Editor’s note: This story is from a series of articles written this fall by seniors in the journalism program at California State University, Sacramento. They are being taught by Phillip Reese, a Sacramento Bee staff reporter and an associate professor at CSUS. This is a renewed collaboration between the journalism program and the Citizen. For more information about the CSUS journalism program, visit facebook.com/sacstatejournalism.
Two Elk Grove businesses selling the same product - coffee – underwent different experiences during the pandemic, largely because of rules about how restaurants and coffee shops can do business.
Onit Coffee sells coffee from a mobile truck, and their business has grown. Rescate Coffee is a more traditional shop where people like to gather and spend time, often indoors. Their business has struggled, but is recovering.
Both places say community support has kept them going during the pandemic. But they have different stories to tell.
Rescate Coffee, located near Elk Grove Boulevard and Harbour Point Drive, had to temporarily shut down this spring, due to the virus outbreak. Oregon native Ladd Casillas – a co-owner of Rescate along with Anthony Casillas, of Elk Grove – said the shop closed down for about a month early on in the pandemic so they could better understand how to run the business safely.
“I think all of us, as small businesses, struggled with how to respond when the pandemic hit,” Casillas said. “Unlike the large companies, we didn’t have a large amount of money set aside for something like this, and insurance would not cover the business interruption, even though it was nothing we had control over.”
By this fall, Casillas said Rescate had still not fully recovered financially, but a bright spot in this situation is that a full staff has been able to be rehired.
“We worked closely with our staff to bring them back slowly and as the business needed,” Casillas said. “I am proud to say everyone is back on the schedule at this point but with much fewer hours than before COVID.”
Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, said in late September that approximately 900,000 of an estimated 1.4 million restaurant workers in the state have been furloughed or laid off.
“Retaining employees is one of the greatest challenges,” Condie said. “California restaurants before this crisis were first, the number one generator of sales tax in the state of California. [A] huge part of California’s economy.”
Although Rescate’s staff is back, Casillas said he’s not sure the business will ever get back to its pre-pandemic sales volume.
“The Elk Grove community really has stood by us though and are very important to our survival,” he said.
That sense of community has guided the owners of Rescate Coffee to engage in more partnerships with other small businesses in the area. Although the coffee shop has done pop-up collaborations outside of the store in the past, it formed partnerships with other small businesses to support each other as they try to survive, according to Casillas.
“‘Community’ has always been important to us. We are all in this pandemic together; however, we are potentially struggling in different ways,” Casillas said. “With that said, the power of community is what we have always pulled on in good times and bad.”
Onit Coffee, also based in Elk Grove, has gained the support of the community in spite of the pandemic. The coffee shop’s unique design has given it an advantage while other small businesses are struggling.
Shadi Khattab, owner and CEO of Onit Coffee, rolled out the Onit Coffee truck earlier this year just before the state-wide shutdown. It’s the first of its kind in the area, offering gourmet coffee out of a custom-built truck.
“We came up with the idea to launch the first mobile gourmet coffee truck in Sacramento,” Khattab said about how Onit Coffee got started. “The vision was, we would send out this coffee truck to large scale venues where there are 10,000 plus people; concerts, marathons, charity events, and really get the name of Onit Coffee out there until our kiosk location opens up.”
The COVID-19 outbreak forced Khattab to reconsider the truck’s role within the company.
“Once all events were shut down, I lost all opportunities,” Khattab said. “As a business owner, I had to make a tough decision: Do I shut down my truck and wait things out until my kiosk opens up and construction starts and whatnot, or do I continue to push forward and find a way to learn and adapt?”
The Onit Coffee truck is now parked in front of his family’s cosmetic surgery center near Laguna and Big Horn boulevards, allowing him to serve food and drinks seven days a week without the hassle of a permanent structure. While other businesses drowned in monthly rent dues, Khattab was able to focus on fine-tuning his new business model.
“Within two months of consistently parking at Precision and turning it into a location, we became ranked number three on Yelp for coffee in Elk Grove with 135 reviews,” Khattab said in September. “We went from four employees to 13 on the truck.”
Khattab said that he has since received investment offers for franchise locations, but turned them down.
He said he wants “to maintain the quality, the vision, and reward my managers and employees that rise up through the rankings within the company so that one day they can own their own franchise location.”
In late September, Sacramento County moved down a level from the state’s most restrictive coronavirus reopening Purple Tier 1 to the Red Tier 2, which means restaurants, including places like Rescate Coffee, can allow indoor seating. Only 25% capacity or 100 customers, whichever is fewer, will be allowed to dine-in at restaurants.
However, with an unpredictable pandemic and the ever-changing restrictions that come along with it, Rescate Coffee will still limit their customers to only to-go or outdoor dining options for the time being.
“While we could [allow customers to sit indoors], we are waiting until the county hits 50% capacity so we aren’t jumping back and forth on if we can or cannot have customers sitting inside,” Casillas said. “Also, since the weather is still holding up, it makes sense just to keep it outside at this time and hopefully the county will have less restrictions when we do get more adverse weather.”
On Nov. 10, the state placed Sacramento County into the most restrictive Purple Tier 1 status, due to a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Restaurants in the county are not allowed to serve customers indoors until Sacramento County returns to the less restrictive Red Tier 2 status.