Dulce Bakery & Coffee was much more than another java joint for its owners, long-time employees and loyal customers.
Almost any morning – six days a week – before the COVID-19 outbreak forced the recent stacking of tables and chairs, the place would be near full with dine-in and to-go customers. The air was thick with the aroma of sugar-sprinkled blueberry muffins and other tasty treats that lined the glass counter while a crew of bakers kneaded and cut dough for the day ahead.
“It’s kind of a social hub for a lot of people – a meeting place,” co-owner Kirk Barnett said on Tuesday as he served coffee, muffins and savory pastries for to-go-only customers. “People miss that; they don’t want to stay home all day, so I’m sure they miss that part of it.”
And they may miss it even more. When Barnett locked the doors at 4 p.m. that day, it may have been for the last time. He and pastry chef Dennis Adkins hope the closure is only temporary, but they say it could be permanent, depending on how things go in the next weeks and months.
The health issues that brought the recent lockdown, and forced sit-down restaurants and coffee shops toward a to-go- and curbside pickup-only business model, and economics made Dulce’s future murky and currently unsustainable.
“I think the less exposure the people have to other people, the better until we get through this,” said Barnett.
Adkins himself has some health issues and customers understand why Dulce has to close, Barnett said.
Dulce means “sweet” in Spanish, but there is nothing sweet about revenue being down between 50% and 60% from this time last year, said Barnett.
The popular business, which bills itself as a “small batch from scratch bakery,” has anchored one corner of El Mercado Plaza shopping center off Cordova Road since it opened in September 2010.
“Everything we do here is made by hand from scratch. We don’t use any mixes and we don’t buy our croissants from somewhere else and thaw them out,” said Barnett. “Everyone has been really supportive of us; they come in and stock up on things, and bought a lot of products and tip the baristas really well.”
Two of those baristas, Kieran Gonzales and Stephen Townsley, know many of the customers by name, and the drinks and goodies they favor.
Gonzales, 34, who has been at Dulce since it opened, said he will miss the daily banter with customers.
“I can count probably a good number of 50 to 100 people that I know on a first-name basis,” Gonzales said.
He said he will miss that daily interaction. “I wonder if so and so is healthy, how is their sister doing, how’s the family. I won’t be able to hear about any of that.”
As Barnett, 56, explained the bakery’s success, regular customer Peter Komis of Santa Fe came over to offer his regrets from an appropriate social distancing space.
“Excuse the interruption … but I just wanted to give you a big hug,” Komis said, approaching the table where Barnett sat.
“A hug from a distance,” Barnett responded.
“I’m so heartbroken. Thank you so much for taking care of us; this is devastating,” Komis told Barnett, who thanked Komis for his business.
Komis captured the zeitgeist undoubtedly felt by many.
“It’s something I never imagined,” he said, of the pandemic. “It’s like ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (a 1971 sci-fi movie set in New Mexico with scientists fighting a deadly organism) when I was a kid … everything is shutting down, the economies are closing, people aren’t getting paid. What’s going to happen?”
Barnett has not yet fully explored any possible financial assistance from the government’s recent $2 trillion stimulus deal and is hesitant about seeking a small-business loan.
A week ago, he laid off his 14 full- and part-time employees, including three full-time bakers.
“We hope it’s temporary, we do plan on re-opening. It depends how long this goes on,” said Barnett.
The lease is up in September, but he has not yet heard from his landlord.
“I’m not sure how he (the landlord) is going to accommodate all the tenants in the shopping center,” he said.
Adkins is the man behind the cafe’s signature blueberry muffins.
“I definitely didn’t want to go out this way,” he said, adding that any closure felt empty without some sort of customer appreciation day. “We want to come back … everything is so uncertain.”
The irony of the Dulce name, underscored by the current circumstances, is not lost on Barnett. “It’s bittersweet,” he said of the closing.
“It’s bad. There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns. I mean, if I knew that in a month, we could open, I would be fine with that. It is what it is,” he said.
Regular customer Komis said he frequented Dulce every day of the week and often brought his late mother there.
“I’m definitely going to miss this place,” he said.