Coffee Shop Tries To Hang On

By Billy Cox
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Before the Coronavirus hit, “The Clever Cup”  had come to within a month — the end of April — of finally clearing its debt. A 50% drop in traffic put that celebration in a ditch.


If the rest of the world fell off a cliff, you could get pretty much whatever you needed at Gulf Gate Village — vacuum cleaners, chiropractic adjustments, pedicures, tattoos, groceries, shoes, replacement keys, hearing aids, picture frames, aquariums, tai chi, kung fu, fast food, fine food, spirits, clothes, haircuts, you name it. Roughly 200 choices.

Gulf Gate realtor John Atkin, a neighborhood homeowner for 15 years, paints a Mayberry-like portrait on his website. He raves about “how safe I feel living here,” just down the street from Gulf Gate Elementary School, and the library, and St. Thomas More Church, with “kids riding their bikes and families walking after dinner.”

Selling an image, of course, is Atkin’s job. But COVID-19 has imposed a reality on the Village and everywhere else that any effort to gloss over would be insulting. “You’re the first person I’ve seen here in a week,” Atkin says from behind his office desk. “Not a lot going on in real estate right now.”

He’s seen small businesses come and go since 2005, watched them challenged by natural forces beyond their control, Hurricane Irma in 2017, red tide in 2018, and now this — like something out of a sci-fi script. In these parts, Atkin says, if a shop can survive the first two years, they’re usually good. But that’s as far as he’ll go today.

Gulf Gate Village has one coffee shop, The Clever Cup. It opened in 2016, and it has rolled with every punch and every tide and every season. Before the plague, it had come to within a month — the end of April — of finally clearing its debt. A 50% drop in traffic put that celebration in a ditch.

As the lights go out around them, and the contagion of “Closed” announcements crop up on windows and doors in the Village, co-owners Tracy de Chevron Villette and Heather Haggstrom know all pretentious of normalcy are illusions. But they continue to keep business-as-usual hours because, as Heather puts it, “many of our customers find it comforting.”

The Mylar balloon at the entrance that reads “Thank You” is a show of gratitude for all the regulars who haven’t given up on them. Yet, it’s the anonymous critics of social media — scant in number, outraged in tone — who’ve managed to rattle them in ways that nature never could.

For the audacity of staying open, and for exhorting others to patronize small businesses trying to hang on, they’ve been accused in cyberspace of expanding the target range for a lethal virus and putting the community they love at risk.

—-Fortunes have tumbled so quickly, so decisively, that it’s hard to believe it was only March 1 when Gov. Ron DeSantis confirmed Florida’s first two cases of coronavirus, one in Manatee County. By March 9, the governor had declared a state of emergency to expedite federal assistance, and by St. Patrick’s Day the state had pulled the plug on nightclubs and bars.

On March 20, the hammer came down on restaurants, with orders to confine service to takeout and delivery. Merchants are holding their breaths for the announcement — as some states have already commanded — that only “essential services” will be allowed to operate.

The coffee shop doesn’t have a kitchen, but it does serve light fare such as croissant sandwiches, muffins and cookies. It’s a gray area. And, pending a notification from Tallahassee, The Clever Cup is the Alamo.

—-Schooled in jewelry design, Tracy de Chevron Villette never thought she’d wind up in the service industry. On the other hand, she never thought she’d get back into painting, either, which is her real passion. But just look on the walls: portraits, families, pets, richly detailed — in espresso coffee.

“I did it just for fun,” Tracy says. “I tried my daughter first — see the little girl over there with butterfly wings?” It was a lark. She liked watercolors, and as a medium, coffee’s not that different. Today, she sells her coffee prints at The Clever Cup. Customers even order commissioned works.

She ran a small jewelry business in London — high end, mostly — but came to Sarasota when her parents retired to a home near Gulf Gate Village. She spent most of her life abroad, and she liked the eclectic fare of the Village, the diverse culinary fare, the Asian grocery, the neighborhood vibe. She enrolled her two young children at Gulf Gate Elementary.

Four years ago, Tracy and her original business partner decided the Village needed a coffee shop, “a cute little place” where “the community could meet and exchange ideas and come here to, as we say, ‘hashtag get clever.'”

—-At least for awhile, until she got laid off three weeks before Christmas 2017, Heather Haggstrom had the best of both worlds at nearby Books-A-Million. She ran the cafe and, partial to historical fiction, she had her pick of books.

A trained pastry chef in culinary school, Heather moved here from Baltimore seven years ago to be closer to her parents, who were language teachers. Her jobs in the corporate world had left her feeling empty. “I felt like it was all about pushing product and getting the dollars and getting people to sign up for this and sign up for that and I don’t know, it just felt wrong.”

Her one big regret about the collapse of Books-A-Million was the fate of its little ad hoc Scrabble club. Most were retirees who convened on Tuesday nights. When BAM went belly up, she told them to hang in there, that she would find a place for them if she landed in a decent spot.

