How to open a cafe in the middle of a pandemic (Part 2)

Ben Angel
3 min readApr 27, 2020

It’s Monday and we’re starting our second week at New Harmony Cafe doing delivery and take out!

The best part about opening has been the interactions with our community. People are excited to see the direction we’re going with the space and have loved the food! It’s also been a nice change to see a businesses windows open up instead of get boarded up. It’s made all the work worth it. It was a weird, but amazing validation to see our first Yelp reviews go up!

So … how did we open a cafe in the middle of a pandemic?

TLDR: Inform your decisions. Retool your menu and processes for delivery and take out. Move forward together.

Retool for take out and delivery.

Up to half of restaurants in San Francisco are estimated to not be able to survive the shutdown. The reality of opening during the shelter in place is that business is slow. Foot traffic is pretty low (a good thing since it means sheltering in place is ongoing), but it exists. Most of our walk-ins live within a few blocks of the cafe.

You’ll need more business than just walk-ins

Inform your decisions

This was the biggest hurdle for us to overcome. A little over a month ago, there was a huge gap in what we knew. What could do to keep ourselves, our community, and our customers healthy? There were so many unknowns we felt the safest thing we could do was stay closed.

A few helpful links:

How should restaurants clean in coronavirus cases?

COVID-19 Environmental Cleaning Recommendations For Non-Healthcare Businesses and Organizations Serving the Public

LA Social Distancing Protocol

Learn how to be comfortable being seen where you are least comfortable being vulnerable.

For me, this is the most important part of my own personal journey. Starting a business is a huge risk married to an equally large opportunity. In success or failure, there are always lessons you can take with you. This requires you to learn how to be honest about the impact of your actions. It requires you to reveal and address your flaws. The more you are able to look at something truthfully and without judgment, the better you’ll be equipped to make educated decisions.

Don’t mistake a freezer for a fridge just because it cools to the right temperature.

We’re on a tight budget so we looked to craigslist to purchase our equipment. We found a fridge from a restaurant owned by a really nice older lady. She sold it to us for $400 and wished us luck. It was a great price, but came with a lot of risk. We figured we’d spend $200–400 on repairs or maintenance and pulled the trigger.

Our resident handy woman and general manager Diana did the initial troubleshooting and repaired the broken fan. It was running smooth! This was one of our earliest wins and gave us such a rewarding feeling! And then it stopped working.

We brought repair technicians in and discovered, just 2 days before our rescheduled health inspection, that the fridge we bought was in fact not a fridge, but a slightly broken freezer.

Talk about an embarrassing moment! But it as a worthwhile lesson, despite the cost. You can take someone at their word while still putting in the research to understand exactly what you are buying.

Timing is everything.

This is the hardest lesson to live, because it’s so dependent on context. Sometimes delaying an action means you strike at a better time. Sometimes it means you’ll miss your mark. I’m learning that I am far from proficient in striking quickly when narrow windows present themselves!

Provide yourself the ability to adapt when things go wrong.

There’s always something unplanned that you won’t know to expect. Preparing for a pandemic was definitely not in our business plan. So much of success is built on looking ahead at what could happen and planning, but also giving yourself room to change on the fly.

So … how do you start a business in the middle of a pandemic?

First, you have to take the first step. Don’t get stuck in the situation today and keep moving forward. Take the lessons with you and leave the mistakes behind.

Much love and harmony!

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Ben Angel

If a tweet gets posted and no one is around to read it, is it still 140 characters or less?