During normal times, coffee shops offer customers the unlikely combination of a caffeine jolt and a soothing atmosphere.

And now, with the world turned upside down by COVID-19, Wichita coffee shop owners are looking to do pretty much the same thing with a surge of goodwill for shattered nerves.

Leading the charge is Warren Tandoc, who along with his wife, Ann Tandoc, owns Espresso To Go.

He is encouraging his coffee-shop brethren to adopt a “pay it forward” concept allowing customers to prepay for drinks for those who can’t afford them. Ann Tandoc is urging other owners to find ways to support employees suffering financial hardships caused by the pandemic, including short-term hiring of those who have lost their jobs when possible.

The coffee crew gathered earlier this month through the efforts of Andrew Gough, owner of Reverie Coffee Roasters.

The convening was among hundreds of Kansas Beats the Virus virtual meetings the Kansas Leadership Center is organizing to spur grassroots ideas for combating the spread of COVID-19.  As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Kansas, such ideas promise to redefine the roles such businesses can play in addressing the pandemic, even as they’re fighting for their own survival.

Gough and his staff are trying to answer the question they posed among themselves way back in March: What would happen if they were to lose 75% of their customers?

Gough started answering that question by closing his East Douglas Avenue flagship café on March 23, soon after the first detected coronavirus case in Sedgwick County. Then he started gradually reopening with restricted service over the next several months. He eventually closed his other location indefinitely, in the Advanced Learning Library. He continued his coffee roasting and distribution operations through most of this year.

“All this goes back to one idea,” Gough said. “Our employees are the most important people in our businesses. This cares for the public at the same time.”

In May, Reverie Coffee Roasters hired graphic designer Chloe Cloud, who had been laid off because of the pandemic, to design this floor sign for its flagship location in Wichita. Reverie hired Cloud and other laid-off graphic designers using money it had received through the CARES Act. (Photo credit: Juan Garcia)

Gough is taking many safety precautions. He provides free masks just inside his café’s front door, posts signs directing social distancing and tests his staff weekly for the virus in partnership with Wichita State University. He posts his changed business practices online.

Gough has also provided de-escalation training to his 15 full-time and nine part-time employees. They tell customers the changes are intended to protect them, and his staff follow the new rules even when customers say they’re not worried.

Gough encourages other business owners to take similar steps, speak openly about their efforts to the media and others, and contact elected officials to advocate for practices to “protect the public while not killing businesses.” He also sits on Wichita’s small business advisory committee to explore other ways to help local businesses.

Yet an example out of the city of Mission illustrates hurdles communities can face in working with businesses.

Barry Cowden, owner of Don Chilitos Mexican Restaurant in Mission, has unintentionally become a standard bearer for people who believe government regulations aimed at limiting the spread of the virus infringe on personal liberties. He despises the mask mandates.

Cowden has refused to follow state and local public health orders, insisting he would close the decades-old business rather than submit to them. He said some attorneys have offered to represent him for free if he sues to contest the mandates covering his customers and his workers.

He has seen “such an outpouring of support” from his customers and has gotten phone calls and $100 checks from out of state to help his employees or possible legal fees.

“I have people who come here because it’s the only place in Mission you can go and not have to wear a mask,” he said. Nevertheless, Cowden’s revenue was off by about 50% through September.

It’s not that Cowden opposes personal choice: many of his customers and some of his staff do wear facemasks.

Don Chilitos in Mission posted this on its Facebook page upon reopening the dining room in May, saying: “Your safety is our #1 priority, and you’ll notice we made some changes to follow all necessary guidelines. Please be patient with us as this is new territory for all of us & there are bound to be hiccups as we transition.”

He has also been extra careful about sanitizing surfaces and following other usual health requirements required to operate his restaurant. And Cowden did close inside dining from late March to early May while continuing carry-out and delivery service.

Cowden’s recalcitrance has not endeared him to the Mission City Council members that represent his ward, nor earned him brownie points with Jenny Pugh, who owns Lulu’s Boutique and is co-president of the Mission Business District.

Following health rules is a responsibility, Pugh said, and also the “human thing to do.” She said a more positive approach would’ve been to follow the lead of other restaurants in figuring out a way to add more outside dining.

KLC is encouraging participants in the brainstorming sessions to avoid political debates and strive instead for consensus around positive steps forward.

Cowden might end up being an outlier. The hope is for more outcomes like one from earlier this month in Salina, in a convening organized by the Kansas Public Media Center Inc.

That organization has launched Martinelli’s Little Italy Beats the Virus. The goal is to take ideas from the employees of that venerable downtown restaurant to figure out how to provide food and community in “safe and innovative ways,” meeting facilitator Tamara Bauer reports.

 Customers can play a powerful role in terms of not only what they ask of the businesses they patronize, but also how they choose to support them. They can help them get creative and help ensure that businesses that do pivot end up being successful.

Back in Wichita, Gough’s revenue is down by more than half compared to last year. He wishes that the government provided more financial support for businesses adapting their practices to promote public safety.

When Kansans are making plans to beat the virus, Gough hopes they will talk with local businesses.

He says businesses should tell community members what they can do to help them stay afloat. Buying certain products with a higher profit margin and lower labor requirements rather than buying gift cards is one way to help.

Local businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, can be assets in the pandemic by protecting public health and promoting safe ways to build community. But residents should remember the businesses might need support from the community as well.

“Ask the business how you can help them,” he said.

Jerry LaMartina is a freelance reporter and editor based in Shawnee.