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For St. Petersburg’s Bandit Coffee Co., business as usual wasn’t an option

The cafe’s owners decided to stay closed to walk-in business and made it work.
Since last March, St. Petersburg's Bandit Coffee Co. has stayed closed to walk-in traffic. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the owners of the popular cafe decided to reinvent their business model, pivoting instead to an online ordering system with contactless payment and pickup.
Since last March, St. Petersburg's Bandit Coffee Co. has stayed closed to walk-in traffic. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the owners of the popular cafe decided to reinvent their business model, pivoting instead to an online ordering system with contactless payment and pickup. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jan. 25

On a sunny January morning in St. Petersburg, the sidewalk outside Bandit Coffee Co. is buzzing with energy.

A steady stream of customers queues up in front of a walkup window on Central Avenue, where a woman takes orders through a plexiglass partition. The line creeps up over the sidewalk and into the parking lot, but nobody looks particularly concerned about the wait.

Friends stop to say hi. Dogs sniff each other out while their owners catch up over lattes. Five tables hold laminated cards to announce pickups.

It looks like business as usual at the popular cafe. Except that it isn’t.

Bandit, unlike most bars, restaurants and coffee shops in the Tampa Bay area, has stayed completely closed to walk-in business. And somehow, it works.

Learning to pivot

When Sarah and Joshua Weaver first opened their cafe in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District in 2016, they imagined a business that would act as a hub for the community — a collective space to foster friendships, meetups, business endeavors and activism.

At the time, they had $500 in the bank. The first few years were rough, financially, but their business grew steadily — enough to sustain itself and a growing staff.

Last February, the Weavers felt like things were finally starting to come together. They saw their biggest month in sales and, for the first time ever, began turning a profit. They decided to shift gears and open an all-day cafe with a more robust food program. They hired additional employees and took out a loan to build out their kitchen.

“We were in absolute growth mode,” Sarah Weaver recalled.

Then, in March, their plans came to an abrupt halt when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

Bandit Coffee Co. owners Joshua and Sarah Weaver of St. Petersburg pose outside of their business on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.
Bandit Coffee Co. owners Joshua and Sarah Weaver of St. Petersburg pose outside of their business on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

For the Weavers, those first few weeks were a blur of research and strategizing. They looked to coffee shops with similar business models in New York, Portland and Los Angeles and took proactive steps, limiting their indoor capacity to 50 percent and setting up sanitizing stations. But the writing was on the wall: Places were shutting down across the country, and they figured Florida would likely be next. They were right.

As a place that serves both food and coffee drinks, the couple knew their business occupied a complicated gray area. They were neither a restaurant nor a bar, but their business hinged on high-volume customer interactions. On any given Saturday, they saw upwards of 400 transactions with different people. Tourists from New York and Brazil. Neighbors who loved to stay for hours, chatting intimately with friends. Their cafe was perpetually packed, and it felt like they were playing with fire.

“We already were known as being a buzzy, crowded loud space, which is usually something that is exciting and draws people and has a great energy,” Sarah Weaver said. “In a looming pandemic, that becomes your worst nightmare.”

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On March 16, four days before Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the statewide shutdown of all restaurants, the Weavers sat down with their team to discuss their options. Collectively, they floated the idea of what closing down walk-in business would look like. They knew they would be bringing in a lot less money and unable to sustain the same level of payroll. A few of the employees offered to take time off. Others agreed to have their hours curbed. They decided to close the cafe.

Community to the rescue

Since that last day in March where customers were allowed inside the cafe, the Weavers have experimented with countless different business models.

“We realized two or three months in, there’s not going to be another normal,” Joshua Weaver said. “We had to continue to pivot to whatever we were able to safely operate (with), and it keeps changing month to month.”

Bandit has operated as a community grocery store; a weekly burger popup; a natural wine depot with a corresponding monthly wine membership; and an online marketplace where the staff’s side hustles — from floral arrangements to ceramics to homemade pimento cheese — were offered for sale. Throughout, the couple say their strong community base is what’s helped both the business and their staff carry on.

“If we had done this a year or two year earlier, to be honest I don’t think we would have fared nearly as well,” Joshua Weaver said.

