The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on spring plans and Walmart aisles, but its impact on the small businesses we know and love isn’t as viral video-producing. On March 16, the Habersham Chamber of Commerce sent an email to Chamber members urging them to prepare for negative economic hits, and these local businesses are depending on their communities to stay afloat.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” Chamber of Commerce president Mary Beth Horton says. “The businesses aren’t sure what’s going to happen from one day to the next.”
With a rapidly changing COVID-19 landscape in the state of Georgia and throughout the United States, the Chamber of Commerce is working to keep lines of communication open between themselves and businesses to give up-to-date information regarding the virus and what business owners can expect. But right now, what to expect is a question no one seems to have an answer to.
“A lot of people are concerned about the spread of germs, so they’re shutting down their dine-in locations if they’re a restaurant, or in some cases, they’re shutting down their stores,” Horton says. “We just don’t know what’s next, we don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Midtown Grill owners Andrew Kelley and Preston Bowen are among those wondering what the future holds. Their normally packed restaurants in Clarkesville and Cornelia now stand virtually empty. “We have seen a 75% drop in sales this past week in comparison to our average week,” Kelley says. They’re doing what business owners everywhere are having to do – adapt.
Not business as usual
Businesses are adjusting their schedules and services to stay afloat. Many are now offering curbside pickup for food, limiting dine-in patrons to meet social distancing standards, and selling their merchandise online.
“We have removed about half of the seating capacity from our dining rooms to allow for social distancing, but the number of dine-in customers has not filled those seats,” Kelley says. Midtown Grill plans to keep its dining rooms open as long as possible but is now encouraging to-go orders. Customers may order online (Cornelia only) or by phone and Bowen says, “We are happy to bring the food to your car when you arrive.”
Wendy Tedder, owner of Sugartopia in Cornelia, has had to “shift her product line” to stay in business during the pandemic.
It’s the beginning of spring wedding season, and after losing seven wedding cake orders, Sugratopia’s biggest moneymaker, she had to figure out something else. They’re trying delivery and curbside pickup to comply with social distancing orders, but their biggest shift was selling casseroles to enjoy at home. They sold 200 casseroles last week.
“We did see a drop in birthday party cakes, […] but for the most part, we still have a lot of orders on the books. Just the fact that those orders are still on the books and they’re not being canceled is a huge support for us,” Tedder says. “Our community has been nothing short of extraordinary.”
Horton says community support is the best thing locals can do to keep Habersham’s small businesses alive.
“Buy gift cards. Shop online. Keep it within the community, it’s imperative. You can buy gift cards now, you can use it later, you can go to that person’s website, you can order online,” Horton says. “They’re [business owners] depending on that right now. They’re depending on people to continue to purchase from them.”
With Piedmont College closed to students for the remainder of the semester, Horton believes businesses that Piedmont staff and students frequent will take a big hit. Over 700 students live on campus and most of those are no longer active in the local economy. This is where locals have to come in. “Now, more than ever, we as a community have to step up, and we’ve got to continue to flood our small businesses with our support,” she says.
Tracy Pato, owner of A to Zinc in Clarkesville, has been flooded with support from the community in finding immune-system boosting and disinfecting natural products. A to Zinc is shipping orders, offering curbside pickup services for food and order deliveries, and cleaning the store “nonstop” to keep the spread of germs at bay. But they’re finding ways to support local, too.
“We are helping some of our local businesses, [like] Amy’s Green Cleaning, she makes all-natural hand cleansers,” Pato says. “She’s an aromatherapist, so she uses essential oils that kill viral, bacterial fungal action, and she has her own blends so we’re keeping her really busy.”
Kelley and Bowen are also trying to do their part to source locally. “We are purchasing food from local grocers as much as possible, but we have had difficulty finding the products that we need.” They and their wives are making a point to support fellow restaurant owners. “We’ve been ordering take-out from locally-owned restaurants all week.”
In this evolving economy, it’s one thing for business owners to adjust hours and services, it’s another to get the word out to their customers. Now Habersham has devoted a page on our website to help businesses do that. Who’s Open, Who’s Not is a centralized location where people can go to find out how area businesses are operating in these uncertain times.
“We understand that businesses are struggling and we want to help them,” says Now Habersham owner and publisher Joy Purcell. “This online resource gives people a tool to do that.”
The Chamber, too, is offering an online resource to help businesses. They’ve started a Facebook group called Keep Habersham Happening. Posts on the page highlight local businesses and what they’re offering amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re all in this together. That’s the mantra that the nation is chanting right now, and it holds true for our own community,” Horton says.
During the uncertainty we face and fears many have as a result of this virus, Horton says it’s important to stay positive and lift up one another for the longevity of Habersham’s economy. Whether that’s sharing a social media post from one of your favorite local shops, stocking up on locally sourced products, or ordering from your neighborhood restaurants, her message is clear: “We need to support each other – put aside differences, put aside any competition of businesses,” Horton says. “We’re all neighbors. We’re all Habersham.”