‘As We Think Ahead to the Fall, It’s Very Scary’: Local Businesses Prepare for Uncertain Months Ahead

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The Covid-19 pandemic has made things difficult for everyone, but nobody has felt it harder than business. Local restaurants and businesses have dealt with the extra challenge of providing services, meeting financial goals, and {most importantly} keeping people safe. As restaurants welcomed backed customers to indoor dining in the past week, local businesses have reflected on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected them, along with concerns that affect their immediate future. Read more to find out how the Covid-19 pandemic affected local Hoboken + Jersey City businesses.

covid affected hoboken businesses

On the Beginning of the Shutdown

After Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order in March urging people to lockdown, most businesses found it difficult to stay afloat. Some made a quick decision to lay off their entire staff. Others struggled to adjust to cyberspace. The Covid-19 pandemic, most business owners agree, has reshaped the very nature of local business.

In the early days of the pandemic, Cafe Peanut put an emphasis on helping frontline workers. “We were involved in helping the front line workers such as JCMC doctors and nurses, fire department, police department, Greenville community, and much more,” said Ilir and Dorota Mani, owners of Cafe Peanut. “We donated hundreds of freshly made meals and specialty lattes and coffees. Our community supported us and the ones that needed it most. Without them, it would be impossible for us to continue being open and survive the global pandemic. The business has been impacted tremendously. We are talking here 30% of revenue comparing to pre-COVID months.”

Gyms in Hoboken had to make difficult sacrifices. Jay Wein, the owner of Hudson River Athletics, said, “There isn’t a way that Covid-19 has not affected our business.” When Wein’s gym closed on March 15, it immediately began to lose members. “Over the course of the past 6 months, we’ve lost 40% of our membership due to the ongoing pandemic. I’ve had to lay off 7 of my 10 coaches, a decision that was both necessary and gutting. My business is built on the community. It runs on connection, belonging, and inclusivity, values that reflect both our gym community and Hoboken as a whole. And right now, it feels like it’s all at stake,” he said.

Read More: Hoboken City Council To Debate $117 Million Budget at Wednesday Meeting

Fit Foundry saw similar drops in membership and maintained gym programs online. Dave Quevedo, the owner of Fit Foundry, said the gym offered virtual on-demand and group classes. In June, they started outdoor classes. “We never stopped,” Quevedo said. “We found a way to get it done.”

Other businesses said they had to shut down for several months when the pandemic first hit. Shaka Bowl closed its Monroe Street location for three months, said Krista Gormeley, an owner of Shaka Bowl, “merely out of a concern of safety for our team and customers and because it was the most logical thing to do at the time.” Gormeley said closing for three months “gave us much needed time to regroup, rework our business, and find different ways to be successful.”

John Rotundo, director at Hudson Family Chiropractic, closed his practice’s office for two months “despite being considered essential.” Rotundo said that he used that time to create a reopen plan. “That plan included every possible safety precaution I could find, including sneeze guards, gallons and gallons of sanitizer, gloves, masks, hospital-grade cleaning solutions, touchless thermometers, and altered scheduling.  The stress of how and when to open was immense, but we did it as safely as possible and patients have been extremely satisfied with our precautions.”

In the food sector, businesses like the Cliff JC struggled tremendously. Owner Eva Johannesdottir shared with Hoboken Girl, “During the first week of the shutdown back in mid-March our business plummeted. So much so that we had to close our doors entirely for 7 weeks. Once our staff felt safe and comfortable enough, we opened our doors again and this time for pickup and delivery only. We revamped our menu to eliminate food that doesn’t travel as well for delivery,” she shared, noting the difficulties of the current menu in March. “Being we are mostly a brunch restaurant we had to rethink our entire business as people don’t generally order eggs to go. We added two evenings of dinner service with dinner plates such as roasted salmon, tacos and a lobster roll. We made sure to still offer menu options for kids as lots of parents were looking for family-friendly meals.”

In other cases, some businesses could lean on virtual sales models they had already built, although large groups of workers were still laid off.