Customers at Bandit Coffee Co. in St. Petersburg place their orders online or at a walkup window and pick up their orders under an open tent.
Customers at Bandit Coffee Co. in St. Petersburg place their orders online or at a walkup window and pick up their orders under an open tent. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Nowhere has the community support been felt as strongly as with the tip jar. After a staff support option was added to their online portal, the donations started pouring in. Someone gave $500, but the majority of the contributions came in $3 and $5 increments. In total, the cafe raised $6,800 from tips alone in 2020. Sales from a collection of T-shirts designed by their friend and local designer David Gonzalez raised $4,100, all of which was donated directly to the staff.

The business has also benefited from several rounds of loans, which the Weavers say helped them stay afloat. They initially received two rounds of $2,500 loans from the Pinellas CARES Financial Assistance Program and another $2,500 from the City of St. Petersburg. They also received roughly $22,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed them to add hours and pay their staff for three of the slowest months, even though they were hardly bringing in any business at the time.

“It really did help,” Joshua Weaver said. “Did it save everything? No. But even if we have a really crappy week we can still keep the hours and the pay the same.”

Bandit Coffee Co. customers Jonathan Garcia, 31, left, and Filipe Bergson, 26, right, both of St. Petersburg, share conversation outside of the business in a seating area along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg on Jan. 11. Bandit's owners have added additional outside seating while their cafe stays closed to walk-in customers.
Bandit Coffee Co. customers Jonathan Garcia, 31, left, and Filipe Bergson, 26, right, both of St. Petersburg, share conversation outside of the business in a seating area along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg on Jan. 11. Bandit's owners have added additional outside seating while their cafe stays closed to walk-in customers. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Navigating COVID-19

One of the couple’s biggest frustrations has been the lack of leadership and guidance at the state level when it comes to curbing the coronavirus. They realized early on that to stay ahead of the curve while keeping their staff healthy, they would have to learn minute by minute what the virus was doing.

“I would sit on my phone for two hours every night, for better or worse, looking up what the latest data and studies were,” Sarah Weaver recalled. “It felt incredibly frustrating as a humble small-business owner to take a look at that and make decisions but not see our own state leadership take a look at what was happening and make decisions based on that same data. We created a COVID-19 contingency plan — and it felt really just frustrating to see that state leadership couldn’t take that same level of discipline.”

The cafe has had two employees test positive for COVID-19. In both cases, the owners closed the cafe temporarily while the entire staff was tested before reopening.

The couple know several people who have lost loved ones to the virus. Right after Thanksgiving, eight of Sarah Weaver’s family members in Ohio tested positive and her 95-year-old cousin died from COVID-19. When Joshua Weaver’s grandmother died from a stroke, he couldn’t be with her in the hospital to say goodbye.

Baristas Montgomery Russell of Tampa, left, and Allison Nash of St. Petersburg prepare coffee drinks at Bandit Coffee Co. Laminated cards with customers' names are used for pickup outside.
Baristas Montgomery Russell of Tampa, left, and Allison Nash of St. Petersburg prepare coffee drinks at Bandit Coffee Co. Laminated cards with customers' names are used for pickup outside. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Looking forward

Since July 5, the cafe has been operating with an online ordering portal as well as a walkup order window. There’s a sign in front asking for masks, but even if someone walks up to order without wearing one (and about 20 percent do), the distanced setup and a plexiglass window shielding them still makes the Weavers feel like they can keep both their customers and staff safe.

Business is still not anywhere close to what it was before the pandemic: Those 400 customer interactions on a busy weekend are now closer to 250 or 300. It can feel upsetting to see other businesses packed with customers with little respect for social distancing, but the Weavers admit their model is unique and won’t work for everyone.

Still, the couple say they have no intention of reopening to walk-in business anytime soon. They know they have fostered trust with their customers.

Not everyone is sympathetic to their path. They still get calls from customers asking why the cafe isn’t open yet. And there are a few that have questioned their mask policy, or attempted to turn it into a political argument.

But for now, the Weavers feel like they’ve hit a healthy balance that will carry them on for a little while longer.

Or at least until the next pivot.