Uplifting New Yorkers, One Cup of Coffee at a TimeCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In the heart of the Theater District, a coffee shop brews good will. Published: December 07, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!
Before I get to this week’s interview, a quick ~ festive ~ aside ...
Holiday gifting season is in full swing, and depending on your shopping predilections, it’s either the most wonderful time of the year or the most stressful (or, perhaps a shambolic mashup of the two). If you need a little inspiration, consider patronizing the wonderful small businesses I’ve profiled since March 2020; to make it easy, I’ve curated some suggestions based on my wholly subjective opinion. Go forth and shop local!
- For the person who orders spritzes all year long: Faccia Brutto’s Aperitivo, the apéritif that ruins Aperol for anybody who tries it, sold at Leon and Son.
- For the candle enthusiast and/or stoner: An adorable match striker made by local ceramicist Carolina Spitzer, sold at Su’juk.
- For the bibliophile: A book from Cafe con Libros (Crying in H Mart is at the top of my list).
- For the person who can’t keep a plant alive to save their life: A snake plant, the houseplant my husband and I have somehow maintained through two moves and virtually nonexistent watering, from Natty Garden.
- For the person with a sock fetish: Statement socks made by local illustrator Keiko Nabila Yamazaki, sold at From Here to Sunday.
- For the vegan with cheese board FOMO: A variety box of vegan cheeses from Riverdel.
- For the person who’s always trying to get you to compost (God bless 'em): A compostable loofah with a zingy black soap body wash from Earth and Me.
- For more gifting ideas, peruse all my pandemic profiles here!
Back to the regular programming. This week’s conversation is with Faith Lee of Bird & Branch, a mission-driven coffee shop in the Theater District with exceptional baked goods (don’t sleep on the black sesame square). Along with her husband and co-founder, Brandon, Faith started the business out of a desire to give back to the community in a tangible, lasting way. For them, that meant creating a job training program to help people with barriers to employment acquire the skills and confidence they need to get on their feet. Keep reading for my conversation with Faith.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Faith (foreground) and Brandon (background) Lee, co-owners of Bird & Branch / Photography by Chris McClellan
When did you open Bird & Branch and what inspired the concept?
We opened Bird & Branch almost four years ago. [Before that,] my husband was in event marketing in the wine and spirits industry and I was an opera singer. We decided to open a shop because I had an idea about a job training program for people who have barriers to employment — mostly people who have been affected by homelessness, drug addiction, incarceration, and trafficking. We morphed into coffee after talking to a lot of people in the industry about transferable skills and also, as a business, what would work financially ... because we’re not a nonprofit, we don't get grants or donations, and we needed a sustainable business that could support the job training program.
Where did the idea for a job training program come from?
It came out of dissatisfaction with what I do for people around us. We live really close to Penn Station, so homelessness is in our face all the time, and it felt like anything we did was a loose band-aid on a big problem. I felt like what I did was mostly to make myself feel better rather than make a dent in the problem for anyone. Giving people some money on the street or helping out at a soup kitchen didn't really change anybody's situation. Then I had this idea that job training could bring people out of their situation. I think a lot of people need a second chance, a place to learn how to have a job and how to be a good employee.
How does the training program work in conjunction with the coffee shop?
Our coffee shop runs with a lot of what I call regular employees — people who have been in coffee or hospitality for a while — who manage operations, and then we have the training program in addition to that. We partner with a couple different organizations that [specialize in] job readiness to bring trainees to our shop. They provide support, because it's difficult to handle everything that people need. I only want to focus on job training; I don't have the capacity or the expertise to focus on housing or social work or counseling. If anything were to happen, or if I feel like a person needs a little extra something, I can reach out to the organization and be like, "Hey, can you follow up with this person? There's maybe something going on," which has been really helpful.
What did the shutdown look like for you and your staff?
It was crazy. It was extra crazy for us because I had a baby on March 3rd. When I reflect on COVID and the lockdown, one of the hardest things was that what needed to happen in the shop was constantly changing. We stayed open for a while and tried to figure out ways to keep our staff safe and pay them, but eventually, on March 25th, I think, we shut down the shop. Most of our staff were coming in from other boroughs, and we didn't know how comfortable or safe it was for them to be commuting anymore. Also, we felt like it was a good idea to not be open to the public anymore and to encourage people to stay home. We shut the shop down for two months, but during that time, we were concerned about paying our staff. We weren't going to be making any money from the shop, but a lot of our staff are paycheck to paycheck, so we wanted to make sure that they were taken care of. We started a campaign called Give COVID The Bird and asked our customers to purchase breakfasts and coffee, [which] we sent to hospitals around the city. We did that for the two months that we were closed and a little bit after that as well.
