The Wash
Coffee and bakery shop storefront in D.C.

Coffee shops, cafés grapple with post-pandemic, remote work trends

Remote employees opt to work in coffee shops and cafés but the shift isn’t enough to meet pre-pandemic business levels.

For General Manager Moses Lee, the Memorial Day rush at Le Pain Quotidien off 17th Street downtown was welcome. It was actually unusually busy, he said.

Lee said the café had steady business every day before 2020, with many federal and bank employees stopping for coffee and lunch.

Since then, he’s seen a dramatic shift.

“With the pandemic over, we were expecting it to get better, but we’re still struggling,” Lee said. “I don’t see the sales that we used to have. People are working at home, the rent is still going up and while some of the places and businesses are still here, the people are not here.”

Federal and municipal leaders have pushed to end remote work for government employees in the District. In March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser mandated that municipal employees could only work remotely twice per week.

President Joe Biden last August urged his cabinet to “aggressively” end remote work for the city’s about 160,000 federal employees. A study last fall found that over two-thirds of all federal employees were still opting to work remotely some of the time, affecting real estate and restaurants in the downtown D.C. area.

But Lee said the combination of fewer government and private sector workers — a third worked from home in 2022 — has made the struggle worse. Nearly half of the city’s workers are from private companies as of 2022.

“Traffic may have picked up on the streets and on the Metro, but we haven’t seen the bank employees return to these buildings around us,” Lee said.


Businesses in D.C. and nationwide mostly focused on surviving during the pandemic and lockdown. Le Pain Quotidien is still in that mindset, Lee said.

A few streets away, Roasting Plant Coffee off of L Street was quiet Monday during the holiday.

Ezana Wright said he’s already used to the slow traffic from remote workers.

Still, coffee shops and cafés are uniquely positioned compared to restaurants and stores because many of them are places where remote workers can escape their homes and work elsewhere.

‘People want coffee’

Sydney Skelton, acting manager and employee at Compass Coffee off H Street downtown, said coffee shops had changed their business models and are surviving better than other local businesses.

At Compass Coffee, there’s been an increase in people coming in and staying to work over longer periods of time. Skelton said some coffee shops, including Compass Coffee, are leaning into the experience by offering ceramic mugs and free WiFi for customers to help entice remote workers to come in.

“I’ve definitely seen a hard increase of people in here,” Skelton said, “with their laptops or people have headsets on whereas before (the pandemic), people were just coming in to grab coffee and leave.

“There’s a lot more of the work-from-home crowd base that have made cafés and coffee shops their second office, as opposed to sitting in their house for a change of scenery.”

With its location near federal buildings and the White House, Skelton said she doesn’t anticipate losing business as federal employees return to in-person work, but the business model is shifting once again. Wright similarly said business models will shift, but he’s not deterred.

Skelton said she’s not worried that coffee shops like the one she works at are surviving and thriving through the post-pandemic waves. People want coffee, she said.

“There’ll probably be a lot more commuter traffic and a lot more come-and-go traffic,” Skelton said. “The flow won’t stop.”

Karoline Leonard

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