Posted April 2, 2020
Keeping the “doors” open
The landscape of everyone’s lives has changed drastically in the past few weeks. Local business owners, In addition to contending with the realities of stay-at-home orders that we are all experiencing, have been faced with an additional challenge: How to radically transform the way they do business in order to survive. And not just once, but on an ongoing basis as things continue to change and the realization sets in that this is not just for a week or two.
Restaurants and bars were affected first, with the governor’s executive order of March 17 prohibiting on-premises consumption of food or beverages, and many decided to try to keep their businesses going and their staff employed by focussing on take-out. Soon many local restaurants made the change to phone-in or online orders only, and some have since modified their hours, or closed altogether except for gift-card purchases, as in the case of Gigi’s Cafe. Baker & Spice recently reduced its operating days to Thursday through Sunday. A look at the website for Seasons & Regions indicates that the restaurant is offering take-out and delivery but has reduced its hours and closed its drive-through.
Sasquatch Brewing Co. shut their restaurant very close on the heels of the executive order. Says owner Tom Sims, “Take-out has been a very small part of our business, so it just didn’t make sense to keep the restaurant open.” He laid off 29 employees, including himself, and now has just three staffers who work about 20 hours a week at the brewery. Operations at the brewery in northwest Portland continue with sales to local groceries and bottle shops, as well as directly to customers via home delivery. Somewhat ironically, Sasquatch has a new chef, former Saucebox sous-chef Ty Thorpe, hired just a week before the executive order that effectively shut down Sims’s restaurant operations. Thorpe and Sims were already at work revamping their menu, and while it was not previously a priority, Sims hopes to develop a take-out menu, which would enable him to bring back some of his employees.
“Who would have thought that there would be a disaster, other than a war, that would affect the whole world?”
--Tom Sims, owner, Sasquatch Brewing Co.
Gatherings of more than 250 people were banned on March 12 (eventually the number was decreased to 25), leading to a quick decision by the Hillsdale Farmers Market to try keeping the market open by taking pre-orders online that customers could pick up at Sunday's market without leaving their cars. As the market moves into the third week of drive-through pick-up, this has been very successful.
Some of the local retail shops closed before the official order, out of concern for the safety of their staff and customers. Many of them are turning to online sales to keep them afloat. Gurton’s Plant Shop is selling plants by delivery, Hoot-N-Annie and Paloma Clothing have established online stores. Paloma Clothing owner Mike Roach says this is much harder than the recession of 2008, when the changes were gradual with more time to react. Not like this time, when merchants have had to lay off all their employees overnight despite stores full of inventory and large numbers of customers who would love to be able to shop.
Next came the March 28 order directing many other types of business to close, including gyms, yoga studios, dance studios and nail salons. While all of these businesses require in-person interaction, some of them have been able to come up with ways to adapt. Yoga practitioners can sign up for classes almost every day at OmBase Yoga via the video conferencing platform Zoom. The Portland Ballet offered a ballet conditioning class on Instagram Live.
“I’m going to keep doing online yoga classes. One, it’s good for me, and two, I really don’t want them to go out of business.”
--Online yoga practitioner Catherine Petrecca
With a large clientele of young children, Southwest Portland Martial Arts and Crossfit Hillsdale saw the need to find a new way to keep their business going as soon as schools were ordered to close, so owners Lara and Wally Jones were ready to go online before the March 28 order. Lara Jones says, “It’s a scramble to get your business going in a whole different format, and teaching fitness and martial arts classes online was awkward at first, but we’re getting better at it.” Their martial arts and fitness curriculum for kids and adults is available six days a week via Facebook livestream and then posted on their website. She welcomes the general public to take advantage of their videos, and points out that donations are welcome, too. Most of their coaching staff have other employment and will be able to manage financially with the reduction in classes, but for a few who have either lost their other jobs or are full-time coaches, continuing to be able to pay their salaries is a priority for the gym owners. Lara Jones thinks their business will likely survive (in very large part due to the generosity of the support of gym members), but can’t help pointing out the irony: “Last month [February] was our best month in the 11 years since we started out as a storefront business, and now the economy goes under. Just when we had been thinking we could take the honeymoon trip we never had, or at least a regular vacation.”
The business owners I talked to were worried about how to make sure their businesses survive COVID-19, both for their own sake and that of their employees. Negotiations will have to be made with commercial landlords over how to make rent payments when sales have fallen off a cliff. The complexities and unknowns of loans or other aid that may be available from state and federal agencies will have to be untangled. Some will file for unemployment or help their staff file. But keeping the doors open, either physically or virtually, and the revenue coming in is the first order of business.
The best way to make sure we have local businesses to patronize when this is all over is to support them now.
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