How Small Businesses Begin to Recover From Pandemic Shutdowns

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The easing of restrictions spurred hopes for businesses to recover in hard-hit industries like restaurants, retail and the arts.

businesses begin to recover like Bar Virgile in Durham
Server Rachel Andries provided the bubbles for Brooke Jenkins and Pascale Lecuire, who celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary in April at Bar Virgile’s outdoor patio in a nearby parking deck.

By Brandee Gruener | Photography by John Michael Simpson

“The headline here is that business is coming back, and that’s exciting, and it is what we’ve all been waiting for,” said Susan Amey, president and CEO of Discover Durham. She pointed to promising numbers from the travel industry: Destination Analysis reported that 87% of Americans planned to travel this summer. That’s encouraging news for the hotels, restaurants and retailers that rode out the storm of the pandemic, considering that 12.5 million visitors contributed $932 million to the Durham economy back in 2019.

A surprising number of new businesses are also positioned to reap the rewards. Nicole Thompson, president and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc., said during this year’s State of Downtown Durham Summit that 27 new restaurants, bars and shops opened in 2020. She also announced that at least 14 merchants intended to open downtown this year.

“The downtown community weathered a devastating economic year, but still saw growth,” Thompson said. “We are seeing some signs that life is coming back.”

Events draw out locals

Arts and entertainment propel much of that life in our downtown, with the nonprofit arts sector alone contributing about $154 million a year in economic activity. That changed when the Durham Performing Arts Center and The Carolina Theatre were shuttered in March Third Friday, Durham’s monthly art walk and gallery crawl, was also canceled. The Carolina Theatre held occasional events on its plaza, and DDI tried to pump some life into downtown by hosting The Streetery, closing various downtown streets for use by restaurants and retailers. (The Streetery will continue on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month through October of this year.)

businesses begin to recover like Annexe in Durham
Daniel Sartain, Will Sink, Holland Falls, Neille Vail and Griffin Prather toast at the bar inside Annexe, which Sartain and Vail opened just days before the pandemic shutdown last year. “Our original concept was a place for everyone with a classy, fem, funky twist and good, quality offerings,” Vail said. “With everyone’s support, we will hopefully get back to that very soon.”

Downtown grows busier now that the Durham Bulls have returned with limited ticket sales, theaters are booking indoor events for the fall, and Third Friday has begun a gradual return. Musicians performed outdoors and Golden Belt Artists reopened their gallery for the Third Friday in May. The Hayti Heritage Center has planned another LIVE! From the Fayetteville Street Corridor event on June 18. Gina Rozier, director of marketing and communication for DDI, said they are following the lead of artists and gallery owners “with a goal of Third Friday being fully back in June, if possible.”

Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council, said she was hopeful DAC would hold its first Third Friday event of the year in June, though at limited capacity. DAC has allowed gallery visits by appointment since the fall. A few art classes have also returned to the building and to the clay studio at Northgate Mall. And while DAC canceled this year’s CenterFest arts festival, which typically draws 30,000 people downtown in September, they plan to hold the Durham Art Walk Holiday Market in November. Meanwhile, DAC raised a record-breaking $650,000 to help support artists during the pandemic.

“It’s going to take time for audiences to feel confident in coming back to theaters and auditoriums and festivals,” DeVries said. “In the meantime, we’re just doing what we can to support the arts community and help the arts stay alive until we can get to the other side of this.”

Randy McKay, president and CEO of The Carolina Theatre, said they won’t hold their first live performances until September (DPAC also projected a reopening in late summer or early fall), but he hoped to reopen the cinema earlier in the summer. The Carolina Theatre experimented with outdoor movies, concerts and concession sales in 2020, but the cost of staffing events below full capacity was too great.

businesses begin to recover like Bar Virgile in Durham
Kaylah Saffro mixes up a cocktail at Bar Virgile.

“I guess the question remains, and that’s across the industry: How comfortable are folks in coming back indoors in large numbers and in big groups?” McKay said. “Will we see the ticket sales that allow these shows to be sustainable or not? I’m pretty bullish on that concept because I know I can’t wait to get back to going to concerts and events, and it seems like that’s true of almost everybody I talk to.”

The prospect of restrictions lifting has also put every artists’ agent on the phone. The theater’s calendar is packed from September on, which is a positive sign.

“This has been an excruciatingly difficult year so many people,” McKay said. “I’m extremely excited to get our community back together, to have fun together.”

Customers return to stores

The evidence suggested many in Durham were ready to have some fun. At Jewelsmith in Erwin Square, sales began to reach and even exceed pre-pandemic levels this spring. Manager Kristine Wylie Warsaw said that once vaccines became widely available, appointments were completely booked by enthusiastic customers who were ready to get out and celebrate.

