The Local Lens: Jess Rufo

It's true that the COVID-19 crisis is affecting institutions, organizations, and the economy as a whole, but behind the facts and statistics reverberate deeply personal stories of real people. We'll be focusing on those stories — the stories of local folks you know — through the Local Lens.

Above: Down to earth baristas are at the heart of the Dottie’s experience; submitted photo, 2015.

Owner, Dottie’s Coffee Lounge

As told to Robin Catalano

I’m originally from the Berkshires, and left for college in Boston. I got sick of it after a while and moved to New York City, not to chase a dream, but because my sister was there. I was really kind of lost. When I was wandering around the West Village, I stumbled upon a coffee shop called Joe. They were serving Barrington Coffee. That was the beginning of my really understanding the value of community, the comfort of the many wonderful things of the Berkshires.

I got a job at the new coffee shop Joe was opening. I hadn’t been into coffee as an artistic, latte-art type of thing. They turned me on to that, and my world got so much brighter. When I started to daydream about my own coffee shop, I knew that would be part of it. But community needed to be in the foundation.

Jess Rufo with her partner Michael Downer and son, Sailor James Downer; submitted photo.

When we first opened Dottie’s in 2007, we just made simple drinks—an espresso, an Americano—and had a much smaller menu. Over time it expanded, and we developed our vibe. The menu got bigger and more affordable and more inclusive, a little trendier, more vegetable-based. We’ve tried to make it very approachable, even for the people who haven’t stopped in in 13 years because they think we’re too fancy.

When the health crisis hit, we weren’t sure what to do. Ultimately, on March 17, we decided to close. The fact that Dottie’s has become a community hub played a huge part in my decision to close and not really invest in the pickup aspect. It’s just not Dottie’s to take your food and go. It also didn’t seem sustainable. The most expensive thing you can get at Dottie’s is $12. We certainly weren’t going to be able to pay our bills from the few people who are still going out to get a coffee or a sandwich.

Boxes prepped for delivery — your current culinary connection to Dottie’s; submitted photo.

We had been staying open late for dessert and doing a lot of community programming—workshops, performances, a teen night. I felt like it was just starting to catch some momentum. That’s the biggest punch in the gut for me.

I’ve done a lot of applying for grants and loans. I applied for the Paycheck Protection Program. I applied for the $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance. I applied for a couple of smaller grants. We’ve also done a GoFundMe. Every day, I check e-mails and messages from friends about grants, and go after the ones that make sense for us. It’s a lot of work.

Like every other cafe, we’ve had to make a big shift in our business. We have a lot of merchandise, so we’ve created a new line in collaboration with Elegant Stitches of sweatshirts, T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, and baseball caps that say, “Until we meet again. Love, Dottie.” Just this past week we did our first weekly subscription service, a Taste of Dottie’s. For $40 delivered or $35 curbside pickup, you can get your choice of 12 ounces of coffee beans to brew at home or our chai concentrate, plus 12 baked goods.

As a venue, Dottie’s has established it as a critical Mid-County destination; submitted photo.

Being someone who’s practiced this whole social-distancing thing pretty religiously, I had some anxiety. The pressure to keep everyone safe when you’re making, packaging, delivering their food—you can work yourself into a tizzy over it. I take enormous responsibility with what we do. The first week went surprisingly well—it generated about $800. If we can do that once a week, we can pay our rent and a few other bills.

I’ve been doing my best to stay connected with the staff, to make sure they have what they need. They’re currently on unemployment, but my hope is that we all end up together again behind that counter. And I’m still staying connected to my customers. Some of them I actually talk to on the phone or through text message. We stay in touch on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve posted videos to let them know we’re all going through this together. I’m out on the Internet with my big heart, just hoping to connect. Now we’re going to our customers’ homes with deliveries, which we’ve never done before. In a lot of ways, it feels like we’re getting even closer.

The hope of Dottie’s regulars, of course, is to bet back to basking in the aromas and atmosphere in person as soon as possible; submitted photo.

Life is going to be different after this. I think this is a giant spiritual awakening that came in a really odd package. There are a lot of people suffering and scared and ill, and I’m not making light of that. Those of us who are fortunate enough to not be in that state are doing some really transformative work. If something bad wasn’t happening, this would be such a great time. It’s an opportunity to reflect and connect and appreciate each other. I’m really grateful that so many people are doing that. I’m excited to see where we land after this.

To order a Dottie’s weekly subscription box, text your order to Jess at 917-817-8863.

Robin Catalano

Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.

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