Dillon Basse / Special to the News-Leader
Before I moved to Fernandina Beach, I lived in a town just outside of Boston, Mass. called Easton. One of the biggest staples of the Massachusetts lifestyle is Dunkin’ Donuts. The town of Easton has about five Dunkin’ Donuts stores alone. You can’t drive five miles in Easton without passing a Dunkin’. I’m guessing this was where my addiction to coffee began.
Today, I spend more money on coffee than I’d like to admit. When I moved to Fernandina Beach, there wasn’t a single Dunkin’ Donuts, so I was in desperate need of a place that could fulfill my bad spending habit. The only coffee place I recognized on the island was Starbucks, but to go there would just be traitorous to my Bostonian roots.
A friend of mine told me I needed to go downtown and checkout Amelia Island Coffee, and as soon as I did, I knew I had found my place. It quickly became my go-to spot for caffeine. Throughout high school and college, I would come here to write papers, hang with friends, and sometimes just to get out of the house.
Since it’s clearly one of my favorite small businesses on the island, I felt a sort of responsibility to tell their story and share their experiences through this pandemic. Ricky Robbins Jr. has been the general manager of AIC for four years now and was more than willing to give me some insight into how the business survived and adapted to the new way of life brought on by COVID-19.
When the initial panic began and businesses started being shutdown, Robbins made the switch most places were making and AIC became a to-go only service. Preparing for the worst, he thought they eventually would be shut down completely, but since AIC was mostly a coffee shop and not a bar or restaurant that sold liquor, the governor allowed them to stay open.
“We got lucky,” said Robbins. “We took nothing for granted and followed all the guidelines sent by the government.”
When it came to the lives of Robbins’ employees, it was the limited hours and lack of face time with customers that affected them the most. In a place where employees memorize your order after they get to know you, face time is very important – being that it can lead to customer generosity. Even though their hours and tips declined, Robbins was still able to supplement their income and made sure their paychecks were as steady as possible.
During those long days in April, while employees were greeting customers at the front window for to-go orders, Robbins was always in the back tending to his shop.
“We did some honey-do listing here and there,” he said. “But the majority of the time was spent on sanitizing and wiping down the shop.”
Now that I am able to be inside Amelia Island Coffee again, I can physically see the changes Robbins made: Each member of the staff must wear a mask, there are bottles of hand sanitizer at every table, and there is at least six feet between every possible seating area. I can honestly say that I feel like I am in a safe environment here. Many others agree with me and have told Robbins they are happy to be back inside the shop because they can see how seriously AIC is taking customer safety. Robbins advises other coffee shops and small businesses to do the same.
“Get creative!” said Robbins. “Do things you wouldn’t normally think of. Listen to your guests! Make them feel as safe as they would at home.”
Like many of the other owners I interviewed, Robbins couldn’t stress enough the importance of supporting small businesses.
“Even I order from Amazon,” he said. “But small businesses make the town what it is, especially in Fernandina. Without small businesses in a small town like this, you lose the allure and the feel. People enjoy the smallness.”
Like Robbins, I too do things like order from Amazon. Giving big business your money isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since I’ve moved here, there was a Dunkin’ built on the island and I don’t exactly boycott them. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were surviving on my sales alone. Still, the Dunkin’ employees don’t know my order. I can’t go in there for hours at a time and work on projects. I don’t ask old friends to catch up while sitting inside a Dunkin’ Donuts. I do all those things at Amelia Island Coffee.
Editor’s note: Dillon Basse grew up on Amelia Island and recently graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in communications.