BELFAST, Maine — When Nathaniel Baer was getting ready to open a new coffee shop in downtown Belfast a year ago, he worked on making the space as inviting to his future customers as possible.
But fate intervened.
Because of the pandemic, no customer has set foot in Downshift Coffee, 39 Main St., since it opened last spring. Still, through creativity and resilience, Baer, 46, made it work. At a time when even long-established businesses have struggled or closed, his coffee shop has become a regular stop for many in the city, who wait outside to order freshly made drinks and home-baked cookies and scones through a window in the door.
He’s gotten to know those customers, even though they’re all masked and the interactions are briefer than Baer had expected.
“It wasn’t the plan,” he said of all the pivots he has made. “But that was our best way to deal with COVID. We just put our other plans on hold.”
Before Baer launched his own business, he worked professionally as a baker, and on an organic farm. A couple of years ago, his family relocated to Belfast from Iowa after his wife, Karen Smith, was named executive director of Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport.
His family has roots in midcoast Maine, and the move gave Baer an opportunity to turn a passion for coffee into his own small business.
From top left (clockwise): Mia Bertelli, who works at Downshift Coffee in Belfast, hands a cappuccino out the window to a customer on Thursday; Downshift Coffee in Belfast seen from the street; Downshift Coffee; A cappuccino at Downshift Coffee in Belfast; Downshift Coffee owner Nathaniel Baer talks about the business. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
In early 2019, he and friend Chris Gardner, who owns CG Bikes in Belfast, talked about joining forces to combine a bike and coffee shop. When a storefront on lower Main Street in Belfast became available, “we just jumped on it,” Baer said.
The new owners of the building were doing a substantial renovation, and Gardner and Baer spent a lot of time customizing the space. The coffee shop portion featured lots of light and a gleaming wooden bar.
“It is beautiful inside,” Baer said. “The idea was to have a place where people can come inside and enjoy coffee. That hasn’t happened yet — but we’re looking forward to it.”
Baer and Gardner had envisioned opening their freshly painted doors in March 2020. But the pandemic shut down those plans.
“Literally it was the week that everything shut down,” Baer said.
Instead, he figured out how Downshift Coffee could pivot and make it through the pandemic.
In two months, he worked out a strategy to take orders and accept payment through a contactless system. He also took advantage of a couple of new programs city officials started in response to the pandemic: the Keep the Faith Fund, designed to provide relief to residents and small businesses, and the Curbside Belfast program, which allowed eateries to erect outside seating in parking spaces.
His landlords passed on some of the rent abatements, “which was great,” he said, and sharing the space and rent with CG Bikes was both a financial help and a morale booster.
The coffee shop caught on. In the summer and fall, it was not uncommon to see lines of socially distanced customers waiting to order drinks while others sipped and caught up with friends in Adirondack chairs outside.
“It’s another gathering place,” Zach Schmesser, director of Our Town Belfast, said of Downshift Coffee. “Even though it’s not the gathering place it was intended to be, it still happens.”
The ability to pivot, and the city’s support, has been key to helping business owners weather adversities in the pandemic. In Belfast, there are not as many empty storefronts as in some Maine communities. Schmesser doesn’t believe that’s an accident.
“The mentality of business owners is, ‘We need to get through this. What do we need to get through it?’ They do it with a smile,” he said. “Not that it’s not stressful, or it hasn’t been difficult, but I think people have done a really good job. I think we’re just really fortunate. The federal response that there’s been, and the state response, they really do help. And the community’s outpouring of support.”
For Baer, this first year in business has been better than he expected in the pandemic, despite all the challenges.
“There was a lot of stress early. Ongoing stress about finances, and we didn’t have the revenue or sales that we figured we would,” he said. “And wearing a mask all day, it’s hard to recognize people. It’s hard to connect sometimes.”
Still, he’s beginning to make plans for a post-pandemic future. He’s planning to get a coffee roaster to roast beans in-house, and is hopeful that one day people can sit inside to enjoy cappuccinos and espressos.
“I’m very cautiously optimistic,” he said.