Kate Jacobs, the owner of Little City Books, said online sales kept them busy, but they couldn’t afford to keep employees. “We furloughed most of our staff and worked crazy hours totally transforming our sales model and keeping up with hundreds of online orders. Customers have been incredibly loyal and supportive—ordering books to be sent out of town to where they were quarantining, sending books to friends, being really patient with delays and mess-ups. After George Floyd was killed, we were nearly swamped with orders for books about race, most back-ordered for weeks and weeks.”

Business Over the Summer

Summer is usually when business thrives. But this summer, most businesses have felt the impact of stringent safety regulations, occupancy restrictions, and public health concerns.

One industry, however, has seen a surge in customers: mental health counseling.

Courtney Glashow, the owner of Anchor Therapy, a counseling service in Hoboken, said their sessions have stayed booked. “A lot of people have been having a hard time this summer since it wasn’t a normal summer,” Glashow said. According to an August 2020 study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. In March 2020, by contrast, 32% of adults reported stress or worry over the coronavirus.

Most other businesses saw their sales dip significantly. To attract customers, owners said, they had to rethink major aspects of their business.

See More: The Reopening List in New Jersey: What’s Open? What are the Rules?

Erika Shah, the owner of Playful Paws, a dog walking, and grooming service, said most of their time is now focused on animal grooming and haircuts. “In June, our grooming portion was instantly busy as many pups like ourselves desperately needed hair cuts,” Shah said. “Unfortunately, the dog walking and daycare portions of our business continue to operate at only a fraction of our pre-pandemic business. Many clients are still working from home and simply don’t need these services or have moved out of Hoboken.”

Jen Choi of Sugar Suckle, a custom cakery, said “We knew that sheltering in place meant that families would be spending more time together at home and could benefit from fun, kid-friendly activities to do around the house. So we created DIY baking kits with pre-measured ingredients, essential supplies, and step by step instructions. We refreshed the menu each week with new recipes and themes.”

Boutiques and fashion suppliers had to rethink what clothes to offer, and how much fashion should cost. The owners of Coup de Coeur, a women’s boutique, said they had to change their store’s concept and put a focus on digital marketplaces. “We felt that with so many people unemployed and furloughed that we needed to lower the price point, because we just didn’t know what to expect,” they said. “We didn’t think people were shopping. Yes, everybody shops, but how realistic is it for someone to come in and buy a two hundred dollar top for the summer? So, we mixed up the merchandise.”

Throughout the summer, restaurants have depended on alternatives to traditional dining, such as outdoor dining and prepared meal kits. As the number of Covid-19 cases in New Jersey slowly stabilized, government officials lifted occupancy restrictions on businesses. In September, Governor Phil Murphy announced the return of indoor dining at 25% capacity.

On Preparing for the Fall + Colder Months

“As we think ahead to the fall, it’s very scary,” said the owners of Coup de Coeur.

Some businesses find it difficult to predict the fall and winter seasons for their business, but most agree that it doesn’t look good.

Last fall, we were very, very busy,” said the owners of Coup de Coeur. “We were successful in selling work clothes—blazers, going out clothes. Now we think ahead to the fall, there’s so much uncertainty.”

Wein, the owner Hudson River Athletics, said it’s been hard not to worry about the winter. “The outdoor workouts were a welcome gift when the weather is nice, but what will happen to when the mercury dips? These past months have threatened to kill my business and we are doing everything we can to stay positive, from both cash flow and attitude perspective, but it’s been really tough.”

In September, Hoboken adopted a new law allowing local businesses to have outdoor dining throughout winter. Allen Bari, the owners at Hudson Table, said he already heat lamps ready for the winter. “We have heat lamps ready for the late fall/early winter, and we plan on adjusting the menu to help with the warmer months,” Bari said. “We also hope to use the viaduct tunnel with heat lamps that will hopefully provide some warm dinner nights.”

