If downtown is the soul of Minneapolis, that soul could be powered by a respectably brewed cup of coffee.
OK, maybe not coffee alone. But I've been encouraged by the sight of healthy lines sprouting from some of the skyway-level coffee shops. Workers dipping their toes back in the office are once again jumpstarting their mornings with Americanos and lattes, breathing just a tad more vigor into the city's core.
The crew at Vitality Roasting, a female-operated roastery based in St. Paul, took a chance on downtown Minneapolis when it opened a skyway location last July in what had been a Dunn Brothers spot. At the time, foot traffic was pandemic-bleak.
"The summer was very, very slow," said Keli Gilbertson, Vitality's vice president of operations. "It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was just a little lonely."
The customers started to crawl back after Labor Day and disappeared again during winter's omicron. Near the start of this year, Gilberston noticed an increase that has been steadily building, but not the gush of people she once anticipated.
"When we initially opened, I think there was a hope that we would all of a sudden see this great spike," she said. "We haven't really seen that, and we are starting to understand that that might not ever be a thing."
Gilbertson isn't sure what normal will look like, or if downtown will ever regain its bustle. But she says our enclosed system of second-story bridges will always be a "staple of the city."
"I love the spirit of the skyway," she said. "Like when you're sitting on a bench eating your sandwich, and the girls are walking by in their little ballet flats in the middle of the winter, because you know they wore their boots downtown. There's just something so unique about it."
Vitality isn't the only downtown coffee shop that has sprung up during the pandemic. Chef David Fhima and son Eli have launched Mother Dough in two former Peace Coffee locations in Capella Tower that were vacated during COVID. Gray Fox Coffee added a second downtown location in the AT&T Tower.
Why does any of this matter?
The coffee shop was once part of the lifeblood of downtown. Even before the first caffeinated drop hit your lips, you were already jolted out of your afternoon doldrums when a colleague sent you an impromptu Slack message: Coffee run?
These businesses beckon us to reset and gather, even in the workaday rush of timesheets and presentations. They are the "third places" where we can socialize, collaborate, people-watch or crank out anything from a performance review to the next great American novel.
The pandemic melted barriers between the coffeehouse and those first and second places — home and work. The resurgence of the coffee shop means we're edging slightly toward an ecosystem that once was.
"I think of them as the perfect early indicator of the revitalization of the office towers," said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. "There's no question the coffee shops are coming back to life as the downtown office population regenerates."
His organization estimates there are about 400 retail and restaurant locations open for business across downtown, which is up 45% since March 2021.
But it's hard to envision downtown ever rebounding completely. Popular lunch spots that dished up sushi or kebabs or pasta have been emptied out and gone dark. Many places are still operating on restricted hours. Violent crime is up, another deterrent for workers who can choose to stay home. And while about 45% of workers have returned downtown, they're likely on a hybrid schedule. Many of us have no desire to head back five days a week.
"It seems kind of dead," observed Matt McGrory, a Wells Fargo attorney who, despite his disappointment in the skyway, was eager to try a pour-over brew at Vitality on a recent afternoon. He returned to the office March 14 for three days a week and said the scene felt "both familiar and foreign."
Meanwhile, business leaders like Gilbertson are learning to adapt to the work revolution. That means accepting a slower pace on days when it rains or snows, a twist on conventional wisdom. In before times, people would head to the skyways to avoid the elements.
"But now when it's cold," she said, "they just don't go to work. They work from home."
Gilbertson's company, which operates not just the roastery but several restaurants in the Twin Cities and Fargo, is lucky to support the downtown cafe with additional sources of income to help it weather unprofitable days. Gilbertson says the downtown location gives her an opportunity to connect with customers over flavor profiles and a bean's origin story. And as sales began to climb in the early months of 2022, she finally started to see the shop as viable.
What is her message for people still on the fence about heading back to the office?
"We miss you," Gilbertson said. But she also offered this:
"If you're downtown and you're working, don't forget to support those businesses if you want them to be there," she said. "If you want coffee shops downtown, you got to frequent them."
So indulge yourself with that $4 latte. Besides, it'll taste better than the free breakroom coffee your boss is trying to lure you back with.