In 2016, Rodney Burrell and Julie Kahlbaugh started Coffee Passport Pittsburgh, a program that encourages residents to visit independent coffee shops around town.

Since the coronavirus has forced many establishments to temporarily close, the pair is helping owners and unemployed baristas. On March 17, they launched the Indie Coffee Relief Fund to raise money for rent, utilities and operational costs.

All 40 of the shops participating in Coffee Passport Pittsburgh are eligible for assistance. Burrell says they’re hoping to raise $20,000, with 100 percent of the funds, minus processing fees, distributed to shops in need.

There is an internal portal on their website where businesses can submit requests. “We opted against a blanket distribution because $20,000 across 40 shops only provides a band-aid. We want to do our part in making sure that every shop on our passport can reopen when it’s time.”

HLane Dry Goods & Coffee in Swissvale is one stop on the passport. While you can’t get your caffeine fix there right now, owner Hannah Lane Critzer is working to set up an online store and she’s using her talents as a seamstress to stitch face masks.

Photo courtesy of HLane Dry Goods & Coffee.

She’s made about 50 so far using CDC-approved supplies and following stringent protocols. They are designed with two layers of 100 percent medium-weight cotton and a pocket for the disposable face masks to slide into, essentially sandwiching it between the two cotton layers. CDC regulations direct seamstresses not to put disposable filters in for someone so this design creates an opening for wearers to do it themselves.

“I began receiving heartbreaking stories about hospital workers getting COVID-19 from patients and being stuck in isolation at home, Critzer says. “These are the people right now who need and are asking for the masks.”

Delivering the goods

KLVN Coffee Lab, which opened in Larimer on Feb. 3, now operates as an online general store, allowing people to pick up basic necessities, including coffee and local baked goods, from its grab-and-go window or have them delivered free within a five-mile radius.

Along with De Fer Coffee & Tea, Square Cafe, Madeleine Bakery & Bistro and Mediterra Cafe, the upstart coffee business is also giving back to healthcare workers through a GoFundMe campaign. Medical staff can request delivery through the site.

“We chose to support healthcare workers the best way we know how. With our coffee. A perfect cup of coffee, a fresh pastry or a carefully constructed sandwich is how small businesses can show healthcare workers we appreciate them and we acknowledge the work they are doing,” says co-owner Meghan Sullivan.

“This is also a way for us to support the small businesses we wanted to work with before the pandemic hit us. If we closed our doors, who knows if we would be able to open them again.” Seeing so many small businesses close has been a wake-up call for Sullivan. “We want to help the businesses we love stay open, pay our staff and show healthcare workers support,” she says.

The team has already made one delivery to UPMC St. Margaret and they are working on a large drop off for 320 people at UPMC Shadyside Hospital and another one at UPMC Presbyterian.

Teaming up

The Pittsburgh Pirates asked Commonplace Coffee for help in distributing free coffee to local medical workers on the front lines. Commonplace had already worked with pitcher Jameson Taillon to create their Lending Hearts coffee blend. So Dave Smallhoover, Commonplace’s head of roasting operations, reached out to local firehouses, police stations and hospitals to see who was in need.

“Dave was able to connect with multiple groups to donate a total of 100 retail bags of coffee, which hopefully helped to lift some spirits and keep everyone fueled and energized to continue to fight this,” says Lauren Young, marketing and communications manager for Commonplace.

Commonplace Coffee also sold diner mugs with all profits benefiting their furloughed staff and, after the ordered closure of their cafes, the group has been donating excess coffee and dairy to the Greater Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Mutual Aid Group.

Commonplace’s Director of Operations Robert Chaffin also started a local chapter of Coffee Break, a Zoom video conference that starts daily at 9 a.m. Open to the public, the online gathering is an attempt to reconnect people who miss the community that a coffee shop environment provides.

Some shops, including Commonplace, post videos on social media featuring homebrewing techniques.

Instructing online 

Ashley Corts, owner of Black Forge Coffee House, which opened a second location in July, posts educational videos on everything from how coffee is grown to making a Black Forge specialty at home. Both her McKees Rocks and Allentown sites are still open for regular business hours with limited services, catering to essential workers who still need a hot cup of joe to get them going. She’s banking on online sales to pull her through and encourages other business owners to beef up their inventory.

“People have been buying gift cards, merchandise and coffee from us in-store and our online store is doing much better than it was before,” Corts says. She hopes the same for other coffee shops.

Missing your favorite coffee joint? Visit their website. Chances are they deliver. Crazy Mocha will send beans, blends and in-house treats. Creative Coffee & Supply has sampler packs, La Prima Espresso Co., has a roast that benefits 412 Food Rescue and Nicholas Coffee Co., a staple in Market Square since 1919, offers its products online.