Missing customers: Valley’s small businesses brace for fallout

  • Harun Iyigel, co-owner of Pizza Amore on Green Street in Northampton, talks about the economic impact of Smith College canceling classes.

  • Both Smith Corner Convenience Plus and Pizza Amore on Green Street in Northampton are feeling the economic impact of Smith College sending students home over concerns about the COVID-19 virus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Harun Iyigel, co-owner of Pizza Amore on Green Street in Northampton, and Nebile Kapicioglu, an employee, work Wednesday afternoon. Iyigel is feeling the economic impact of Smith College sending students home over concerns about the coronavirus. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Cass Moore and Phillip Bishop make sandwiches at The Black Sheep in Amherst Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Lee Sutter, the baker at The Black Sheep in Amherst, gets an order ready for Amherst College Thursday morning, March 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Nick Seamon, owner of The Black Sheep in Amherst, Thursday morning, March 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lee Sutter, the baker at The Black Sheep in Amherst, gets an order ready for Amherst College Thursday morning, March 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Cass Moore and Phillip Bishop make sandwiches at The Black Sheep in Amherst Thursday morning, March 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

Published: 3/13/2020 11:52:34 PM
Easthampton

Just last month, Unmi Abkin of Coco & The Cellar Bar was nominated as a 2020 James Beard Award Semifinalist for “Best Chef: Northeast.” But on Thursday, Coco & The Cellar Bar announced via Facebook that it would close for at least two weeks, citing coronavirus concerns.

“For us, it has become clear that in light of a very serious and rapidly changing public health landscape, we need to take drastic measures to ensure the safety of our families and to help flatten the curve of the COVID-19 infection rate that threatens our health care system,” the restaurant’s post reads. “Doctors, nurses, and careworkers all over America will need our help to keep the most vulnerable among us safe.”

The post adds that no one at Coco is sick and that the restaurant will be looking into pickup service. However, in a clarifying message to the Gazette, co-owner Roger Taylor confirmed that no food will be served during the closure period.

Mike McCarthy, who co-owns Riff’s Joint Restaurant and The Hideaway Lounge in Easthampton, Myer’s Catering in Easthampton and Riff’s North in Turners Falls, said his businesses are still open.

“As of now,” McCarthy said. “Things are changing rapidly here.”

Employees are following all coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, McCarthy said. The restaurant group is reviewing food-handling safety and instructions, with Riff’s locations doubling down on hand-washing, providing hand sanitizer to staff and patrons and removing communal drinking water.

Trang Le, a co-owner of Kisara Japanese & Korean Restaurant, said he doesn’t have plans to close, though he noted that after Gov. Charlie Baker announced a state of emergency regarding coronavirus Wednesday, the next day the business had 20% fewer patrons than a typical Thursday.

Northampton

As concerns rise over the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the director of the Downtown Northampton Association is encouraging people to continue to patronize downtown businesses, even if they don’t visit them physically.

“We’re all in a shared community,” said association Executive Director Amy Cahillane. “I hope that we all step up to support all of our community.”

In a post on the Downtown Northampton Association’s Facebook page, Cahillane suggested a number of ways that people can support the local economy as they practice social distancing.

“If you are looking for a way to support those businesses while maintaining your distance, buy a gift card or order online — ideally directly from the restaurant or retailer,” the post reads. It also suggests pre-ordering books from local bookstores or buying gift cards for lunch or dinner spots.

In an effort to protect customers against the virus, several downtown businesses have taken steps such as arranging dining seats farther apart and making extra sure that surfaces are clean, Cahillane said. While no businesses have closed yet in response to the outbreak, some are considering a temporary takeout-only option.

Following a wave of college closures this past week, many businesses are wondering how they will weather the next few months without students. Pizza Amore borders the edge of the Smith College campus on Green Street, and roughly half of its business is tied to the college, according to Harun Iyigel, who co-owns the shop with Eyupeu Atmaca. On a typical morning, the shop is making pizzas for student meetings and events.

“It’s going to affect us,” Iyigel said of the college’s decision to send students home. “I don’t know how we’re going to survive the summer.”

If the shop doesn’t make enough money, the owners will have to eliminate workers, Iyigel said.

Next door at Smith Corner Convenience Plus, employees are also worried about the lack of business. They’ve come to expect quiet summers, and, even in a normal year, “We barely make it,” said manager Becki Robinson.

Robinson didn’t expect the school to cancel in-person classes and force most of the students to leave campus.

Seventy percent of the store’s business is related to the school, Robinson estimated. If sales drop off, they may have to cut part-timers’ shifts. “We’re probably going to have to change hours,” she said.

Others are dealing with changing orders. Seth Mias, owner of Seth Mias Catering in Leeds, has been fielding phone calls about cancellations. As of Wednesday, he had nine canceled jobs that would have brought in a total of $15,000.

“This came so fast,” Mias said of the reaction to the pandemic. “It really had minimal impact ... and then it just hit.”

Wedding season, generally spring through early fall, fuels much of Mias’ business. No wedding clients have canceled yet, but he worries that some may. Still, he remains hopeful.

“The good thing is that this is my 18th year,” Mias said. “If I was a newer business, I think I’d be a lot more worried.”

Amherst

For Black Sheep Deli, April and May are generally the busiest times of the year, due in part to catering graduation parties, reunions and multiday conferences.

Owner Nick Seamon said community support will be vital to allow his restaurant to make it through what could be lean times, though he also notes that he tries not to live and die by the student population.

