A bowl of roasted coffee beans sits inside Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting in Watsonville.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )
Local Business

‘What can I do without any help?’: Hidden Fortress Coffee’s Amelia Loftus is starting by paying $20/hour

Hidden Fortress Coffee owner Amelia Loftus has had to reduce hours of operation at her Watsonville-based cafe and satellite locations including Cabrillo College as she continues looking for staff.

She doesn’t outright say it. Instead, Amelia Loftus continues spreading mayonnaise over a trio of turkey sandwiches she’s packaging for lunch service inside the kitchen at Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting.

While her voice sounds calm, the glaze over her eyes tells the story 一 she’s tired.

“I feel more upbeat than I was two weeks ago when I felt hopeless,” she said. “What can I say? What can I do without any help?”

Two weeks ago, Loftus was ready to throw in the towel. She was running on empty realizing she would have to limit the cafe’s hours of operation.

Amelia Loftus of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting in Watsonville.
Amelia Loftus of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting in Watsonville.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Wednesdays she would be closed, a decision Loftus made because she discovered she was overexerting herself. After arriving late multiple times at the midweek market in downtown Watsonville, her busiest and best event, she decided something had to give.

“She’s the only one who comes down with an espresso machine and grinder,” Jamie Toal said.

Toal, who has been a Hidden Fortress employee for less than a week, said Loftus often brings an entire platoon of equipment to her market stand, ensuring she’s offering fresh coffee and products to customers. It’s an admirable task and an alluring part of her business, one that’s helped build her success over the years 一 when she has the personnel to help carry the load.

It’s something she’s beginning to realize she might not be able to sustain alone. Like most businesses, Hidden Fortress is no exception to the ongoing staffing shortage.

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“It’s been rough,” Loftus said.

Though with one employee now hired, Loftus is in better spirits than she was 14 days ago. She’s offering $20 per hour for baristas and cafe help — a decision she didn’t make lightly, but one she realized was necessary.

“A year and a half ago I started people at $13 an hour,” she said of the state’s minimum wage for businesses with fewer than 26 employees.

Loftus opened Hidden Fortress in November 2016. The small cafe in Watsonville is the headquarters for indoor service and where Loftus roasts coffee. Forty pounds of coffee beans each day, in small two-pound batches at a time. The entire process takes about 12 minutes, repeated 20 times.

Outside the entrance of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting in Watsonville on Monday, August 16.
Outside the entrance of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting in Watsonville on Monday, August 16.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )

For a small business owner such as Loftus, who relies on a mobile model for markets, having reliable help in the store and in preparing for the daily grind is vital.

The cafe is open daily (now with the exclusion of Wednesdays) from 8 to 11 a.m. Though with the loss of the nearby Fox Racing Shox facility, customer traffic at the cafe has declined significantly.

“When we first opened they were the biggest group of customers,” she said. “When Fox was here it was three times more revenue.”

When the cafe is closed, the rest of Loftus’ week is spent loading up her truck and traveling to markets throughout Santa Cruz County, including the Live Oak Market, Felton and Scotts Valley Farmers Markets. The markets make up the majority of the company’s revenue, but due to COVID restrictions and a decline in staff, she’s had to eliminate some of the weekly trips, including her Cabrillo College market.

“It was definitely a blow,” she said about losing the market.

She’s had to delay a contract she has with Cabrillo College to bring her mobile coffee station to the college’s Watsonville campus. She’s hoping within the month she’ll be able to reconfigure work hours and continue operations at Cabrillo.

Loftus isn’t prepared to call it quits yet. She’s said since bumping up the wages, she’s been receiving a significant number of job inquiries. Additionally, she used a portion of Restaurant Revitalization Funds to purchase and renovate a trailer with a full-service kitchen inside for future use.

While she’s unsure of how the cafe will evolve with the decline in traffic, she stays optimistic that she’ll have enough help to continue taking Hidden Fortress on the road.

“Mobile is the future for a business like us,” she said.