When a global pandemic locks you out of your routine, how do you hold on to that sense of community? And if you're in business—how do you keep caring for your customers in a way that feels meaningful?
Coffee companies around the world are figuring it out under difficult conditions. In New York City, one success story is Café Integral. While their NYC flagship remains open for takeaway only (two locations inside the Freehand Hotel in Chicago and LA are still paused), owner César Vega and Integral right-hand woman (and Vega's life partner) Louisiane Remy found themselves looking for a way to continue to offer a personal-feeling experience to a broader sphere.
Joining the ranks of coffee businesses that COVID-19 has forced to “pivot,” the roaster's “Integral En Casa” delivery program goes a step beyond the coffee-to-go models, offering personal bike or vehicle delivery across New York City of a selection of items that all feel homespun. From fresh-roasted Nicaraguan coffee (the origin is Integral's specialty) and cold brew concentrate, to breads, granola, ginger shots—even black seed soap—it's a delivery mode that feels more like hospitality than eCommerce.
The goods come not just from the cafe, but from Integral's neighbors in the Pfizer Building, a converted pharmaceutical factory in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn that today operates as a production site for numerous food artisans and related makers—like Good Stock soups and Gye Nyame black seed products.
Remy says the shop's home delivery menu was built out of a desire to strengthen community within the food world, as well as to continue the bond with Integral customers who may no longer pass through SoHo.
“We started by offering anything that we could make in-house like our coconut milk, our almond milk, our cold brew,” says Remy. “For the rest we really wanted to work with people or with products that we either already carried or products that we really believed in—we wanted it to make sense with what we offered as a company and not just all of a sudden offer random things that would just sell,” she says. “Products that were special enough that people couldn't necessarily get them going to a grocery store.”
Vega and Remy typically do the delivery route together, even when—okay, once—it means bicycling an order all the way from Brooklyn to the distant, dosa-lined streets of Jackson Heights, Queens.
“It's a way to keep healthy habits and also bring a taste of what we can't usually get out of the shop to the people,” says Vega. “We're not the business we were five months ago.”
Like all cafe owners, Vega is continually weighing the many new and ever-changing factors of small business in late-2020 America.
“It's been tough, but we've actually been relatively lucky, and I'm grateful that the landlords have been—I'll use the word ‘patient',” says Vega. Though he says the business hasn't let anyone go, operating safely with to-stay service still feels far off—and even the cost of running the dishwasher is too high at this point. He notes that summers are usually slower anyway—many people who live in that part of Manhattan are able to escape for extended holidays—but that this year, there aren't tourists, either. “There are just fewer people around,” he says, “so now we're experiencing summer effect minus tourism.”
Remy adds, “Everything kind of feels like you're starting out again, which I think is something that has been echoed from a lot of friends and people who own businesses and restaurants. Everything feels like you're at the beginning again. But with that, every little [success] feels like a huge win, so that's been good.”
For the couple, keeping in touch with regulars through their delivery program has provided one of those huge wins.
“The [delivery] customers tend to be people who know what we do and why we do it and tend to be very thankful,” says Vega, who has found the experience a bright spot in the evolution of Café Integral.
“I think as you grow as a company. you tend to serve less to people who really know what you're doing and more to people who just consume. We feel right now we're serving and bringing what we do to people who really get it. It's really satisfying.”
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network and is based in New York City. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.
Images by Liz Clayton and Café Integral.