Operating a small business is no easy feat, let alone when you add in navigating a global pandemic within your first year of opening. Husband-and-wife team Matt and Aless Delia-Lobo certainly could not have predicted quite how challenging the road ahead would be when they first opened Royal Oak, a specialty coffee shop in Middlebury, Vermont, in the spring of 2019. Now, in February of 2021, Royal Oak and its sister shop, Lost Monarch, have been open longer under COVID restrictions than they were pre-pandemic. How on earth has a coffee shop, especially a new spot in a rural area, been able to adapt and endure?
As a student at nearby Middlebury College, experiencing Royal Oak’s streamlined online order process firsthand only gave me a partial answer. On weekends, the cafe enjoyed a steady and heavy stream of customer traffic ordering out of the shop window. Though there was an obvious rush, my latte was still poured to perfection. If specialty coffee is an art form, Matt and Aless have created a masterwork. Still, looks can be deceiving. Royal Oak’s popularity in the community did not render the shop immune from the impacts of COVID, as I learned when I got the chance to talk to co-owner Matt the other day over Zoom.
After closing for the day, Matt joined me from behind the counter at Lost Monarch, briefly running one hand through his enviable hair and holding a coffee in the other that he sipped on over the course of our interview. He and Aless had just recently been able to reopen the coffee bar within Middlebury’s Stone Mill building after a brief hiatus for the birth of their new baby, Frances. He was friendly, asking after the college’s plans for the spring semester and expressing excitement about students’ return to campus. Something that became abundantly clear as we talked was how deeply he and Aless valued the Middlebury community.
When the pandemic hit, “the community here really rallied for us,” he said. Because the Delia-Lobos had moved to Middlebury and set up shop less than a year before, this support felt especially meaningful. Part of the increase in their sales can be attributed to sheer logistical wins: Matt and Aless were able to pivot to an online ordering system within days of lockdown, and as other shops around them closed, additional traffic was inevitably funneled in their direction by these closures. Still, community support and positive word-of-mouth were key.
Unfortunately, their relative success was a double-edged sword. To qualify for pandemic relief PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, businesses must have lost at least 25% of their gross revenue in any given quarter of 2020 when compared to 2019. Despite the financial strains of hiring more employees and having a baby, Royal Oak had technically grown too much since their mid-2019 opening to be considered eligible for the second round of funding.
“We didn’t lose as much money as you’re supposed to to get more money,” Matt explained. “It’s just wild to me that there’s an imaginary threshold for suffering as a business.”
However, Matt doesn’t dwell long on the pandemic-related frustrations of the present. When I ask him about Royal Oak’s future plans, he is quick to share lots of exciting, community-focused ideas.
During the pandemic, the two have been able to connect with the community in unexpected ways, learning regulars’ names via the online ordering system and coming to the interesting realization that he and Aless have seen some customers more than their family members might. They have also maintained continuous relationships with local businesses, brewing coffee from Burlington’s Vivid Coffee Roasters and sourcing baked goods from local baker Molly Francis at Banoffi and Such, as well as Willow’s Bagels. Still, the pandemic has definitely forced some of their original plans on hold.
“Removing the social aspect from coffee has been strange because that’s, like, most of it,” Matt admitted. Of course, they are still able to talk to customers through the ordering window, group activities and coffee-focused events were understandably off the table.
Post-pandemic, latte art throwdowns and cuppings, in which people are able to taste a variety of coffees and compare nuances in flavor, are both back on the agenda. Especially with Lost Monarch, which was originally intended to be more of an experimental coffee bar setup with rotating guest roasters and unique offerings, the Delia-Lobos hope to bring coffee culture to Middlebury.
With online ordering, customers tend to order basic and comforting specialty drinks– think a delicious, warm maple latte (my order of choice this past fall semester). However, there are some really exciting coffee offerings that patrons have been missing out on when they don’t have conversations with knowledgeable baristas who can offer recommendations before they order. Matt’s current advice? Trying out not only a single origin coffee (from one country), but a single farm coffee– purchasing coffee from a single farm allows for a more meaningful relationship between farmer and roaster. He also recommends experimenting with coffee that has been processed in different ways before it arrives at coffee shops to be brewed. What on Earth is a washed anaerobic process, or a honey processed coffee? These are terms that are wildly foreign to even many seasoned coffee drinkers– but I have a feeling many people would be converts if they knew to even try it in the first place.
“We’re looking forward to showing people what a coffee culture can really do for a community; more than just being a meeting place, it can be social,” Matt said. From talking about the nitty-gritty details of coffee such as brewing methods, origins, grind size and more, to hosting cuppings or latte art throwdowns, there are so many meaningful opportunities for people to learn about coffee and each other at a place like Royal Oak that they might not realize exist.
“I feel like we struck gold in terms of a community…that attracts so many different people,” Matt says. And coffee, especially specialty offerings, has a unique power to bring people together– most everyone can appreciate a well-brewed cup. Matt and Aless hope that Royal Oak and Lost Monarch can not only broaden the ways Middlebury residents caffeinate, but also how they connect with each other.