“We fully supported people wearing jewelry in their sweatpants,” Warsaw said, but added that people “love getting dressed up and having somewhere to go, and jewelry is a big part of the wardrobe.”

Early on in the pandemic, Jewelsmith was not open to visitors at all. Employees shipped jewelry to customers until the store began offering curbside pickup last summer. Despite an initial 50% drop in revenue, all 15 employees stayed on, first paid by owner Linda McGill and eventually by a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

Warsaw said Jewelsmith would continue requiring appointments for the foreseeable future, though they do allow walk-in traffic if there is room in the store.

“Right now we are going to stay with this model,” she said. “It’s working for us, and it just keeps everyone comfortable when they shop.”

Business at Ninth Street store Vaguely Reminiscent also revitalized in the spring. In April, customers bought shoes, clothing and jewelry at almost pre-pandemic levels, which was “a bit of a surprise,” owner Carol Anderson said. “I think it’s just pent up. [People feel] like, ‘I haven’t done anything, I haven’t bought anything in a year.’”

When they first reopened in 2020, Vaguely Reminiscent sometimes went hours without a customer. Anderson obtained a PPP loan to pay all of her staff for as long as she could, but some part-time workers did not want to return in person. She launched a new website and began taking call-in orders to increase business. And the community responded.

“There’s no words, honestly, to thank people for that kind of support and commitment to local businesses,” Anderson said. Anderson gradually resumed store as walk-in traffic grew, but said she needs more employees before the store can return to its old hours. The store was staffed by three employees instead of the usual six or seven. Anderson has struggled to find qualified applicants to fill the openings.

But she was determined to plan a summer vacation, even if it meant closing the store for a few days. That’s something Vaguely Reminiscent has never had to do in its 38 years of existence.

Vaguely Reminiscent wasn’t the only business to be short-staffed while facing an influx of customers. Amey said that in preliminary results from a Discover Durham survey, 85% of hospitality businesses such as hotels and restaurants said that staffing was very or extremely urgent for their organization.

Restaurants benefit from warm weather, vaccines

Zimbabwean restaurant Zweli’s Kitchen & Catering was one of those businesses.

“If what we’re getting now is any telltale sign of what’s to come, yeah, we’re going to be alright,” co-owner Leonardo Williams said after a busy weekend at Zweli’s in May. But he said they needed to hire six more employees to keep up with demand.

He and Chef Zweli Williams made financial sacrifices to hire a kitchen manager back from Taco Bell, a story similar to what they’re hearing from many small business owners.

“We are all having the same conversations,” Leonardo said. “We’re losing people to Amazon. We’re losing people to chain restaurants.”

The couple opened the restaurant in the Oak Creek Village shopping center in July 2018. The restaurant developed a following and “catering was out of this world” until the city’s stay-at-home order, Leonardo said.

That was the start of a roller coaster of a year for the Williamses. They transitioned to a carryout business, exhausted their savings and obtained two PPP loans. Their landlord asked for the keys back on the same day they found out they had won a $25,000 grant.

The couple felt the deep support of loyal customers who ordered food and helped them line up funding. Zweli’s gave back to the Durham community by cooking almost 50,000 meals for those in need.

Now that the patio and dining room are busy, and business is looking up, Leonardo and chef Zweli are looking to expand. They are talking to landlords in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and downtown Durham about opening a small-scale samosa shop. Cities like Rocky Mount have reached out to them as well.

“People now know if you bring a Zweli’s to your city, you’re going to get a heavy load of community engagement and community service from us,” he said.

In downtown, Bar Virgile and its sister bar, Annexe – which opened just days before the pandemic shutdown – also experienced strong community support. Bar Virgile owner Daniel Sartain said he was grateful to have a landlord who was willing to defer rent and also to have generous customers, some who shoved money under the door for his staff in the early days of the pandemic. He and Annexe business partner Nellie Vail made constant changes for months to try and bring in revenue, from converting the dining room into storage for to-go boxes to opening a swanky outdoor patio in the nearby parking deck. They even managed to generate some revenue selling sangria last spring.

The financial situation improved with PPP loans, vaccines for their employees and customers, and warmer temperatures. “Thankfully spring came and the patio’s been full ever since,” Sartain said. “Hopefully we are done with pivots, because I think we’re about out of them and frankly exhausted from them.”

Sartain recently decided to stop taking reservations and revert back to first-come first-served seating. Bar Virgile also stopped offering curbside delivery so employees could focus on serving the customers inside. And those customers were eager to see friends, clink glasses and watch the bartenders work their magic.

“Even though they’re 6 feet apart, I see people talking and raising their glasses to one another, and it just kind of gives you hope,” Sartain said.

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