Business owners generally agree that it will all come down to creativity. “Pete Martinez

On How Local Residents + Government Officials Can Help

In May, lawmakers formed the Hoboken Relief Fund to support local businesses through grants. The Relief Fund has raised $400,000 for local businesses since June, with a goal of $2 million. Anyone can donate to the relief fund through their website. The Hoboken Wellness Crawl is also donating a percentage of its ticket proceeds to the Hoboken Relief Fund. Jersey City also created a similar fund.

Another way to support local businesses is also the most obvious: shop locally. However, local businesses also depend on support from government officials and the business community to stay alive. Most businesses said that they’ll take all the help they can receive.

Erika Shah, the owner of Playful Paws, said that government officials should continue to offer grants. “Like many small businesses,” Shah said, “we have many great employees who have been with us for years who we hope to keep employed throughout and post-pandemic.”

Kate Lombardo, a co-owner of Hudson Yoga Project, shared her thoughts on landlord/tenant relief. “Truthfully, our government leaders can help by providing guidance for small businesses and landlords about what to do with rent. We were mandated to be closed and are now only able to open at limited capacity, but there have been no mandates as to how that should be reflected or adjusted in what we pay in rent,” she shared with Hoboken Girl. “Our landlords also have businesses to run, and there has been limited guidance for them as well in terms of the help available. If our leaders addressed this issue, many of the local businesses would be able to stay the course until we’re able to open at full capacity again. But, if local businesses have to pay full rent while only being allowed to open at 25% capacity, it’s going to be nearly impossible for them to stay afloat.”

Other business owners pointed to initiatives launched by the Hoboken Business Alliance, including gift cards and shop local signage. Erin Clyne, the owner of Wellness Lab, said, “I love the Gift Card program that just began today through the Hoboken Business Alliance. Knowing that my clients will receive a discount in these tough times and that my business is being supported at the same time is a huge plus.”

Read More: Hoboken + Jersey City Businesses Born During the Pandemic

Increasing “shop local” signage and continuing the slow street program would also help, said Kate Jacobs, owner of Little City Books.1st Street has so much interesting retail now,” Jacobs said. “If the City could help fund outdoor temporary structures — retail kiosks much like the summer Streateries and Parklets — that would be good.”

Eva of The Cliff had even more specific ideas. When asked, she offered this list for the Jersey City government:

1. An ad campaign paid for by the city featuring local eateries in all wards — not just downtown Jersey City.
2. Do away with fees or drastically lower municipal fees for items such as licensing renewals.
3. Stop the collection of the recently added payroll tax.
4. Lobby Trenton to drastically change the liquor laws in the State of New Jersey. All businesses should have equal access to purchasing a liquor license directly from the state for a reasonable amount just as you can do in almost every other state in the USA. Restaurants do not make any money on offering their customers to BYOB. And most small business owners can not afford the astronomical rate for which licenses are sold these days.
5. Promote a “No sales tax” week for all small businesses during the winter months.
6. Award and rotate government-related catering jobs to small businesses.
7. A centralized website with resources for grants and funding – both public and private.
8. A website for local job listings so that we can hire within our community. {PS: Hoboken Girl has this! Click here}

Still, some businesses said that they don’t need anything other than the local community to continue what it’s been doing.

Joe Schiavo, the owner of The Shepherd and The Knucklehead, said he is grateful for the Hoboken community for their support, particularly over the past few months as he opened his ‘Lemonade Stand’ and had lots of patrons throughout the pandemic, all picking up to-go cocktails and brews. “They’ve gone out of their way to support us, share what we’re doing, and bring people in,” he said. “They provided for me more than I could ever ask for.” 

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Matthew Cunningham covers local stories on LGBTQ life, city council, local business, inequality, and science. Born in Arkansas, Matthew is a student at Stevens Institute of Technology and a proud gay Hoboken resident. When he isn't dashing to a zoning board meeting or interviewing lawmakers, he enjoys exploring restaurants on Washington Street, scootering on Frank Sinatra Drive, and getting a taste of the big city life.