A unique business model makes gradual reopening complicated, but not impossible
Laura Benson and her business partner Neil Estaris are in a unique position: Their three-year-old business, Oblivion Comics & Coffee, a hybrid cafe and comics shop, doesn’t fit neatly into business regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they have been cautious about reopening, while still serving some customers through online orders.
SN&R spoke with Benson about what it’s like running a comic/cafe during the pandemic, plus how and when they plan to reopen.
You reopened with curbside service on [May] 18.
Technically, we’ve been allowed to do curbside since we are like a restaurant—we’re a cafe—but when downtown itself shut down, our business just shut off. So we went ahead and just closed until we felt we were comfortable to reopen. We started looking into it a couple of weeks ago, and when we were finally able to get financial help, we decided to go ahead and do it, so we could be able to also bring some of our employees back.
You have a unique business model. You’re a combination comic book store and cafe. Did that create any hiccups in figuring out which criteria you needed to follow?
At the moment, we’ve pretty much been treating each section as its own store. We are technically one full business. At first, we were just offering our comics through online purchase. We were able to upload all of our comic inventory to an online store. We’d just package those up and mail [orders]. We were able to basically do that from home, because we had a lot of our stock at home. We have subscribers who, when new comics were released of the titles they wanted, we would order that, and we’d just package that up and mail it to them. So that was kind of nice for comic book customers to continue to get their comic books to read during quarantine.
Did those comic subscribers help you weather the storm a bit?
Yeah, it did, in terms of being able to keep some things going on the back end. Obviously if we’re closed, we’re not making any sales, and we have to pay certain bills. So we still needed to have electricity in our shop, we still needed to pay for various security things, like an alarm, or whatever. So we still needed to have some money to put toward essential services that we needed to keep. So having that online shop and having subscribers still be able to purchase their comics definitely helped us get through the last couple of months, and helped us build up some savings to reopen the coffee side.
The curbside pickup started on the 18th. Was that just for comics?
No, that was for the coffee bar side. We did open up pickup and curbside for comics as well, but they do need to be purchased ahead of time, because…customers cannot come inside. So to make comic purchasing easier, we have everybody purchase online, or email us for us to process that, and then they can pick it up. With the coffee side, you can just walk up and order at the door, or you can order over the phone, or we’re on GrubHub or Postmates, so you can order for pickup or delivery there as well.
So last week’s semi-reopening for dining and restaurants didn’t affect you the same way? Are you being a little more cautious, continuing with just [pickup service]?
Yes. We decided we were going to start on the more cautious side, because—just in case we’re opening too soon—we want to make sure that Sacramento…is still seeing our numbers decreasing and we’re not seeing any spikes, and doing it this way allows us to make sure our customers and our staff are still going to be safe. So we’re currently planning to wait until sometime—maybe in June, just to see how things go—and we’ll open up around then for customers to come inside using the state health guidelines.
You had a recent anniversary. How did you celebrate that, given the closures?
We celebrated our third-year anniversary on the 10th. And since everybody was closed, we couldn’t do what we would normally do at the shop, itself. So instead, we released the online comic book store so people could purchase more comics, and we did a few things online. We had a couple of hours of livestream, where we were able to talk to some of our customers, answer some questions, give everybody updates on what we’re doing, and then we did an online Zoom trivia game, kind of like pub trivia, but we did it on a Zoom call. We used to have weekly trivia nights, and we would get a lot of people, so we decided to try it online, and we did get a few people that came in and they really liked it. So we’re actually looking into seeing if we can do something like that again. In the evening we did—there’s a Chrome app called Netflix Party, so anybody who has a Netflix account can follow a specific link and we can all sync up and watch the same movie, and there’s a little chat box so we can chat while we’re watching it.
What movie did you choose?
This year, our anniversary theme was “Back to the Future,” so we just happened to pick that when Netflix added the Back to the Future movies. So we went ahead and watched the first movie. It was a lot of fun.
You have coffee and a very vegan-friendly menu. Is your full menu available?
The full menu is not currently available. We kind of just started with our signature grilled cheeses. We do plan to expand it out, though. Right now, we’re offering just the classic grilled cheese and the sun-dried tomato and avocado grilled cheese. What we actually introduced just before the stay-at-home order was the Hungry Box, which we still have now, and it’s pretty popular. It’s two classic grilled cheese sandwiches, two iced drinks, two vegan gluten-free cookies from Sweet Flour Bakery, and then you get to choose from our vegan sides. You can get either potato chips, a pasta salad and then a macaroni salad. It’s been pretty popular. A lot of people really like it because they get so much food. It’s all vegan-friendly and a lot of people who are not vegan just absolutely love our grilled cheese. So a lot of people are really enjoying it.
So they’re all vegan grilled cheese?
All of our food on our menu is vegan. The only things that are not vegan are our milk-based drinks, because we do still carry dairy. But we do have almond, soy, and oat milk alternatives.
Are there any things you’re excited about when you can reopen fully?
We are really just excited to see our customers again. We had a lot of amazing regulars that we got to see almost daily when we were open, so I think we’re really just excited to see all of our friends again. Even if we do have to limit how many people are inside, we still get to see them and know that they’re still safe.