Cup A Joe, a locally-owned coffee shop that boasts two storefronts across campus, is a staple of NC State student culture after two decades of business. From Milkshake Monday to Fusion Friday, the store’s perfect blend of classic coffee drinks and modern refreshments make it a popular pit stop for students and Raleigh natives alike.
Dave Sullivan, the owner of Cup A Joe, has seen plenty of changes to the coffee shop crowd even before the pandemic, citing the rise of Starbucks and other large coffee chains as being responsible for popularizing coffee culture.
“The nature of the business and the relationship between college students and coffee has changed a lot,” Sullivan said. “In the early ‘90s, most of our customers were not college students, and the college students that frequented coffee shops were more of the artsy types.”
Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a college student who isn’t addicted to a caffeinated beverage of some sort. It’s commonplace to see coffee shops and other cafes along Hillsborough Street completely overtaken by NC State students looking for their caffeine fix, and Cup A Joe is no exception.
Although the pandemic has thrown a wrench into many small businesses’ plans, Cup A Joe has bounced back with federal financial help and improved business protocol that aims to keep its staff and customers safe.
“I mean, there was no road map for how to make that work,” Sullivan said. “We were lucky to get some money from the government, and that helped. Other than that, we have a good core of staff that… we keep protected as much as possible, with rules and safety protocol and that sort of thing.”
Blue Tartevet, a third-year student studying microbiology, started working at Cup A Joe right before the start of the pandemic.
“Everything completely changed, I think, once the governor issued that first statement in the middle of March last year,” Tartevet said. “We got rid of indoor seating, everything that was out on the counter went behind the counter, there’s glass up everywhere, obviously everyone’s wearing masks.”
According to Sullivan, the lively pre-pandemic atmosphere is missed across both Cup A Joe storefronts. As of right now, both locations are only offering outdoor seating.
“We haven’t really decided when we’re going to open up for more seating and that sort of thing,” Sullivan said. “The coffee shop [atmosphere] is usually lively, a lot of people hanging around for a long time, and I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to have that normalcy again.”
Despite the pandemic-era changes to the typical coffee shop ambiance, a loyal base of customers and sensible business practices have allowed Cup A Joe to stay afloat. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, when the future of big and small businesses alike looked a lot more uncertain, coffee lovers would social distance in the parking lot outside of the Hillsborough Street storefront.
“Our customers, I think, stayed pretty loyal,” Sullivan said. “They couldn’t come in and follow their usual patterns of getting coffee in the morning and talking to their friends, but they came by and bought coffee to brew at home, or they bought coffee to go.”
Tartavet, for one, loves to interact with customers and talk about coffee during their time on the clock.
“That’s definitely the most fun part — getting to interact with customers who also care about coffee and getting to know regulars and stuff like that,” Tartavet said. “We have one guy who comes in and gets just five shots of espresso, and every time we see him it’s like ‘oh, five shots of espresso.’”
As for a return to normalcy, the new mask recommendations from the CDC and slowing rates of infection look promising. However, it’ll likely be a slow return to normal for small businesses as they toe the line between wanting to increase sales and keeping their staff and customers safe.
“I don’t know if things will go 100% back to normal for a very long time, but we’re already starting to notice a really big increase in people coming in, especially on the weekends, a lot closer to… business before the pandemic,” Tartevet said. “I feel pretty good about the next couple of months and things are slowly starting to go back to normal.”
Luckily, customers can continue to enjoy the same delicious Cup A Joe coffee they’ve known for years thanks to the company’s COVID-19 protocol and straightforward business philosophy.
“We try to focus more on the quality of the product more than anything else,” Sullivan said. “We spend a lot of extra time and money on trying to keep staff trained and supervised and put out the type of product that we want.”
Those interested in purchasing from Cup A Joe can visit its website or either storefront, located on both Hillsborough Street and in Mission Valley Shopping Center.