Paying It Forward: A Cup of Commonwealth Offers Coffee and Community During Pandemic

The local coffee shop has supported Lexington residents with a new mural, free drinks, and more.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have had to get creative with how they handle customers and in-person business interactions. In a city with over 500 restaurants and a state with the most fast-food restaurants per capita, many companies struggled to stay open after Gov. Andy Beshear closed bars and restaurants in March.

But despite the challenges, many Lexington restaurants have responded by not only following new hygiene protocols, but also offering support to essential workers and struggling families.   

“Kentucky businesses have proven strong and resilient through the pandemic. Although some unfortunately lost a lot, many were able to stay afloat and help the community and employees while doing so,” junior Caroline Devine, whose father owns a local restaurant, said.

While many local businesses have offered unique solutions to the problems of the pandemic, one company stands out.

Local coffee shop A Cup of Commonwealth and its affiliated hot chocolate café, Chocolate Holler, have always tried to be a positive presence in the Lexington area.

“At A Cup of Common Wealth we embrace our community, we honor culture, and we stand for service,” their website reads.

Chocolate Holler and A Cup of Commonwealth… have always been set apart from other coffee shops for me because they have as much emphasis on community as on having a great cup of coffee.

— Zach Susini

Senior Zach Susini has worked at Chocolate Holler for four months.

“Chocolate Holler and A Cup of Commonwealth… have always been set apart from other coffee shops for me because they have as much emphasis on community as on having a great cup of coffee,” he said.

So when the pandemic began, the store’s owners and employees wanted to make a difference in the community.

“It was just such a weird time, and a hard time,” Cabby, a barista at Chocolate Holler, said. “So it seemed like the only thing to do was to try and support the Lexington community, even though it’s a struggle for everyone, including small businesses.”

Both shops offer a “Pay It Forward” program in which customers pay for future customers’ drinks by writing a message on a paperboard coffee sleeve. During the pandemic, hundreds of customers bought Pay It Forwards for essential workers and medical professionals. Others bought drinks for anybody who wanted one.

“The whole purpose of it is buying a coffee for somebody that maybe can’t get one,” Dunbar graduate and coffee enthusiast Parker Smith said. “I think that when you have a situation like COVID, it really makes a difference to give something to people that they maybe wouldn’t be able to have.”

When the pandemic began, A Cup of Commonwealth had an entire wall covered in Pay It Forwards for the general public. As of October, they still had dozens of free drinks for firefighters, police officers, and service workers.

“For a couple months, we were offering a pretty significant discount for essential workers, and just making sure that we could really accommodate them and everything they needed,” Susini added.

The store also wanted to celebrate the unity Kentucky displayed during this time of crisis. In partnership with local artists and businesses like Kentucky for Kentucky, they painted a mural outside A Cup of Commonwealth that reads “Together we are stronger.”

The mural, which includes an outline of the state in white and blue paint, is visible along Lexington’s Main Street.

Susini thinks the mural is an embodiment of the spirit of togetherness in the Bluegrass.

“It was painted as a testament to how Kentucky has been resilient and how we’ve been making the news with our response to the coronavirus,” he said.

He also believes A Cup of Commonwealth has played a role in this resilience and concern for public health.

“They’ve been very conscious about, ‘Can we do this safely?’ And if we can’t, we’re not going to do it,” he said. “It would be really easy sometimes to be irresponsible and open up and get as many customers as we could, but our main mission is to serve the people of Lexington and make them feel welcome.”

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  • The “Together We Are Stronger” mural outside of A Cup of Commonwealth is more than just a painting. For many Kentuckians, it represents how the state came together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • A Cup of Commonwealth’s “Pay it Forward” program allows customers to pre-pay for future customers’ drinks. Some are designated specifically for frontline workers, while others are for anyone that may need a pick-me-up.

  • The phrase “we are in this together” has become a hallmark of Gov. Andy Beshear’s nightly COVID-19 briefings. A Cup of Commonwealth is one of the many businesses, families, and schools to showcase this statement on signs.

  • A Cup of Commonwealth isn’t the only business adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions. PieTana, a local wood-fired oven, added outdoor seating to maintain its rustic atmosphere while ensuring a safe customer experience.

  • Colleges have also had to adapt to COVID-19 protocol. Although the University of Kentucky has resumed in-person classes, the pandemic has changed the daily lives of UK students and Lexington residents. Large reminders like this one are seen throughout the campus.

  • The University of Kentucky has made many changes to keep its students and staff safe. Canopies with tables and chairs are placed throughout the campus so students can eat, study, and gather while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

  • One of Lexington’s middle schools, Jessie M. Clark, encourages students and the community to “STAY HOME” and “STAY HEALTHY.” This marquee is partnered with another sign showing the Eagle mascot wearing a mask.

  • Manchester Street is the site of many attractions including restaurants, local shops, and art galleries. This recently restored site in Lexington’s Distillery District has had to adapt to the pandemic by offering a greater amount of outdoor seating.

  • Throughout the pandemic, two hashtags gained popularity: #TeamKentucky and #TogetherKY. These hashtags can be seen on over 175,000 Instagram posts and on signs outside of many Kentucky homes.