Despite many difficulties, employees are learning as they go along while gaining experience and new skills.

“The good thing about the pandemic is it teaches your staff how to clean and sanitize,” Femino said. “They are always cleaning tables and doors …  But now it’s something that’s mandatory and they know how to do it. So it becomes part of your routine.” 

This pandemic has been hard for many people, but Boyers said it has also been a chance for her employees to become a better team.

“I’ve been in business for 40 years, I have a crew that all work together; they all get along,” Boyers said. “There’s no kind of friction and it’s almost like it was more community added with this pandemic because we’re all in a mess.”

While the pandemic has physically separated people from each other, it has also unified the community. Despite some businesses in Northborough that remain closed, those open are happy they are still gifted with the fortune of providing to their community even through this time.

John Parks, owner of Armeno Coffee Roasters, a coffee roasting business at 75 Otis Street, says their business has shifted from larger quantities of wholesale to cafes and restaurants to a lot more retail and mail order in smaller quantities. 

“People seem to be very happy that we’re still in operation and we’re a lot more fortunate than some of the restaurants that would have had to lay people off, like some of the ones that closed,” Parks said.

Even though some businesses have shut down completely due to the difficulties of sustaining a business during a pandemic, others like Aero Coffee, Lalajava and Armeno Coffee remain open while also maintaining great reviews and high praise from their community.

“If it wasn’t for the support of the community, then our doors might be closed now,” Femino said. “But we opened up and the community has been really supporting me through social media and coming in on a regular basis and our numbers have been continuing to grow.” 

Armeno and Lajava have been in Northborough for many years and have a loyal customer base. With the difficulty of maintaining a successful business during a global pandemic, as a new business, Aero has had the added challenge of advertising and building a customer base. Social media has been a particularly effective tool for Aero to build support in Northborough. 

Boyers is thankful that social media and the internet have allowed the community to share their support for her business.

“We’ve actually had people stumble upon us in the past couple of weeks and saying they go to the websites that we have and are saying they fell in love with this new coffee, no more Starbucks for me,” Boyers said. “And then the whole thread online was so positive. And honestly, it made me emotional. I couldn’t believe what we had out there.”

Although Boyers and the other coffee shop owners miss the close interactions they had with regular customers, they are moved by the community support and how even brief conversations can make their hard work worthwhile.

“It’s just weird now that people will come in and they’ll ask, how are you and I don’t know who they are because they’re wearing glasses and their mask,” Boyers said. “It seems the friendliness has backed off a little, but yet has become more powerful. First, you don’t know who you’re talking to and you’re more careful, you’re wondering what their reaction is going to be. And then when you start talking in a conversation, it’s like you want to give them a hug.”