We turned into a walk-up window cafe

When the Bay Area ordered an area-wide ‘shelter in place,’ we’ve stayed open as a designated ‘essential business’ serving takeaway only. But we needed to make sure our baristas stayed healthy and our business stayed open so we had to make some changes. Here’s some of what we did.

Open double-doors reveals a white counter and glass partition as a person is served coffee from a barista.
Our just-installed walk-up window at our Shattuck Avenue Berkeley cafe.

With the Coronavirus COVID-19 crisis on top of us, we at have been trying our best to keep our two cafes open and serving the public while both adhering to local ordinances and trying to keep our baristas safe which in turn keeps our customers safe. I’ve been getting a lot of messages asking for information and tips about what we did and how and why. I’m more than happy to share my thought process and such.

So much of what’s frightening out here about this virus is that we don’t really know very much. Even the scientists and doctors and government officials don’t seem to know what to tell us much of the time. But we do know that coronaviruses are like the ‘common cold,’ and therefore developing best practices is about identifying weaknesses in our systems and addressing them.

The biggest threat, if you can call it that, that we need to address is that we cannot let our baristas get sick with COVID-19. If one of them gets sick, we would likely need to close the cafe. A sick barista becomes a nexus for infecting others, as we see hundreds of customers per day. While we ultimately want to keep our customers and community healthy, the best way for us to do that is to prioritize the health of our cafe staff by making preventing their illness the number one priority.

So I looked at our cafe environment and identified four vectors (arrows) that point in the direction of contact and potential infection:
1) barista to customer
2) barista to barista
3) customer to barista
4) customer to customer

Barista to customer (B2C) is the thing we’re trying to prevent, because it’s close to impossible for us to make drinks safely if any of the baristas are sick. We don’t have enough masks to distribute to baristas so they can wear them on shift, so the only real preventative measure is for the baristas to not get sick. That said, baristas are employing measures to address some aspects of this vector.

Barista to barista (B2B) is another vector, but the solution there is the same: baristas can’t get sick in the first place. It’s impossible to work in the cafe without some close contact, though like barista-to-customer, they are minimizing unnecessary contact and proximity as much as possible.

Customer to barista (C2B) is the primary focus of my efforts in setting up our systems. Again, because we see hundreds of customers a day, and it only takes one infected person to pass it on to one of our baristas, I set things up so that nothing that a customer touches comes into the cafe unless it is itself quarantined. More on this later.

Customer to customer (C2C). We want to minimize this as well, but there’s only so much we can control here, especially if we’re truly prioritizing our baristas’ health. For instance, we could wipe down all customer-facing surfaces after every transaction, but this would expose our baristas to additional risks in the process. But we were able to design our system so that customers can order their coffees and interact with us without having to touch anything directly that doesn’t belong to them.

A young woman behind a cash register is holding up a cup for a woman to see.
Annie helping a customer back before we’d ever heard of COVID-19

Here’s , our Union St SF cafe manager and someone who I love very much as we’ve known her since she was 6 or 7 years old. Looking at this image, aside from marveling at how much she resembles her parents (who we also love ), we can see many points of contact that need addressing. I’ll call points of contact “touchies” from now on for brevity (POC makes sense but I’m not gonna do that).

Any cash that this customer hands Annie is a C2B touchie. If Annie hands something to this customer and there’s hand-to-hand contact, that’s a touchie. Those are fairly tangible, but there are also invisible touchies. A cough, spitting-while-talking (which happens MUCH more often than people want to believe), and even aerosol from the customer’s mouth as she’s talking, are all C2B threats. In fact, an important threat to identify is the entire area that could be sprayed by customers from their mouths and noses. Gross, but important to consider.

The touchscreen of the point-of-sale there is a C2C touchie. The countertop itself is a touchie in every direction, especially C2C and C2B, as the barista may occasionally touch parts that are in the direct spray-pattern area of the customer’s mouth. I mean, the barista-side of the Square register is in that zone in this photo. The tip jar with all the cash is an obvious touchie. They’ve been saying that the virus can survive on cardboard and paper for a shockingly long amount of time.

I could post a similar photo of our original condiment bar and other parts of the cafe, but let’s skip all of that. The condiment bar is a big C2C and C2B problem, as it was self-serve and anyone could’ve done anything on any of it. Lids, straws, napkins, it’s all a risk under the circumstances. We didn’t have condiment milks out on the counter, instead we had small 6 oz. glass bottles that we’d hand the customers from a refrigerator and they’d dispense what they liked. This too is obviously a big problem. So much touchie-ing!

I’ll also skip what we did before we set up our window cafe. We took some intermediary steps, but ultimately everything was in anticipation of a full-service walk-up window cafe.

What we did.

The front of the cafe with a wire-shelf cart and a large white board on top with pastry, the point of sale, etc. on top.
The front of the cafe with a wire-shelf cart and a large white board on top with pastry, the point of sale, etc. on top.
Our Union Street SF walk-up window cafe

So I had two main objectives: eliminate C2B touchies and reduce C2C threats.

