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.

Sadie Bograd

By Alex Gonzalez and Sadie Bograd

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.”

This story was originally published on The Lamplighter on October 19, 2020.