Rare Bird Coffee Grows In Spite of Pandemic

The in-house roasting operation at Rare Bird Coffee Roasters along W. Broad Street needs some room to spread its wings. So, owners and married couple Lara Berenji and Bryan Becker decided to purchase the large corner space adjacent to their shop. They plan to open the expansion in March. (Photo: News-Press)

Rare Bird Coffee Roasters is defying all of the downward economic trends during the coronavirus pandemic by planning to expand its operation into the space next door, albeit with a slight delay in the original timeline.

The food services industry has been one of the hardest hit throughout the Covid-19 timeline, with the Motley Fool reporting that 64 percent of workers in those have experienced closures, layoffs or reduced hours. Consulting firm McKinsey and Company estimates that small businesses in the “accommodation and food services” won’t return to pre-pandemic levels of output until 2025.

Try to keep that negativity away from Rare Bird, though. The coffee shop that also roasts its own product has become a City of Falls Church staple in its four years as a business resident and now looks to take over the former home of a STEM learning space on the corner of W. Broad Street and S. Maple Avenue. With the STEM center’s decline coinciding with the onset of the pandemic, it became a serendipitous moment for the coffee shop that had been eyeing more room for a while.

“We were always trying to find a space to move our roasting facility, realizing there’s a lot of conflict between the use of our space for both…the cafe and the roasting,” co-owner Lara Berenji said. “All of the spaces we were finding were so huge they weren’t feasible cost-wise. When the neighbors decided not to continue, the landlord spoke to us and we worked something out, so it was because of Covid, in a sense.”

Rare Bird plans to make two cut-outs in the adjoining wall for more dining and roasting space. Berenji said that the greater space will also come with the coffee shop hiring a dedicated baker that will take on duties of making croissants, kouign-amann, scones, loaf cakes and cookies. But she said it also has the shop looking at some more menu items, including sandwiches, and potentially salads and soups as well.

Berenji said that the hope is for the new section of Rare Bird to be open by March. Expect the shop to be open for longer hours, too, per Berenji, once the pandemic settles down.

THE FORMER STEM learning space next door to Rare Bird buckled due to the spot’s expensive rent. (Photo: News-Press)

The City’s Commissioner of Revenue Tom Clinton said he found it remarkable that, as everything else in the economy is contracting, one of the City’s coffee shops is actually growing into taking on more space to meet its demand — especially a corner space that has become so hard to fill in the past few years.

In recent memory, it was occupied by toy shop Doodlehopper 4 Kids, but Clinton said they moved into the interior of the same strip for a less costly alternative. It was filled by the STEM learning space, but that run only lasted a year and a half before they ultimately moved out.

A part of the reason Rare Bird has been so resilient is its roasting business. Berenji said that while it couldn’t serve customers from its storefront at the start of the pandemic, primarily due to her and co-owner husband Bryan Becker not wanting to put their staff at risk of contracting the virus, they were able to generate some revenue from coffee sales.

Ricardo Lopez, the founder of Bellwether Coffee, wrote in QSR Magazine in May that coffee shops where roasting is done in-house have an advantage in the changing, post-Covid-19 landscape for the industry.

As he put it, “Coffee shops who already roast their own signature coffees…are largely protected from potential supply chain disruptions — they don’t have to rely on other sources to get their roasted coffee product. They are often rewarded with brand benefits like customer loyalty and recognition, and are nimble enough to shift all or a portion of their business online, which opens their business up to an even larger audience.”

They also can minimize inventory risk, per Lopez, so they can adjust to demand more easily.

However, wholesale customers have mostly dried up for Rare Bird, according to Berenji. Luckily, the store had a loyal customer base that was calling, texting and emailing the owners wondering when they could return to place their regular orders, Berenji said, and sales from their service side have kept them going once they did open for takeout over the past few months.

She’s hopeful that with news of the vaccine, Rare Bird will welcome the return of its pre-pandemic levels of foot traffic.