Opening before a pandemic: amid business closures, Ubuntu Cafe thrives

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When California implemented its statewide lockdown on March 20, Ubuntu Cafe had only been open for 22 days.

“Once we got news of the shutdown and the mandatory stay-at-home order, I told my chef and my wife, ‘We’re not closing. I’m not giving up,’” co-owner Fellippe Esteves said.

According to an Economic Average Report by Yelp, around 132,500 businesses have closed since March 1. Los Angeles was hit hardest by the effects of coronavirus, with 11,342 temporary and permanent business closures, the most of any city in the United States.

The graph from an Economic Average Report by Yelp shows geographic areas with the largest number of business closures since March 1. Los Angeles was hit the hardest by the effects of coronavirus, with 11,342 temporary and permanent business closures, the most of any city in the United States. (Via Yelp)

“It definitely was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done for a restaurant,” Esteves said. “The 2008 recession was hard, but not even close to this.”

Esteves saw the effects of the pandemic taking hold of the state. A friend of Esteves, the owner of 12 restaurants, had to close eight of his locations.

Ubuntu’s location, just a block away from Colorado Lagoon, has its own disappointing track record. The block has been the home to a series of failed restaurants for the past decade. Even before the pandemic began, Esteves said the landlord was worried about renting the location to another doomed venture.

“I’ve gone through some locations in the past that, even with the neighbors, it becomes a joke. Every six months it’s something different. Nothing sticks,” Esteves said. But the landlord believed in his vision.

The name “Ubuntu” was inspired by a TED Talk that he had watched years prior about a community in Zimbabwe.

“Ubuntu literally means, it’s an essential quality of human virtue. It’s compassion and humanity. It means togetherness. It means ‘I am because you are,’” he said. “It’s not just about me, it’s about working together towards a common goal. That’s ubuntu, community.”

When the restaurant was close to opening, Esteves put up their sign: “Ubuntu: The Greatest Neighborhood Cafe.”

“A lot of the neighbors were like, ‘You know, this is a kind of bold statement, we’ll see about that,’” he said.

Yet Esteves and his wife Danielle Soldati had a combination of innovation and luck on their side. The architecture of their new cafe was well-suited for a time fraught with fear against an airborne virus.

Their restaurant isn’t just equipped with outdoor space, it’s entirely outdoor space. A covered patio, which acts as the restaurant’s interior, has sliding glass doors providing constant airflow. The exterior is lined with tables and umbrellas to fight off the sun.

As with any businesses, their location alone didn’t keep them afloat. Esteves and Soldati had a few ideas up their sleeves even before the pandemic began. When the state began allowing drinks to go, they put their first plan in motion: The Adult Lemonade Stand.

“As soon as the county allowed us to do drinks to go, it was game on,” Esteves said. “People were just flocking in with their bikes, coming in, getting food, getting some drinks and going to the park.”

Their next surge came when they launched their picnic basket program. Initially meant for Long Beach’s now-canceled Concerts in the Park, the couple repurposed their idea as the “most romantic happy hour in Long Beach.”

Social distancing was already built into the concept. Customers reserved their choice of picnic basket, put down a deposit and took their basket to Colorado Lagoon to dine in the park. The offering quickly gained traction.

“We sold so many baskets in one weekend that we now require [booking] 48 hours in advance,” Esteves said.

The couple faced another unexpected problem with the baskets’ popularity. After munching on chocolate strawberries and cheeses, customers who put down security deposits on picnic baskets decided that they wanted to keep the baskets.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, I don’t have enough baskets for the coming day,’” he said. “I had to overnight 10 more baskets.”

But customers weren’t just coming for wine and cheese baskets. They were coming for homemade nut milk, golden farm fresh eggs and handmade pastries. The menu, which Esteves described as having “California influence with global inspirations,” pays homage to his heritage with Brazilian cheese bread and Portuguese cod croquettes.

As for the pandemic, he believes that it was all for the best.

“The most important thing out of this, that made us very different, is the pandemic made us really connect with our neighbors,” Esteves said.

When the pandemic hit, customers vowed to come every day to keep the cafe open. Esteves was committed to continuing service, whether through delivery or take-out, to keep the cafe alive.

“We have a couple of neighbors that come here that we call friends now,” he said. “They were here every day for a coffee, for a pastry. Or they would stop by to just say hello, see how we’re doing. That touched us really deeply.”

Now that restaurants are back open, they’re the busiest they’ve been since opening day, a feat Esteves described as “mind-boggling.”

Later this month, they’re launching their first-ever dinner service.

“We didn’t know that we were going to go through this, nobody knew. All businesses went through some big problems,” Esteves said. “We’re just a little humble cafe that tries to bring the best food out there.”

Ubuntu Cafe is located at 335 Nieto Ave, in Long Beach, and is open Saturday through Monday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit them on their website, ubuntucafelb.com; official Instagram @ubuntulb; and their Facebook at Ubuntu Café.