Downtown Auburn cafe among businesses awaiting the return to ‘normal’

After all this time, Matt Noesen’s feet and back ache, and the owner of Zola’s Café in downtown Auburn is a tired man in need of the breather he hasn’t had in two years.

Keeping the popular downtown café at 402 East Main St. going in the era of COVID-19, he said, has asked a lot of him and his employees.

But if recent positive developments keep on keeping on — with more and more people vaccinated and Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement last Friday that he would lift the mask mandate as of March 21 in most public places — Noesen and his crew now dare to articulate their hope for a return to something approaching normal.

“Customers are beginning to trickle back in, and things are starting to perk up again,” Noesen said.

Things looked very good when Noesen and his business partners, Mike and Kelley McDermott, brimming with plans for the future, bought Zola’s from its former owner, Sonia Kessler, in early March of 2020.

But mere days after the purchase, COVID-19 reared its multi-pronged head, and from the afternoon Inslee announced the pandemic emergency in March 2020, things piled up.

Then followed state mandates like wearing masks indoors, physical distancing, and steep reductions in the number of customers allowed inside at one time. Still, the partners kept up their sense of optimism.

“We thought it would just be a couple months, so we kept our daily routines going, we kept all our staff. But it didn’t go away and we took a hard hit,” Noesen said.

Then in the midst of all that came the amicable departure of his business partners. When at-home schooling started, he said, the McDermotts, who had three kids at home with two of them in school, realized someone had to be at home with them — and splitting their time between work and home would no longer do. Noesen offered to buy them out, and they agreed.

“It worked out well for all, but came down to me and one other person working day after day. All I could control was labor and food costs,” Noesen said.

Zola’s darkest night dropped last fall, he said, when equipment issues, new staff training and the dearth of customers whammied into a truly awful month.

“I told myself, if I have another month like this, I’m not going to be able to keep the doors open,” Noesen recalled. “Fortunately we turned it around the following month and began to creep out of the hole.”

Then came the third wave of the pandemic, the Omicron surge, and business dropped again.

“It’s been a real roller-coaster ride. But business has picked up again in recent weeks, and with the mask mandate being gone in a couple weeks, I think people are starting to come back slowly and look to returning what it was before COVID,” Noesen said.

Still, there are as of Tuesday afternoon fewer tables in Zola’s than there were before COVID.

And Noesen has a few questions he’d like to ask the state and public health honchos.

Why should the rules in one area, he asks, require a vaccination card and masking when a community two miles down the road doesn’t have to follow the same rules?

“It doesn’t make sense that one area has different rules than other areas. It’s all one state,” Noesen said, then shrugged.

“It’s a complex new era trying to solve problems,” he said.

Despite all the buffeting, Noesen said his head sports no new gray hairs.

“The beard does, the beard does,” Noesen laughed.