Adapt or else: Downtown businesses cope with new reality

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Many business owners expected a return to normalcy this month as offices reopened.

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Downtown businesses in the US and abroad once assumed that nearby offices would provide a steady clientele looking for breakfast, lunch, everyday items and services, and last-minute gifts. As the resilient coronavirus keeps offices closed and workers at home, some are adapting while others are trying to hang on.

Some businesses are already gone. Survivors have taken steps such as increasing online sales or changing their hours, staffing levels and what they offer to customers. Others are more dependent on residential traffic.

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Many business owners expected a return to normalcy this month as offices reopened. But now that many companies have postponed plans to bring back workers, due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, downtown businesses are grappling with the fact that adjustments made on the fly could be permanent.

In downtown Detroit, Mike Frank’s cleaning business was running out of money and, it seemed, out of time.

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Frank started Clifford Street Cleaners eight years ago. Pre-pandemic, monthly revenue was about $11,000, but by last December, when many downtown offices had to close, revenue had fallen to $1,800, Frank said.

Frank had to borrow money from his wife to pay the bills. “It’s down, I was almost ready to go out of business.”

Instead of shutting down, Frank adapted. He transformed a portion of his store into a small market with toothpaste, laundry detergent, shampoo, bottled water, soft drinks and other essentials. He also delivered clean laundry and goods from the shop.

Eventually, some foot traffic returned. With the combination of retail sales and dry cleaning, revenue is back to about $4,100 a month, he said. This is enough to keep him afloat and the figure is improving every month.

lower. In manhattanAccording to the Alliance for Downtown New York, 224 businesses closed their doors in 2020 and 2021. About 100 have opened.

“No question, it’s tough for business districts like ours, we miss our workers,” said Jessica Lapin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. “No one remembers them more than local businesses.”

Lapin predicted that office workers would return, but this could be two or three days a week, on different days, or in shifts.

“The way we had to adjust so dramatically to being at home all the time, there is an adjustment to coming back,” she said.

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A block of Wall Street, Blue Park Kitchen had lines outside the door each weekday as office workers waited to buy one of the cereal bowls Kelly Fitzpatrick offered as a healthy lunch option. was served.

“Things are completely different,” she said.

Online orders now account for 65% of business – although they are less profitable as online apps take the cut. High-margin catering orders are non-existent and Blue Park has reduced its workforce to less than nine employees.

“At its peak in July 2021 (before the delta variant boom), we had about 65% of peak pre-COVID business,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick has seen more offices reopen and expects more companies to return in October before the slow holiday months of November and December.

Nearby, Ankit Malhotra took over the Indian restaurant Banaras with his brother in 2019. When the pandemic hit, overnight, their core banking customers disappeared. No one came for the $13 three-course lunch special the restaurant was known for. Earlier, lunches accounted for 95% of the business in Banaras.

Now, there are around 10 lunch orders per day in Banaras, which is less than 100. But locals, grateful that the restaurant kept its pre-pandemic time from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, have kept the brothers afloat.

Business is back to around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, helped by deliveries and dinner. Customers have changed from employees to young people and families from nearby Battery Park City.

“It’s nice to see not only corporate people in the city. It’s becoming a family-oriented place.”

Jorge Guzman, assistant professor of business management at Columbia University, said economic activity is likely to shift away from the city. Entrepreneurship booms in non-cities New York Areas such as Jamaica, Queens and the South Bronx.

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“Downtown isn’t going to die, of course. It’s not like Midtown going anywhere. But it’s going to be a little bit more mixed, more residential and mixed-use concepts.”

Across the Atlantic in London, office workers are slowly getting back to their desks as the government lifted COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on July 19. The UK saw a peak of delta cases in July, but the numbers dropped sharply in about two weeks. Recently, however, cases have been on the rise again.

Passenger numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, making it harder for small businesses to survive in central London’s financial district.

“It was amazing, it was cool, it was busy before the pandemic,” said Rado Astrian, who has worked as a hairdresser at Man-Oz Hair Salon in the Financial District for six years. Before COVID-19, he usually had 10 to 15 customers a day, but now it has come down to three or four.

“Now, it’s so empty,” Asatrian said. He said that he is considering moving to a busy place, changing careers or going abroad.

In some downtown, while workers are still away, tourists are back and promoting businesses.

In Atlanta, Kwan’s Deli and Korean Food are doing as much summer business as it did before the pandemic, said Andrew Song, whose family owns the restaurant.

At the peak of the pandemic, Kwan had lost about 80% of his business, reduced his hours and cut staff. But Daly did thanks to tourists from the Georgia Aquarium and events at a nearby convention hall.

Still, the delta variant surge is creating uncertainty about the downside. Song said he has heard that some businesses have been permanently relocated or downsized.

“It’s hard to imagine what it would look like with the office not regularly returning or being more distant,” he said.

In Nashville, restaurant operator A. Marshall Hospitality’s chief operating officer, Lyle Richardson, said he has seen the city’s restaurant industry devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. He sits on the board of the Tennessee Hospitality Association trade group and estimates that hundreds of restaurants have had to close.

Those who remained open made adjustments. Richardson stopped serving lunch at a restaurant, Deacon’s New South, to focus on dinner after office workers moved away. But he kept his other restaurant, Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant open from 7 am to 11 pm to attract tourists coming back to the city.

“The normalcy that we called pre-COVID, no longer exists,” he said. “We have to be on our toes, ready to adapt.”

Back in Detroit, business at Kennels by downtown bakery and sandwich shop Matt Neo has rebounded above 2019 levels after an initial drop at the start of the pandemic. The baseball and football crowds are back, and outdoor dining and takeout are popular.

If businesses are subject to more restrictions when the weather turns cold, Neo believes he can count on the lessons he has learned so far in the pandemic.

“I think we know our way now, and how to deal with it,” he said. “We’ll be able to do takeout and curbside pickup.”


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