Who was preparing the breakfasts and coffee?
Not the entire staff, but a couple of them who lived closer or felt comfortable and wanted to work did come in for that. We also had some of our staff doing logistics from home to contribute to the campaign.
Were you able to pay everyone with the funds from that initiative?
Yes, we were able to pay our staff while we were closed, which was huge.
“The silver lining of COVID was we saw a lot of the best in people.”
That's amazing. A number of restaurants formed coalitions to provide hospital workers with meals; did you join forces with any of those groups?
Mostly, we were doing it ourselves. The nice thing about our setup was that we already had e-commerce, so it was pretty easy for us to pivot and allow people to go directly to our site to purchase breakfasts. The silver lining of COVID was we saw a lot of the best in people during that time. A company called Odeko that does delivery and supply management for coffee shops saw what we were doing and volunteered to do most of our deliveries. That was a huge thing for us, because while we could figure out a lot of the logistics in the food and coffee, delivery was one of our biggest headaches. My husband was planning to borrow somebody's car and make all the deliveries, but when they offered to do it for us, we gladly took their help. It was amazing to see other companies also wanting to contribute.
Who was donating the breakfasts?
A lot of them were regulars, but it also expanded outside of that; there were people who I had never met before who participated. It was really nice to see just how many people got on board.
When did you start returning to a semblance of normal operations?
We opened our shop back up on May 25th, exactly two months after we closed. At that point, it was still not very normal because there was no indoor dining. We roped off our shop and set up Plexiglass everywhere. We installed a pick-up window so that people would not have to come into the shop. We did that for quite some time; I don't remember exactly when we opened our doors to let people order at the normal register area … it was probably sometime in the fall of 2020. We kept capacity to 50 percent [until] people started getting vaccinated, then we opened up fully to vaccinated people.
How was your staff as you incrementally returned to service?
We lost a lot of our staff, I'd say about 50 percent, during COVID. A lot of it was for good reasons: the pandemic forced some of our staff to reevaluate what they were doing, so they went back to school or found full-time remote work. I'm very happy for them that they're doing what they want to be doing, but of course, it's hard for us [without them]. Over the last six months, as business is picking up, we need the staff back. We've been hiring and that has been more of a struggle than ever. Before the pandemic, we had very little turnover, so maybe we'd be training one person at a time, but we never had to train multiple people all at once. A lot of people who have been in the industry for a long time have left, and a lot of the new people who we are hiring have never had a job in the hospitality world and they don't really know what they're getting into. It's not glamorous work.
What’s happening with your job training program?
We had to take a pause on the training program during COVID, mostly because the organizations that we partnered with were not bringing people in themselves. We have not been able to start the training program yet because I'm understaffed in the shop, so it's hard to bring in a trainee — it's not smooth. The operations need to be steady in order for trainees to enter a stable environment. We're hoping that in the next couple weeks we will be stable and then we can start up the training program again.
How have you managed rent payments throughout this upheaval?
I am grateful for our landlord: they have been willing to have conversations about what is feasible for us and also what is feasible for them. It all has to make sense for everybody. I know other landlords have been quite rigid or not willing to make any adjustments.
How are you doing from a financial perspective?
We got the PPPs, and once they came in, the financial stress was not as much of a factor anymore. That was huge for us. Technically, we are fine financially, and we've been able to make adjustments in our operational costs to match the revenue we’re bringing in. We have cash flow, which is good.
How does the shop look or feel different today than it did before the pandemic?
Broadway opened about two months ago, and that made a marked difference in terms of revenue and traffic. It was a landmark for us: once Broadway opened, we were back. Operationally, we are pretty much the same as we were pre-pandemic. The week Broadway opened, we extended our hours back to our pre-pandemic hours. You can eat inside as long as you're vaccinated. The difference is mostly our customers. A lot of offices [in the neighborhood] closed or aren’t open all the time, and while we are seeing similar traffic to what we were before, it is a different clientele, which is not a bad thing. It's great, but it is different.
What's next in the coming weeks and months?
We are focused on staffing and training, hopefully getting our team in a stable place to start the job training program again. We've been talking to a real estate agent about opening a second shop, but that is definitely in its early stages. We're quite particular about the space … because our mission is job training, we want to make sure the second space allows for more training, not just more business. I wouldn't say that you would expect to see it in the next weeks or months, but it is on the table.
How to help:
- Visit the shop at 359 W 45th St, New York (open Mon 7 a.m. - 6 p.m., Tues through Fri 7 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., Sat 8 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., Sun: 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.)
- Pre-order pies, kouign-amann, and loaves for pick-up
- Shop coffee, baked goods, and merch online
- Follow on IG
Until next time,