The guiding principle of owning a small business is to be prepared for anything. But who would have guessed that “anything” could include a global pandemic capable of turning cities around the world into ghost towns and putting the economy in a deep freeze?
Merchants and retailers in downtown Santa Cruz are struggling to adapt to a surreal new world of closed doors and dramatically reduced revenues. They’ve furloughed or laid off staff, halted orders of merchandise, and converted to unfamiliar modes of commerce just to keep the lights on, all the while trying to stay safe from the fast spreading COVID-19 contagion.
Over the past two weeks, 10 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment. Facing the precipice of economic ruin and the uncertainty that each new day brings, many small business owners find themselves whipsawing between gloom and hope.
“For the country, it’s a catastrophe,” says Dave Kumec, who owns Mission Hill Coffee and Creamery on Pacific Avenue. “The survivors of this will come out of it stronger because we will have learned an important lesson. Only right now, we don’t know what that lesson is yet.”
Normally, during the springtime, Kumec is gearing up for the spring break rush to his ice-cream and cafe business in advance of the busy summer season. That whole trajectory is now out the window. Today, he’s only open as a takeout and curbside business. He’s had to reduce his staff from 18 to just one. He’s mostly busy selling sourdough bread, chicken pot pies and vegetable pot pies to make ends meet. “It’s comfort food,” he says between baking sessions. “That’s what people want right now.”
Kumec could use some comfort himself. Shortly before laying off staffers, he purchased extra supplies for the spring break rush. He had trained new people. He was in the midst of transitioning to more of a coffee and bakery business, a long-planned goal that he has had to suspend. Fortunately, much of his customer base, cultivated from 10 years in business, is ordering from him while sheltering in place.
“I’ll just keep jumping left, jumping right,” he says. “Whatever I can do to stay in business, I’ll do it. All those long-standing tried-and-true marketing directives about how to brand a business—‘Hey, you sell ice cream therefore you can’t sell chicken pot pie’—they’re out the door. Luckily, I’ve built up 10 years of good will in this community, and that’s coming back to me.”
Suna Lock, who runs the boutique retailer Stripe, has also been spending the spring season in ways she wouldn’t have expected. She and her teenage son recently found themselves doing door-to-door delivery to locals who had ordered from her store online.
Stripe, which has been in business for 11 years, closed its doors March 17 in compliance with the county’s shelter-in-place order, putting its eight employees in limbo. Now that the county’s Health Officer Gail Newel has extended the shelter-in place order, it’s anyone’s guess how long this period of uncertainty will drag on. Lock says that she did not agonize over the decision to close last month. “It was a tough call in terms of our revenue,” she says, “but not in terms of safety. We did what was right.”
Linnaea Holgers James closed her art store Artisans on March 15. “[The day before] we started noticing that all of our customers were not locals,” she says. “They were all telling us that they were from over the hill in Santa Clara and they were bored. When I didn’t see any of our regulars, it just didn’t feel safe anymore.”
Besides a staff of six employees, Artisans provides around 150 local and regional artists a valuable outlet for in-person retail sales. Closing the store has put all that on hold. James plans to turn during the quarantine to long-neglected aspects of her business—updating its online store and social media platforms.
She remembers the struggles of downtown businesses during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. James took over Artisans in the teeth of the Great Recession that started in 2008. Now, customers can help, she says, even just by making small purchases. “If every person just buys a card, that’s a big help to us,” she says. “Having been through the earthquake and the recession before, it taught me that rising back up is possible and that limping along through uncertain times is possible too. I just keep trying to keep that in perspective.”
Tatiana Glass and her husband Jonathan are trying to keep three local businesses afloat. She’s been the proprietor of the retail store Shoe Fetish on Pacific Avenue for 20 years, and she also owns the shoe store Solemate in Aptos. At the end of 2018, the Glasses also took over ownership of Ristorante Avanti on Mission Street in Santa Cruz.