A single mom with a daughter enrolled at Imagine School at Palmer Ranch, Heather ducked into The Clever Cup at a fortuitous moment, shortly after Tracy’s business partner had moved on. As mothers of young children, they shared mutual priorities. Long story short, the two hit it off and began building a new community.

“One of the first things I did after I started working here,” Heather says, “was to email the Scrabble people.”

—-The Clever Cup packs a lot of character into its 1,000 square feet of wood-paneled floors and walls. Coffee paintings line one side, and employee Sophie Engleman’s mixed-media artwork gets showcased on the other.

There’s a comfy couch with pillows, and a bank of plug-in outlets for computers below. There’s standup shelving with board games, an abstract corner mural by a Village tattoo artist. The take-home coffee beans and pastries are supplied by local vendors. The jewelry display case sells the work of artisans other than Tracy.

But those are just things.

“My focus immediately was, we need to concentrate on the locals,” Heather says. “We need to be active in our community, and we need to make sure we know our fellow business owners in the neighborhood and around town, and we need to support them and our customers. This place should be like their ‘Cheers.'”

Until the plague struck, it was Mission Accomplished. The Clever Cup ponied up for local school Fun Runs and teacher appreciation days, and suddenly it wasn’t just geezers playing Scrabble. Weekends meant open-mic nights and you’d never know who might show up. It might be Sarasota YouTube guitar star Sean Daniel or, every six weeks or so, a packed house full of Pine View School kids holding court with poetry readings.

But always, there were, and still are, fellow entrepreneurs, dropping in and keeping tabs, rooting for each other. One of Heather’s new favorites was a chef across the street, just a year into his own place.

“His work is beautiful, his plate presentation is beautiful, and he put his whole life into it,” she recalls. “I could see just two people in his restaurant, then I could see it half filled, then whole place filled up. And he’d just hired more waitresses and then, boom, St. Patrick’s Day.
“And it was over …”

—-This month, Heather emailed the Scrabble club, 12 to 15 strong during peak season, to stay away until the plague passes. She and Tracy are both social distancing from their parents.

Heather tries counting aloud the number of establishments in the Village that have gone dark. “All the bars, for sure …” She stops at 10. Or is it 11?

Tracy and Heather had hoped to boost their payroll up to eight or nine people. Two student employees had just moved on. Two pending new hires were put on hold. They hold down the fort today with two full-timers and a part-timer.

Tracy tries to rally her professional peers with Facebook plugs for local businesses. She was thrown by the blowback she got after promoting a recent outing to an ice cream shop on Siesta Key.

“It was like, ‘How dare you flaunt the fact that you’re going out there in groups and putting people at risk?’ Well, I wasn’t with a group of strangers, I was with my family, and I’m supporting a local business that I know is struggling now.”

It was more of the same when her hairdresser said tomorrow was going to be her last day. Tracy booked her daughter for an appointment. She posted images of the hair stylist’s handiwork. What happened next leaves her voice thin and fragile.

“So my daughter got a haircut, and I … got quite criticized for that.” She pauses. “And as I explained, I said the real reason I went was to give her a big tip because I knew …” She snatches a napkin. “I wished her good luck and … I don’t know, I just …” She dabs away a sniffle. “People accuse me of potentially killing people because of getting a haircut. Things like that.”

Tracy apologizes. “My husband told me to stop posting things like that. But I don’t want to. I want to keep telling people that businesses are open.

Because we haven’t been told to close. And if we’re told to close, well, that’s a different story. But people are hurting. And they need help.”

—-Heather was furious over the censure. She challenges any chain supermarket to meet the sterilization standards enforced at The Clever Cup.

She emptied her frustrations into her own social media account.

She asked followers and trolls alike to imagine building up a small business from scratch, forsaking days off and vacations “because it’s your baby, not just because it’s your livelihood.” Imagine the sleepless nights, the uncertainty, “being vilified for trying to save all you and your employees have,” being “told by celebrities and people who are still collecting paychecks that you are selfish and stupid.”

“You want us to stay home? Then support us,” Heather concluded. “There are tons of ways you can do that from your couch. Buy a gift card, merchandise, takeout. And most of all remember, we are human beings just like you and we are just trying to survive so please be kind.”

That’s what happened. Patrons, some from out of state, responded with a show of generosity, buying gift cards, T-shirts, mugs and whatever time those purchases might afford. Among the most generous were members of the Scrabble club. Tracy and Heather get emotional talking about it.

Just how far that bump will take them is another matter. But regulars like Sarasota literary editor Liz Coursen, who passes three Starbucks to reach the Cup, say they’ll keep coming as long as it stays open.

“People know each other here. This is a real community,” she says. “You can sit and talk to friends or you can get work done. It blows the doors off other coffee shops.”

The parking lot in the Village would normally be jammed at lunchtime. Heather parks her car outside the front door to alert motorists that someone’s home. Tracy is grateful someone noticed.

As her visitor heads out, she asks, “Can I get you a cookie or something?”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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