The service bar — this is a 48"x24" wire-shelf cart that we had at our roastery that I cut the uprights down from 72" to a 36" total height with the wheels. In this application, because the front door is the only practical way in or out, we had to set up something that could be rolled to the side at the end of the day. The white countertop is actually an 80"x24" door slab that was $39 from Home Depot. It’s not the ideal countertop, but it’ll suffice for now. If we have to upgrade to something more wipeable, I can paint it with high-gloss paint or find a different material altogether. This was a quick fix solution.

The glass slab you see under the pastry was actually just the shelf from the pastry case we already had. We just put one of each pastry on display and go grab orders from the sheet pans you can see in the background. If it looks like we’ll be doing this for a while, I might go invest in a rack for the sheet pans.

a hand is shown, half of it behind what looks like a pane of glass.
a hand is shown, half of it behind what looks like a pane of glass.

The tricky part was the sneeze guard. We know that they’re recommending 6-feet as the proper ‘social distancing’ distance, but that would be impossible to do and conduct business. The sneeze guard allows us to provide cafe service while reducing the effective distance we need to stay apart.

The two main types of material we’d commonly call “plexiglass” are acrylic and polycarbonate. Acrylic is cheaper, but it will shatter if it’s stressed the wrong way. Polycarbonate is more durable and you can drill holes in it, but it’s more expensive. Both are available at Home Depot in various size sheets.

For our Union St SF cafe (photos above), I was able to get a custom sheet of 1/8-inch thick polycarbonate from a plastics fabricator (which had to close the next day due to the shelter-in-place directive), drill two holes in it, and get S-hooks from Home Depot to hang it from above the 36-inch wide doorway (I drilled two holes into the metal door frame). A piece of velcro on one edge holds it in place so it doesn’t swing with the wind. I left about 10-inches of vertical space for pass-through.

For our Shattuck Avenue Berkeley cafe (left), the doorways are 70-inches wide, and as there are three double-doors in the front, we were able to make something more semi-permanent. The tabletop is the same Home Depot door, but this time I got two acrylic 36"x48" 3/32"-thick sheets. Knowing I couldn’t drill into it without risking it shattering, I bought four pieces of door frame moulding that I used to make a frame. I took two moulding pieces, put them together, drilled four holes in them, and inserted machine screws and nuts to basically clamp the acrylic sheets in between, and did it for the top as well. Then I screwed the frames into the back of the wooden door frames to mount them. I also got a piece of FRP (Fibre-reinforced plastic), which is typically used for the walls of commercial kitchens and bathrooms, cut it to size and screwed it into the outside of the door-tabletop. It’s not pictured, but we were able to move the glass pastry case onto a side-counter so it’d be visible from outside.

A stack of papers next to a cash register. There is a sign that reads “wrap finger in a wax paper to use touchscreen.”
A stack of papers next to a cash register. There is a sign that reads “wrap finger in a wax paper to use touchscreen.”
The ‘finger condoms.’

I’ve gotten a ton of questions about these wax paper things. The issue is C2C, and I found that wax paper will work as a barrier on capacitive touch screens (regular paper won’t work). I had planned to buy pastry grab papers, but they are two-ply and I found that (wax paper for stacking burger patties) was single-ply and therefore less wasteful. Customers are able to grab one sheet from the top (without touching the others or anything else), wrap their finger in it, and then use their fingertip to operate the touchscreen. They really love the novelty of it and daily express appreciation for this innovation.

What else did we do?

  • No more self-service anything. Baristas hand the customers (being careful not to touch hands) lids, stir sticks, straws, and will dispense condiment milk to the customer’s desired amount (just say when!).
  • If we are taking cash or touching cash (for countout, etc.), baristas are wearing . Nitrile was the best for lack of allergens (some have latex allergies or sensitivities) and no powder. Because the tip jar is in the window, if a customer tips cash, the baristas will move the cash into another container next to the cash drawer so it’s not sitting out attracting unwanted attention.
  • No personal cups. This was the first measure that most cafes took. Some customers don’t wash their cups when they bring them to us, so the only way to be safe regarding them was to stop accepting them.
  • Our Square register at our Berkeley cafe is the older , and the touchscreen flips around for signatures and tipping. To minimize contact there, we got touchscreen styluses for the baristas to use so they don’t have to touch the screen.
  • We restricted access to our bathrooms. Though bathroom access is important to keep open, it was deemed too much of a risk for our baristas to have to share a bathroom with customers, as well as have to clean up after customers there.
  • We developed stringent cleaning protocols for our various customer-facing surfaces.

As you can tell, I could probably write a whole lot more about this subject, but I think this is enough to help anyone who’s looking for a similar solution to be able to put together a similar setup. I guess I have to mention that this setup isn’t necessarily going to pass local regulations. We’re being hyper-vigilant about sanitation and safety, so I’m not expecting that the health inspector is gonna have much to say about this right now and if they did, we’d raise a big stink with local media and local government before we modified our setup into something less effective but still protective.

Feel free to reach out with questions, preferably public, via Twitter. Best of luck to everyone, and best wishes to you and your communities.

co-founder & co-CEO of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, San Francisco • proud immigrant from Korea • he/him • @nickcho on Twitter

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