Like most restaurant owners across the nation in the past month, Luke and Cassie Brugh have had to think fast to keep their business afloat. They turned their Christiansburg coffee shop into a curbside-only business, with the bulk of their orders coming through an app, to comply with government orders to limit customer contact because of COVID-19.

But in navigating the challenges of this shuffle, the Brughs have discovered a silver lining. Brugh Coffee is selling double the cans of its cold brew java — by drone. That’s compared with cold brew sales through its new curbside business.

These air deliveries are made possible by Wing, a drone delivery enterprise and offshoot of Google’s parent company Alphabet that has seen a dramatic increase in its business since the pandemic began.

Wing recently added Brugh Coffee and other Christiansburg restaurants — Mockingbird Cafe and Gran Rodeo — to its food delivery options.

From March to early April, Wing saw a 350 percent jump in the number of people signing up for its services across its four sites in three continents. They are in Christiansburg, Virginia; Helsinki Finland; and two cities in Australia, Canberra and Logan City, said spokesman Jacob Demmitt.

Similarly, in a two-week period in early April, the company had 1,000 deliveries globally, a “dramatic increase” from the typical two-week business model, he said.

Luke Brugh (pictured) and his wife, Cassie, are co-owners of Brugh Coffee in Christiansburg. They recently began selling the shop’s coffee bags and cold brew java through Wing’s drone delivery service. Photo courtesy of Wing

In October 2019, Wing launched the commercial drone delivery service in Christiansburg with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP). MAAP is a test site for unmanned aircraft systems designated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Through the partnership, Wing also offers drone delivery from Walgreens, FedEx, and Sugar Magnolia, a Blacksburg gift and candy shop, in addition to the newly added businesses. Customers order items via Wing’s app, and the products are delivered quickly, sometimes in as little as three to five minutes to a designated area near the consumer’s home. Hovering in the air, the drone extends the package to the ground, where it lands softly.

“It became clear early on [in the pandemic] that delivery services were becoming more and more important,” said Demmitt, noting that Wing began its partnerships with Brugh Coffee and Mockingbird Cafe at the start of COVID-19. “It came at a time when it was getting harder and harder for them to reach customers.”

Brugh Coffee sells bags of coffee and cold brew for Wing drone delivery, but it hopes to add hot coffee drinks in the future, Luke Brugh said.

“This was kind of ideal for us as small business owners,” he said. “It’s been good to have that extra income.”

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In addition to adding new businesses, Wing has changed its product catalog for Walgreens to match customers’ pandemic needs. For example, the service added grocery staples, including baby food, pasta, and snacks, along with children’s toys and games. Toilet paper and sidewalk chalk, in particular, have been big sellers, Demmitt said.

“It’s a small relief, but we wanted to do whatever we could to help,” he said.

As the success of Wing’s drone delivery grows, particularly during the pandemic, MAAP plans to share information and lessons learned with the FAA and other government entities, said Mark Blanks, director of MAAP.

“It is a unique situation, but at the same time, it really does showcase why this is such a good technology and opportunity to benefit people,” he said. “This is the first place in the country that this is happening, which means everybody’s watching.”

Noah Coffren holds an order from Walgreens, delivered by Wing to the backyard of his Christiansburg home. Photo courtesy of Zach and Rommelyn Coffren

Rommelyn and Zach Coffren and their four-year-old son, Noah, began ordering from Wing last fall. The drone service is just as important now that the couple, both Virginia Tech alumni and university employees, are working from their Christiansburg home, caring for their son, and following social distancing guidelines.

Recently, the family watched a movie together in their backyard, and they ordered Walgreens snacks by drone. Also, this month, the Coffrens ordered lunch from Gran Rodeo, one of their favorite restaurants. It arrived via three separate drone deliveries due to weight restrictions.

The Coffrens, who were interviewed for a recent NBC Nightly News segment about drone delivery, watched as each drone hovered over their backyard, lowering street tacos, beans and rice, a burrito, and arroz con pollo to the ground, one at a time. The family also is fielding inquiries from their friends about how to use the Wing app.

“The drone deliveries have been a nice distraction” from COVID-19, said Rommelyn Coffren. “It’s a way for us to still feel connected to the community to locations that we would patronize anyway.”

—  Jenny Kincaid Boon