OCA Mocha opened its doors last fall, officially joining both the Arbutus and UMBC community, but the pandemic has affected how we define and interact with community. So I spoke with OCA Mocha’s co-founder and general manager Michael Berardi about fostering a sense of community during a pandemic.
How has OCA Mocha been handling the pandemic thus far on a policy level?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the safety of our customers and staff have been our top priority. We have not opened our indoor seating because we have decided to place safety above finances with the decisions we’re making. We’ve been paying close attention to the guidance of the CDC, the Governor, and the County Executive. Our policies have adjusted as we’ve learned more about this virus. Our current safety protocols include increased sanitization efforts, the use of PPE (including masks and gloves for the staff), required masks for customers, staff temperature checks, physical barriers, and signage to encourage and enforce physical distancing guidelines. We’ve also added an online ordering system and now allow curbside pickup and walk-in ordering as well.
Are there any plans for changes in the next few months?
We’re adding an outdoor patio area to allow for safe, comfortable, physically distanced seating. We are looking into the possibility of hosting small outdoor events and concerts in the fall. We’re also thinking through the logistics of opening our community meeting room for small, physically distanced meetings if it is safe to do so.
What has been the biggest challenge of the last few months as a business?
Maintaining the momentum that we built has been a challenge. We hosted and encouraged large gatherings and events that simply cannot happen at this point. We’ve seen a significant decline in sales for several reasons, however we are remaining focused and hopeful as we navigate these uncertain times. Our partnerships with various organizations have been key to sustaining operations throughout this time. Student Affairs has provided rent forgiveness, the Office of Institutional Advancement is now supporting our internship program, Chesapeake Bank has donated a portion of their parking lot for outdoor seating, and we’ve received private donations as well. We are extremely grateful and appreciative for the support we’ve received from our partners, and we believe our collective struggle will ultimately solidify our community alliances as we continue to work together through these difficult times.
OCA Mocha is still very young, having only opened last year. Do you think that has impacted your outlook regarding the pandemic? If so, how?
While of course we’re very disappointed with the sudden changes and limiting factors that COVID-19 has caused for OCA Mocha, we understand that a negative outlook won’t get us anywhere. Instead, we’re using this time to figure out how to continue showing up for the community and innovate. If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.
Community is such a large part of OCA Mocha’s brand. How have you been maintaining those ties when so many experiences must be had at a distance if at all?
While we can no longer gather in person, we’re still finding ways to bring the community together and support our neighbors as much as possible. We’ve hosted several virtual events, including open mic nights, OCA Mocha Kid’s Club, and community conversations. We’ve seen encouraging engagement on many of these events, with some reaching over 1,000 views on Facebook. While we were closed, we delivered free meals for kids in the neighborhood. We’ve been working on launching Towards Wholesome Eating, a partnership with Retriever Essentials aimed at alleviating food insecurity by providing fresh produce and nutrient rich foods to students and community members. We’ve also maintained our community partnerships online through various organizations such as the UMBC Neighbor Relations Group and the Greater Arbutus Business Association. We’re continuing to brainstorm creative ways to bring people together and engage the community.
In addition to the pandemic, there is a movement or perhaps better to say several movements for social change happening. Once again, community is a large part of your brand, so what do you see as being OCA Mocha’s role right now?
Since its start as a UMBC class project, one of OCA Mocha’s goals has been to bridge the campus and the community by providing a welcoming space for all. Over the past several months, we’ve been working to create an environment where people can come together to discuss and reflect on current events. We partnered with UMBC Black Lives Matter on a virtual event that brought together local youth, activists, and artists to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences revolving around the Black Lives Matter conversation. Our current gallery exhibit, “Art in the Time of Covid,” features 67 pieces from 22 artists from the UMBC and local communities inspired by the pandemic and other current events. We will continue to facilitate important conversations and create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
What would OCA Mocha’s message to the UMBC community be?
The only way through these difficult, uncertain times is to come together and support each other. Wash your hands, wear your mask, and support your neighbors and local businesses.