By Alison Davis, CEDIK Executive Director
It’s no secret that times are tough for Main Street businesses in this new pandemic reality our country finds ourselves in. CEDIK’s efforts have centered on working with community stakeholders to find ways to support thriving downtown businesses. At this moment, CEDIK faculty and staff are looking for ways we can contribute meaningfully to recovering and stimulating Main Street.
As events designed to protect the health of our communities have unfolded rapidly, we have been watching small businesses cope with this new landscape. We have been inspired to witness innovative ways our local businesses have endeavored to keep the lights on and their employees paid, all while safely continuing to provide their services to the local community.
Earlier this week, we had the chance to correspond with Kristin Smith, Executive Chef of The Wrigley, located on Main Street in Corbin, Kentucky. Read on to learn more about how this restaurant in Appalachian Kentucky is navigating this new normal, and what advice she has for residents, community leaders, and other retail businesses.
CEDIK: How can residents support Main Street businesses?
KS: If you have a small, local business providing goods you could get there rather than a big-box store, do it. Every single item sold counts toward keeping the doors open. If you’re limited by location or you want to keep that social distance, call the business and order a gift card, whether you use them or not. When we all reopen, consider staggering using the gift cards over the next few months to help us even out our cash flow in the beginning. If you’re in a rural area, we’re seeing challenges with internet outages and phone outages due to overload of the network—so please keep trying if you get a busy line or slow server on the online systems. We really do want to take your money—we promise! Also, practice safe social distancing. When you do order takeout or pickup, use curbside and online as much as possible to help us maintain our social distance. Observe the spacing the business establishes—especially in checkout lines where it is easy to scoot closer to the person in front of you—follow what we ask, even if you think its overkill. We are following recommendations to the letter and in some cases going over and above. I stay awake at night worrying if one of my staff or customers gets sick—it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a constant fear. Every time anyone touches a door handle, a touchscreen, or waits for their order inside or outside, we are sanitizing everything after every interaction. But with a skeleton crew, that is an extra task on top of everything else.
CEDIK: What is the most innovative “thing” you have seen a Main Street business and/or community do during COVID-19?
KS: Our city voted to suspend local, tourism, and alcohol taxes to help us offset our costs. That was a huge help for us to float us through. They’ve also been really innovative at curbside, delivery, and even take-out wine and bottled beer sales. It’s been nice to see how quickly they’ve made some of these changes happen to support us any way they can. It feels like our local leadership really wants to support us through this. On a fun note, our mayor has started a regular “wave parade” route through local neighborhoods for kids and families to come out and see her to talk with her from a distance. It’s a good way, fun way to break up the day for families who are newly homeschooling!
CEDIK: How can philanthropic organizations support Main Street businesses?
KS: Being willing to donate money and trust the business owner to allot it where it needs. The stimulus package should help with payroll and rent, utilities. But what about our other things that need addressed? If philanthropic organizations will make donations to businesses without stipulations, that would be so helpful. We see so many restrictions on the different grant and loan programs—but—for example—we’re having challenges with plumbing, and we were planning to replace our kitchen floor this month before all of this happened. Those things still need to be repaired, but we no longer have enough cash flow to fund them. If a donor called us and said, “Hey, I want to pay to have your kitchen floor replaced,” that would send me over the moon!
CEDIK: What is your biggest fear of something that will be overlooked or unintended consequences of this stimulus package?
KS: Honestly, we’re so busy in survival mode, we haven’t had time to sit down and really analyze and understand the stimulus package. We are getting so many emails and phone calls from people telling us to apply for this loan or that grant, but we aren’t sure what the best option for us is. What is the time frame for payback? We have fellow restaurant owners who, once the additional $600 a week unemployment was announced, had staff quit because they believed they would be safer staying at home and drawing more money on unemployment than working. Whether that is true about the $600 or isn’t, they believed so and it negatively impacted her business.
Will the bailout be timely enough for restaurants to get enough money to sustain until we can actually reopen? Every day it takes for employees to receive their first unemployment payment is another day that they are giving up and going to work in other industries. Once you lose those well-trained employees, it is hard to retrain a new crew. Everything changes. We are already seeing a surge of “temporary job offers” with “the possibility of permanent employment”. Most likely those businesses will keep the positions temporary—but every day we are closed it is a risk that we won’t be able to reopen at the end of this even if we can stretch our money to last.
CEDIK: Were you prepared to go online? What do other businesses need to know about going online?
KS: Be very patient with businesses trying to be open and transitioning their entire way of business. We scrambled to flip every aspect of our operations over about a 48 hour period. We didn’t have online ordering yet—we were planning to launch it in April. Well, we have it now! We had some big kinks to work out and we’re really appreciative of the customers who were patient with us and told us about their experience. We’re glad now we were able to get it up and running—online sales are around 60% of our sales now and we plan to keep it once we reopen. But there are extra fees with online sales: our Point of Sale System charges an extra 2% for every online order and an extra 1.5% for every credit card we have to type in, rather than swipe. It may not seem like much, but it really adds up at a time that we are counting every penny. I wish that processors would waive some of those fees but we need them to do business, so we are using them. We still don’t have a good way to sell gift cards online because our Point of Sale system won’t integrate with an online platform in that way, which is hurting us because we think people would be buying more gift cards if they could purchase online.
We are new to packaging takeout silverware, ketchup, sauces—all of it. We are really adapting every hour, so give businesses grace if they don’t get every aspect right. It’s a lot of change very fast. We’re even changing our menu to prepare items that can keep well until someone gets home to eat it rather than our usual practice of items that are enjoyed right away, piping hot and fresh. It’s a whirlwind of changes.
CEDIK: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
KS: This is so lonely for us, as an industry built on hospitality and human contact. Part of why we love doing what we do is because we serve our community, we see birthdays and anniversary celebrations. What I love about The Wrigley is that I have my regulars. I can ask them how their new grand baby is, how their kid is doing their first year at college, or how their dream vacation went. It is so isolating to have to switch to a sterile and distant method of communication. How do you maintain a feeling of community when we have to stay so far apart? We are figuring it out, and we understand the importance—but it doesn’t make those feelings of social isolation any less. We are already planning for when we do reopen—should we remove half of our dining room tables to ensure that we still maintain a distance for a few months to avoid another surge? Will the feeling of community, warmth, and love still be there after all of this?