The springtime return of Influx Cafe to Golden Hill
The jacaranda blossoms have made their spring return to the trees out front, in striking purple contrast to the pale green A-frame that has been home to Influx Café for 18 years. And for the first time in nearly two months, a semblance of life has returned to the neighborhood coffeeshop.
1948 Broadway, San Diego
Back in 2002, a yet-to-be-hip Golden Hill lacked the sort of social hub a coffeeshop provides, so now-married couple Jason Twilla and Gina Bledsoe opened Influx, which became exactly that as the urban neighborhood enjoyed a 21st century revival. But it was put on hold in March. After the governor issued a state stay-at-home order on March 16, Influx Café suspended business. As someone who lives nearby and walks past the cafe daily, its closed doors and empty patio have proven a constant reminder: that things are not normal.
But, along with the blooming flowers, Influx re-opened on Friday, May 8. And with it, Golden Hill feels somewhat more intact.
“I am ecstatic that you are open,” a fellow customer told the barista while I was picking up a cold brew coffee order, “I drove by every day,” he said, “just hoping.” Apparently, he’s not the only one.
Physical spacing a key part of the re-opening of coffeeshops
“When we opened on Friday, I saw regulars from all three shops,” says Twilla. Since 2002, he and Bledsoe have gone on to open Influx Cafés in Little Italy and North Park. However, those locations remain closed, for now. The Golden Hill re-opening is a tentative trial run, designed to ensure the community-oriented business can operate safely for both customers and employees, first.
Two months into the shutdown, many local coffeeshops that initially closed are starting to come back: up the hill, Dark Horse Coffee Roasters is back, and so is Refill coffee shop up in Hillcrest. Starbucks shops are back this week too, though honestly, if you’re not spending your dollars at locally owned businesses who desperately need it right now, I don’t even know what to do with you.
For example, Influx, which has operated debt-free for nearly two decades, has now been without revenue for two months and now finds itself in a hole for the first time. But for Twilla and Bledsoe, the difficult decision to close was almost made before the governor’s order. “We didn’t feel good about staying open. This is a place where people congregate and talk to each other,” he points out, “A week before [the stay home order], people started to become more germophobic. I noticed it with my staff, and I noticed it with myself.”
A turkey pesto sandwich on house baked focaccia, from Influx Cafe
Influx wound up giving most of its inventory away to its 35 employees, who were laid off so they could receive unemployment while the nation hunkered down. For Twilla and Bledsoe, a huge priority prior to re-opening was first ensuring safety of their employees, some of whom have been with influx as many as ten years. As the shops re-open, they will slowly be hired back, but none will be pressured to do so, pledges Twilla.
The other priority was ensuring the same level of safety for customers. “It’s bittersweet,” says Twilla of re-opening. “The best part about our business is being part of the community… right now we can be open, but we can’t do that the way we did before.”
Bread pudding with berries and cream
Influx’s website is being reconfigured to accept take-out orders, including payment. For those ordering by phone or in person, markings on the floor delineate six-foot distances, and a table with a credit card reader keeps customers from approaching the ordering counter. Contact-free payments with smart phones are encouraged, but for those using credit cards, a bottle of hand sanitizer is there for everyone’s protection. Masks are required, and no cash payments are accepted.
For longtime customers, the experience can be a little jarring. Many mornings, it used to be tough to find an open seat at Influx: the row of two-tops lining one side of the room would usually be filled with regulars, in conversation or working on laptops. On the other side, families and groups would sit within reach of one another at communal tables.
Now the chairs are gone, the tables empty and blocked off with tape. Individual orders are brought out from behind the counter, and left on a table to ensure contact-free exchange. Near the counter, a bulletin board and shelves that used to be filled with local publications, band flyers, and other community event advertisements, are now completely empty.
However, elements remain the same. My order of locally roasted Café Moto organic cold brew, for example. The baked in-house pastries, like the bread pudding, served warm with whipped cream and fresh berries. Bagel sandwiches, which support yet another local, Big City Bagels. And regular sandwiches, on baked in-house breads, such as my turkey pesto, served on focaccia.
Experts warn the return to normalcy will be painstaking and slow. If it’s going to be incremental, the cautious re-opening of neighborhood coffee shops such as Influx, even at limited capacity, feels like a welcome next step for a now-masked community. Both for business owners who’ve exercised an abundance of caution, and their customers, taking steps to come back feels like the very rejuvenation of spring.
“I think that it’s important for people to be safe,” Twilla says, “but I think it’s also important to have some sense of normality.” And like so many San Diegans, whose lives have been put on pause the past two months, two months have felt like a lifetime. “We haven’t been getting dressed, we’re having trouble keeping track of days,” he says. More than that, he adds, “We kind of miss each other.”