By Judy Salamacha
Mike Nelson, Lindi Woods and Elizabeth Denny Sanitizing during Covid at Top Dog Coffee Bar. Photo by Suzanne Maury
California’s Governor Newsom had just announced all non-essential businesses should close. Morro Bay would not escape a worldwide pandemic’s attack on small-town America’s economy. Businesses were shuttered, public events and previously planned family gatherings were canceled. Only take-out was allowed if a restaurant chose to stay open.
Saturday, March 21, 2020 will be remembered as a day to both celebrate and commiserate for Top Dog Coffee Bar’s co-owners, Pat Bietz and Suzanne Maury and their employees. The couple planned to surprise their family-friend and barista, Mike Nelson, on his birthday. Joyful festivities, however, were followed by an impromptu employee meeting.
“I remember Suzanne was giving food away — crying because they had never laid off employees before after fourteen years in business,” said Mike. “As she said goodbye, I took Pat aside and said it didn’t make sense. They should sell off what they had just stocked.”
Pat and Suzanne had traded their fast-paced lives in Southern California to purchase SLO County ranch-land. Pat “trained with one of Saucelito’s best roasters” before they opened a coffee-based business on Main Street, in the heart of downtown Morro Bay. Dog-friendly, it became a go-to place for wifi-work and friends and visitors to meet-up and solve the world’s problems — often with Pat included in the conversation.
Top Dog’s signature premium coffees were sourced worldwide and roasted fresh daily. The menu would expand to offer a wide variety of fresh-baked breakfast pastries, unique morning and lunch-time specialties, teas and chai, along with several draft beers on tap. Pat and Suzanne had trained hundreds of high school students, graduated college kids, and gave meaningful work to single moms and men who needed a second chance.
“NO! We will not give up! We will not give-in. This is your livelihood,” Lindi Woods recalled telling her employers.
Mike had convinced Pat to take it day-by-day. Suzanne encouraged anyone uncomfortable with the risks to apply for unemployment. Most did. They survived by opening mornings with a skeletal crew of Lindi, Mike, Pat and Suzanne.
“In the restaurant business you need to be there for your customers to keep them coming back,” explained Pat. “COVID-19 has been a strange time. We thought we might focus on Rescue Me Coffee, our coffee subscription service. It had grown to hundreds of subscribers who were worried about us and ordering even more coffee. Then by being there every day, we learned it was our local customers who kept us going. They would come back day after day, buy more off our menu and tip generously.”
Suzanne explained few downtown businesses were open mornings. “They would find us, and, while waiting for an order, would learn our story watching the New Life K9 video. Pat would explain to customers how the dogs were trained by CMC inmates to become service dogs for veterans and first-responders. Team Cooper was another program that funded a puppy to train in the prison program.”
Once Mike called in with possible COVID-19 symptoms, the crew was down to three.
“Lindi stepped up,” Pat said. “It was also Lindi who introduced us to the New Life K9 graduation at CMC that changed our lives. We developed Rescue Me Coffee on the way home. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Lindi loved and respected working with Pat and Suzanne. “I retired from 23 years with the California Department of Corrections.”
Her last assignment was SLO’s California Men’s Colony where she volunteered for all CMC’s activities to help veterans. “I have sons active in the military. One came home with PTSD. I know vets need help.” Lt. Nolan is a veteran who also supervised the K9 program in a different unit than Lindi’s area of CMC. “I told him Pat and Suzanne were looking for a way their business could help. Who wouldn’t love dogs helping vets with PTSD?”
Lt. Nolan hosted them for the New Life K9 graduation. “We met Mike Nelson that day,” Lindi continued. “His parole was due that day, but he asked to stay in to participate in the graduation of the dog he trained for two years. Giving his dog, Eddie, to a first-responder and the other men giving up their two dogs to veterans was very emotional. We were convinced the program helped the veterans and the inmates. I began to change my thinking that day. When I guarded inmates, I kept my distance. Mike would come work for Top Dog and is now a good friend.”
Once California reopened for socially distanced dining service, new protocols meant new training for all.
“The rules kept changing daily,” said Suzanne. “Lindi got us through Memorial Day. She moved to Florida to be with family, and we miss her every day, but Mike has come back part time.”
It is now August and California’s COVID-19 numbers are skyrocketing. Governor Newsom closed inside dining again, but Suzanne and Pat know Top Dog Coffee Bar will stay open.
“Our local customers are still coming in several times a week,” said Suzanne. “We’re back up to making our summer numbers. Our community proved to us they want us to stay.”
“The thing is, you never know when you are giving a lifeline to someone,” said Pat. “During COVID-19, we realized we created our own community – a family who loves dogs and are commited to helping good people needing a second chance in life. That’s what Rescue Me Coffee is all about. I hope more folks in Morro Bay find us. We thank our local friends who have kept us in business during this time. They were our hope, our lifeline.”