© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Kansas City Stays Caffeinated Through The Pandemic, But How We Drink Our Coffee Has Changed

Our at-home coffee rituals have taken on added meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Our at-home coffee rituals have taken on added meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Running around less has not meant laying off the coffee, just drinking more of it at home. Keeping up with changing customer demand been a wild ride for people in the hot beverage business.

For more stories like this one, subscribe to Real Humans on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

It's hard to imagine something more consistent, in times of upheaval, than coffee. Our love for this bitter elixir is surpassed only by our dependence on it.

The story begins with the legend of an Ethiopian goat-herd noticing that when his goats ate some magical berries — evidently, coffee beans — they were too amped up to sleep. He supposedly got to wondering what would happen if people tried these berries. And so, the myth goes, began a long saga of weary humans finding ways to make this bean tasty.

The result is a habit that's survived plagues, inquisitions, natural disasters, revolutions, depressions, recessions, births and deaths of nations. But when everything else changes in our daily lives, as has been the case these last ten months, the shock can be felt even in our most firmly established rituals.

That's why Bo Nelson didn't have any of that supposed free time to fill with puzzles and sourdough bread right after the pandemic hit.

The owner of Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters had a lot to figure out. His Kansas City coffee shop locations lost in-person retail customers overnight, and Nelson's accounts to supply coffee to offices disappeared at the exact same time.

But selling less wasn't an option. Thou Mayest contracts with growers months in advance; supply was coming in, whether demand was there to match it or not.

Nelson did have one more way of selling coffee: by the bag, to brew at home. He'd been thinking for a while of expanding that part of his operation, but he hoped to do really intentionally. That's not how it happened. Without the luxury of time to map out a perfect plan, Nelson took on the crazy assignment of roasting the coffee and shipping it the same day orders were placed online. And the orders came flooding in —from people cooped up in their houses all over the continental United States.

Customers told Nelson they were receiving their coffee the day after they placed their order. "How are you guys doing this?" they asked.

And I was like, 'Well, it's really, really hard.' I'm taking the labor and literally putting it on my back, and I'm going to fulfill these orders because I'm the cheapest labor."

Nelson's days started at 5 a.m. and lasted until 11 p.m., sometimes midnight. "I pretty much just lived in my roasting facility," he admits.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Bo Nelson enjoys a cup of the coffee he roasted at Thou Mayest. He also enjoys some chlorophyll.

It paid off. Nelson says his direct-to-customer coffee sales have more than tripled, partly because he jumped into selling not just the conventionally sized bags for home brewing, but also bulk quantities, five-pound bags, sent straight to people's houses.

If you wonder how people are going through five-pound bags of coffee by themselves, at home, consider Ella Leslie.

Leslie lives in Waldo. She's a lab technician at Stowers Institute for Medical Research. She drank a cup of coffee a day before the pandemic. Now she's downing a pot a day.

Early on, she and her roommate tried replicating fancy coffees from the outside world with ambitious coffee-making experiments. But ten months in, Leslie's done away with the formalities.

"Now I just like drink four cups of black coffee," Leslie says. "Like I don't put a lot of thought into it. It's just the water of the morning."

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Ella Leslie fully appreciating the coffee pot in her kitchen, and the breakfast nook beside it.

Leslie thinks that part of it has to do with simple convenience. Food and drink aren't allowed in the lab at her workplace, so coffee as a constant wasn't possible before. But it also has to do with a need to break up the monotony. She says she's loud and extroverted compared to other people in science, and her attempts at maintaining banter in isolation haven't been working out. Coffee gives her a little bit of the boost that socializing once provided.

As for me, one of the changes it took me a while to notice was how much of my daily joy started revolving around a freshly brewed pot of coffee. I started working more at night so I could parent during the day. It was a lot to get used to. Coffee was like a friend. It was my connection to the world of adults. And it quickly became my answer to everything.

Successful completion of a task: Coffee.

Daunting deadline: Coffee.

Looking for something to do: Coffee.

I want to drink coffee the second I stop drinking coffee. I've allowed myself this indulgence because I'm living through a pandemic and it makes me happy.

The tea industry is waiting for people like me and Ella Leslie to come to our senses. Nika Cotton at Soulcentricitea on Troost Avenue says we're likely to witness a "global detox" when we finally do, but she says it won't happen until we get past this major struggle. Right now, she says, we still need comfort at any cost. But Cotton has already encountered a first wave of customers looking for a way to ease back into moderation. And she's ready for more.

Even Bo Nelson would love to see his industry focused more on aromatic cups of coffee shared in person, among friends, rather than just draining entire pots unceremoniously at home. Because until that happens, he'll be too swamped filling orders to take on the project of reworking how to create space for community to happen.

"That's really important. That's what I love and what I want to do," he says. "But right now, I just have to get this coffee out."

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.