Alumni, students support Dirt Cowboy with online coffee bean orders

by Emily Lu and Archita Harathi | 5/12/20 2:15am

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The economic downturn has hurt businesses up and down Main Street.

by Elisabeth Ericson / The Dartmouth

Students and alumni have rallied to support Dirt Cowboy Cafe — a Hanover coffee shop struggling during the coronavirus shutdown — by ordering coffee beans online. After a spike in orders across the country, owner Tom Guerra said that he was able to rehire two full-time employees and catch up on rent. 

Dirt Cowboy, a Hanover staple since 1993, usually averages one order per day on its website, accounting for just two to three percent of the cafe’s income, according to Guerra. However, the cafe has experienced a dramatic uptick in online purchases since April 6, when it received 30 online orders after Dartmouth alumna Liz Klinger ’10 posted about her order on Facebook. Now, 25 percent of Dirt Cowboy’s income comes from its website, with the store’s remaining revenue coming from takeout orders. 

“It was a pretty big relief,” Guerra said. “[Dirt Cowboy] was definitely not generating enough business on its own to sustain itself.” Guerra was able to rehire the head baker and a new barista — “positions that used to [be] no longer needed” — to support storefront operations while he processes website orders. 

Klinger said that she had placed an order from Dirt Cowboy and received an email from Guerra in which he referred to online customers as a “lifeline.” She decided to post in the unofficial Women of Dartmouth Facebook group, encouraging others to support the business. The post, along with similar follow-up messages, garnered over 600 Facebook reactions. 

“It's a pretty quiet group, so I was surprised by the amount of reacts,” Klinger said. “I think it resonated with a lot of people because [they] had a lot of good memories of Dirt Cowboy. By seeing that one of our favorite businesses is in trouble, and also their coffee is very good too, it's a win-win situation for everybody.”

Students have also shared the link among each other and through campus organizations. Katie Smith ’22 first heard of Dirt Cowboy’s online store through her sorority’s GroupMe, which prompted her to buy and support “the best coffee in Hanover,” as she described it.

Klinger noted that she had been ordering from Dirt Cowboy since graduating, but she was surprised by Guerra’s email and felt compelled to share it with others. She said that she has placed several orders since the first note and still receives personal updates about the cafe with each shipment. 

“I’m not going to get that type of service from [chains], so I’m going to Dirt Cowboy,” Klinger said. “People have jobs again, and they’re able to keep making all the delicious things that I remember from my time at Dartmouth.”

The gratitude runs both ways. Guerra said that the messages of appreciation and stories he has received from alumni are a “silver lining,” and they also help to serve as motivation. 

“I'm getting letters from people saying how much the experience meant to them when they were undergrads here — it was their ritual to come to the coffee shop,” he said. “One thing that's pulling me along is the idea that really the cafe was and is appreciated, and a lot of people want to see us when they come back for reunions.” 

According to Hanover town manager Julia Griffin, most landlords in downtown Hanover have waived the base rent for their retail and restaurant tenants for April and May. However, Dirt Cowboy is one of the few businesses that did not receive this rent relief. Guerra explained that he was “already in bad shape before the pandemic hit” but was able to pay rent for the past two months due to the spike in online orders. 

“Without the website orders, I probably wouldn't have been able to pay both March and April, probably just March and struggled along,” he said. “It has made all the difference. Certainly, there was a stronger possibility … of going bankrupt.”

Just like Dirt Cowboy, other shops on Main Street in Hanover are attempting to change their main sources of revenue amid COVID-19. A variety of restaurants and stores have focused more on online and takeout options for their customers. Griffin said that Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery now offers dinners to go and that some restaurants, including Umpleby's Bakery and Cafe, have widened their menu options. 

Griffin also spoke about Hanover businesses’ heightened sanitation measures, referencing the detailed cleanliness standards that Guerra has enforced for his cafe. 

“You hand him your card, he swipes it but then he cleans it off with a wipe and hands it back to you,” she said. 

Griffin claimed that credit card cleaning at Dirt Cowboy was “a small thing, but you notice when retailers do that.” 

Despite the wave of adaptations that small businesses are undertaking to maintain their businesses, some retailers have run into seemingly insurmountable obstacles with the new social distancing rules, resulting in closures in Hanover like that of Morano Gelato

In response to COVID-19, Griffin said that the town of Hanover is hoping to waive the eight percent interest charge on unpaid property taxes until the end of September. 

While COVID-19 has posed a number of challenges for small businesses, Griffin commended Dartmouth graduates for helping out Hanover retailers in their time of need. 

“A lot of our Hanover businesses have loyal alumni supporters, both recent grads and long-time supporters, and it’s been wonderful to see some of those folks step up when there are so many competing needs out there,” she said.

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