By August Pearson/El Inde
Fog blankets the city of Encinitas, California, on an early Sunday morning in the middle of October. The streets are quiet and residents and travelers are just about to begin their first day of the new week.
Situated on the highway that extends the length of the California coast, Highway 101, sit numerous restaurants, cafés, coffee shops, and boutiques, some beginning to open their doors for business, while others have been permanently shuttered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among these businesses is the French Corner.
The café is built into a two-story apartment building, its walls a white stucco with “café” written vertically along the side visible to the street. Two seater foldable wooden tables and chairs with red umbrellas line the narrow patio area outside the café, and rounded wood paneling detail above the restaurant provides shade for customers to sit outside on sunny days. Inside, the café holds a maximum of around four customers, the majority of the space overtaken by large casings of pastries, ranging from macarons to croissants each baked fresh everyday. Black chalkboards along the back wall inside the café list the restaurant’s menu handwritten in French, from its specialty espresso beverages to breakfast and lunch meals.
At 7:30 a.m. everyday of the week, the smell of freshly baked bread, croissants, crepes, and newly roasted espresso wafts into the nearby surroundings, and soft jazz and French music plays lightly in the background, drawing an early morning crowd of cyclists, dog walkers, students, and joggers.
Among them is Kyle Lynaugh, an Encinitas resident and French Corner regular who started coming to the café in March when the pandemic began and he returned home from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Lynaugh sits at one of the wooden tables with a laptop, backpack and a book while he works on homework, eats a nutella filled crépe and sips a cappuccino.
“This place has helped keep me sane during quarantine and having to stay home because I love the atmosphere and the food and it almost feels like I’m getting away to France even when I’m stuck at home,” Lynaugh said.
Alyssa Aguirre, who manages the French Corner, said that the café opened eight years ago by Parisian Alexandra Palombi-Long and her husband who wanted to open a French café in Southern California.
“It’s just different,” Aguirre said about the French Corner. “It has kind of a little European bistro feel I think you can find in Europe, with the music and the quaintness of it.”
Aguirre met Palombi-Long through her son at a child development center where Aguirre was working at the time. Aguirre’s daughter needed a job and began working at the café before her mother, and one summer Aguirre said the restaurant needed some extra assistance so she came to help at the French Corner and hasn’t left since.
“It’s actually taught me to be more social and a better communicator because you have to communicate,” Aguirre said. “You kind of see the differences between people and learn how to deal with it.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Aguirre said she worried about how French Corner was going to continue to operate with the public health crisis and new restrictions in place.
“The first week it was really slow, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to close,’ and she actually took me off the schedule for one day,” Aguirre said. “Then the next two weeks it rained — and we always slow down when it rains — but as soon as the sun came out, (business has) just increased.”
Aguirre said that she’s had people come into the café looking for a restaurant that’s serving food and drink and they’re surprised to find that the French Corner is open because their regular coffee shops are closed.
Jay Aldridge, who has worked at French Corner for over a year, also said that business for the café hasn’t changed as much as he thought it might after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“With COVID it really hasn’t affected us,” Aldridge said. “For a little bit it did at first because there wasn’t a lot of outdoor seating, so for two weeks it was very slow but after that there would be a whole line outside.”
The French Corner expanded their patio to include more outdoor seating, allowing customers to sit and eat at the restaurant while also maintaining social distancing and following the state’s guidelines, which limit indoor seating and encourage spaced outdoor seating for restaurants.
After finding success in their Encinitas location, Palombi-Long and her husband opened a second French Corner location, about 10 miles north of Encinitas in the city of Carlsbad. This French Corner location recently began serving dinner, and Aldridge has gotten to experience working at both restaurants.
“It’s really neat going back and forth,” Aldrige said. “You get to meet new people, or you’ll see someone from this location and they’ll be up at the other location.”
The French Corner in Encinitas ends its day at 4 p.m., just as it begins. A constant flow of customers continues to come in and out of the café, ordering pastries for an afternoon snack, or espresso drinks for a late afternoon pick me up. Aldridge and Aguirre continue helping new and familiar faces coming in and out of the café.
“Working here taught me skills that can translate into the rest of my life,” Aldridge said. “And it’s really cool, my customers are like my friends.”