Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Downtown San Jose Cafe Models Cafe Culture in Time of Isolation

TALKING SHOP: Like their coffee shop counterparts throughout the South Bay, the owners of Academic Coffee have had to pivot from dine-in to takeout operations. Photo by Gary Singh

These days at Academic Coffee in downtown San Jose, nothing is permanent.

Located at the grungy intersection of Second and William streets, Academic was, in its first incarnation, a coffee shop—an espresso bar where such drinks comprised 70 percent of all sales. During the shelter-in-place era, a subtle yet major shift emerged. Academic remains open for take-out and delivery orders, but espresso drinks comprise only one-third of sales. The pandemic situation forced owner Frank Nguyen to reinvent the business into more of a makeshift corner market delivery center.

"During the first week there wasn't stuff available at Target and Whole Foods and all the restaurants and big box stores were all sold out of everything that week," Nguyen said. "I thought about it and we came up with a plan to relaunch the store as a pantry, because we actually had our suppliers call us and say, 'Hey, all these restaurants are closed. We have so much produce and it's still good. It's still fresh. But if we don't sell this all in two weeks, then we're going to have to start throwing out all this food.'"

At that time, Nguyen, whose previous life included marketing, social media management and e-commerce, built and launched a new website, Academic Pantry, in two days, to sell high-quality produce. Working with companies that also supplied produce to Manresa and Orchard City Kitchen, Nguyen was able to hawk Brussels sprouts, broccoli, lettuce and similar produce at almost the same price, if not cheaper, than Whole Foods.

In the process, Academic's Instagram account skyrocketed. Followers flocked on in. As a result, coffee shops from around the neighborhood and even the Bay Area called to ask how Academic was making the day-to-day operation work, what Nguyen was using to wipe down the surfaces, what types of cleaning materials he recommended and similar queries. He was happy to help.

But that was a month ago. Since everything keeps changing, no predictable future remains possible. At presstime, the place looked more like the bustling back room of a corner market, in a good way. Various items filled steel racks where the tables and chairs used to be. I saw oat milk, pasta, bleach, coffee beans, granola and packaged kits for distribution, all while masked-and-gloved employees took orders via the usual card reader and tablet while maintaining a safe distance.

I told them it looked like a grocery store and they said, "Thank you," because that was precisely the idea. Of course, some of the walls still looked the same: polaroids of staff and regular customers, a poster for Downtown Yoga Shala—located just around the corner—plus the artwork on the wall behind the bar. Since they were selling bleach, I asked if anyone had drank the bleach yet. From behind her mask, one barista said, "No."

Other coffee shops in downtown or surrounding neighborhoods, including Roy's Station, Vero, Voltaire and even Circle-A Skateboard shop, are all likewise trying to give it a go, but Academic seems to be a model for how to transform an entire operation on the fly. No one's trying to compete. Everyone's trying to lift each other up through these hard times. At presstime, Nguyen was driving around making deliveries himself. And sometimes cleaning the bathrooms himself. He likened it to being on a boat that's taking on water while he's left with the bucket, trying to scoop the water out just to stay afloat. I asked him what kind of advice he would give to other small businesses out there, those that are similarly just trying to figure all this out.

"I think this is that crucial moment where you have to decide, 'Do I want to be a business owner or not?' because it's not going to get better," Nguyen said. "It's really a situation of, okay, this is the moment where you cut your losses and just say, 'I'm done being a business owner,' or, if you want to keep going, then you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes at this point. You either get down and do the dirty work or this is the end of the road."