On the retail side, Tatiana says she had to lay off her eight employees at the shoe stores and cancel her upcoming orders, putting her business in suspension. At Avanti, of the restaurant’s 42 employees only the kitchen staff is working regularly while the Glasses transition temporarily into a takeout business, a lifeline for many of the restaurant’s employees.
“To-go orders are keeping us alive at this point,” she says. “All our employees [whether they’re working or not] are getting dinners here every single night.”
Pacific Trading Company, a downtown mainstay for 35 years, is in limbo as well. Carolyn Heinrich first opened the store back in 1985, and now runs it with her two daughters Anandi and Ramá Zoe Heinrich. Some of the store’s employees have been there for decades.
“We lived through the earthquake as a family and as a business,” says Anandi Heinrich. “So, the closest way to understand how we can get through this is falling back to that faith that in the moment the world was literally falling apart around us, somehow we made it through that.”
“Being a family business, we’ve been through a lot of stuff together,” says sister Ramá Zoe. “The three of us as a team have each other, so there’s always someone to talk you out of a panic.”
The used bookstore and bistro Bad Animal on Cedar Street has been open less than a year. “We were joking just the other day,” says Bad Animal co-owner Jessica Mackay, “that we had a lot of anticipated fears and expectations about what we would encounter in the first year of operation. A global pandemic was not on the list.”
Like many other restaurants, Bad Animal is trying to make a go of it as a takeout and pickup business. Their fine-dining orientation has had to make adjustments on the fly. And while struggling to stay afloat, Mackay and her partner Andrew Sivak are also eager to pitch in on a community effort to transcend the crisis. Bad Animal, for instance, is offering a 50% discount to emergency first responders.
“We feel confident in our ability to hold out,” says Mackay. “But like everyone else, we’re in the dark about what happens next. When we reopen, it’s going to be super-important for people to come out. All the restaurants and businesses will be making up for lost time at that point.”
The rollercoaster of emotions that most have felt since the COVID-19 crisis began is especially pronounced among small business owners who have an existential do-or-die stake in the outcome. Noelle Antolin of the downtown craft brew pub Lúpulo says her perspective sways day to day. Some days, she feels like the business can get through this rough patch. “Other days, I’m less hopeful and I worry that the economy is not going to be where it needs to be when we reopen,” she says, “and people are not going to want to go outside.”
Suna Lock of Stripe is holding firm against doubt, and she intends to come out of this period of turmoil stronger than ever. “I believe I owe it to my staff, my customers, my community. Maybe it’s a steep hill to climb, but I’m prepared for the journey,” she says.
On top of wrestling with high-stakes business woes, many merchants are also parents of young children, helping their ever-present kids navigate class work from home while schools are closed. Tatiana and Jonathan Glass are trying to savor the domestic moment, despite the high-wire act on the business side.
“That’s the bright side,” says Tatiana Glass. “My husband and I own three different businesses, so we’re always super busy. Now, we get to spend time with our kids and we’re home a lot. If you take the business part aside, I’m actually enjoying the time where we get to go for a hike in the morning, help them do homework, and eat together, things that are normal for most families but not ours because of our schedules.”
The Heinrich sisters of Pacific Trading Company are also helping their respective children through this period of online learning. They are juggling those parenting duties along with the uncertainty, isolation, and frustration that this bizarre set of circumstances has made a daily reality.
The shop owners say they are behind in establishing a viable online experience for people to shop virtually. But, like many others trying to stay in business in Santa Cruz, they have faith that the community is ready to spring to action once the crisis has passed.
“We are counting on the community,” says Anandi Heinrich, “and that everyone wants to get back to normal. We’re counting on that date, whenever that will be, when we’ll all see each other again. And everybody is anxiously awaiting that day. I’m already seeing the brighter lights in people and the best we can hope for out of all this is that the good core of Santa Cruz that has kept us here for so long is going to keep us afloat.”
For continuing in-depth coverage of the new coronavirus and its effects locally, visit goodtimes.sc/category/santa-cruz-news/coronavirus.
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