But after getting the news that Amherst College would be sending students home, Seamon is changing his business model. “We’re in triage mode here,” he said. “We’re survivors, and we’ll make it work.”

To counter the drop-off in business, Seamon is considering instituting curbside pickup and possibly home delivery. “We are thinking everything,” he said.

He also understands that many of his 30 employees live paycheck to paycheck. “I want to protect everyone’s ability to pay the bills. I’m hoping to not do layoffs, but hours will be less,” Seamon said.

One immediate positive impact of the college class shutdown is that some professors at Amherst College have reached out to have farewell events for their students.

“We’re being flooded with last-minute orders for departments that want to have parties,” Seamon said.

Like Seamon, Rebecca Casagrande, who runs Sunset Grill & Pizza, said her first concern is for her workers.

“I’m scared for my employees and how I will be able to keep them on payroll so they can pay their bills,” Casagrande said.

She will be closing for a week starting Saturday to do a deep cleaning.

“We are really hoping, as people change their habits and are staying inside, they remember to support small local businesses for delivery food orders,” Casagrande said.

In addition to delivering to more of the region, Casagrande said she is thinking about picking up groceries for seniors and other at-risk populations, as well as doing care packages.

Meanwhile, at the clothing boutique Zanna, owner Amy Benson said she is anticipating an impact not only from the lack of students in the area but also from the general panic surrounding the COVID-19 virus.

“It is just a very uncertain time,” Benson said. “People are concerned — as they should be — and we are taking many measures to assure that we can maintain our business, along with making sure that we are socially responsible with taking extra precautions with cleaning all surfaces that everyone comes in contact with on an hourly basis.”

Fortunately, she said, most stores have a strong support base of area residents.

“I am grateful that the majority of our business is generated from our local community and surrounding towns,” Benson said.

Even with the class cancellations at UMass, there are still around 17,000 students who live off campus, and some might choose to stay in Amherst for the duration of their rents, said Amherst Business Improvement District Executive Director Gabrielle Gould.

“The very real possibility of having 17,000 off-campus students living in town with a closed campus is something our community has never experienced,” Gould said, adding that some students who use the campus meal plan may instead turn to local dining options.

On Wednesday, Gould delivered a form that businesses can place in windows to assure customers that cleaning is happening regularly.

“We are encouraging our businesses to get ahead with their messaging on social media as well as signage in their windows,” she said, not underestimating the challenges ahead for owners. “Their biggest concern is they can’t get hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.”

Gould worries that Amherst could be further strained if hourly workers begin losing their jobs as a result of the viru, and said she’s checking with the WesternMass Economic Development Council to see if there is any precedent for offering microloans under such circumstances.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he will be meeting with representatives from both the Business Improvement District and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce to see what can be done to help local businesses and workers.

“I understand the pressure that hourly employees are under to meet the needs of their families,” Bockelman said.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said she is ready to work with others in town to assess the impact of the closings, observing that Amherst was recently engaged in a local analysis about what would happen if Hampshire College shut down.

“I will work closely with my colleagues in the House to ensure economic assistance not only for Amherst businesses impacted by the outbreak but also for businesses across the commonwealth and the University of Massachusetts,” Domb said. She also highlighted the importance of securing financial support for people who don’t have paid sick leave to cover their time off to stay home and follow public health guidelines.

Safety and prevention was also top of mind for Amherst Cinema, which announced Thursday in a letter to patrons that it would close through April 17 out of caution and “with particular concern for at-risk groups.”

Employees will continue to receive full pay and benefits during the closure, and Amherst Cinema will continue to accept memberships and financial donations.  

Cinema officials said that despite having recently increased sanitation, reduced seating capacity and taken other precautionary measures, it opted to close given that it draws customers from a 25-mile radius and beyond.

South Hadley

Like The Black Sheep Deli in Amherst, The Odyssey Bookshop usually sees business surge in late spring, with Mount Holyoke College, its across-the-street neighbor, holding a variety of commencement-related events. But with students about to return home for the semester, Odyssey owner Joan Grenier is bracing for a bad season.

“It’s going to be devastating,” Grenier said, acknowledging that while the college has not yet canceled commencement, she’s preparing for the worst.

“I’m just hopeful that we’ll make it through, and other small businesses will,” she added. “I’m going to need loans because it’s going to be hard.”

Sales have been up this week because people are buying gifts as seniors prepare to leave, Grenier said, but she expects a sharp decline once campus clears out. Although the shop also has a customer base outside of the college, Grenier said summers are always slow, and in addition to losing many student customers, the store also lost two conferences and has had to cancel or postpone events.

“I’ve already ordered summer books, and I’m considering cutting those orders in half,” Grenier said. “It’s hard to plan. It changes daily.”

Employees are taking extra steps to keep the shop clean, such as wiping down surfaces with disinfecting wipes, declining to have customers sign receipts and wearing gloves. The store will also offer local front porch delivery and possibly some virtual events. Customers can continue to purchase books from the shop’s website — and with health officials recommending social distancing, Grenier said, “if we have to hunker down, it’s a good time to stock up on books.”

For relatively small communities like South Hadley and Granby, Mount Holyoke sending students home “will more likely have an impact on the small business community — the restaurants, the local stores and the like that see some traffic from the colleges,” said South Hadley & Granby Chamber of Commerce President Michelle Theroux. 

With limits on large gatherings, some restaurants and banquet room facilities are also seeing clients canceling or postponing events, Theroux said.

“There’s that domino effect between wanting to keep people safe and concern for employers to balance employees’ needs against operations in South Hadley and Granby,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com. Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com. Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com. Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 




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