Local businesses reflect on tough year, but anticipate better prospects for fall

In a normal semester, Good Time Charley’s – the Ann Arbor bar in the heart of the South University Avenue neighborhood – would be packed side-by-side with students and community members gathered to watch sports games or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But since the start of the pandemic, Charley’s and other small local businesses have received less business and faced additional challenges.

Charley co-owner Adam Lowenstein said that since March 2020, Charley’s had suffered a 60% drop in sales, along with several different shutdowns and a minor fire caused by an exterior heater. Lowenstein said the fire was “the icing on the cake” of an already difficult year with the pandemic.

“The whole year has been a huge blow,” Lowenstein said. “It was a bit of a crazy year where we just had to adapt on the fly and adapt to whatever was thrown at us.

Ann Arbor businesses like Charley’s have seen significant declines in sales, personnel, in-person capacity and hours of operation during the fall and winter semesters due to public health guidelines set by state administration and the University of Michigan. Lowenstein and other small business owners have been forced to completely change their traditional business models due to COVID-19, and will continue to navigate running a small business in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Lowenstein said that the constant fluctuations in curfew policies, capacity and more challenged Charley’s traditional business model.

“We had to completely change our business model,” Lowenstein said. “We have shortened our hours; more focused on take out and delivery; we didn’t have a happy hour; we’re doing a lot more regular sales in table restaurants. A business model like this is not profitable. ”

During the fall and winter months, Charley’s relied heavily on its new take-out and delivery service, which includes alcoholic beverages, as well as the warmer weather which helps maximize seating. outside. However, Lowenstein said that even with these successes, the fluctuating increase in COVID-19 cases in Ann Arbor still presented challenges for Charley.

“The hardest part is the uncertainty: trying to always change and always adapt and not knowing when you’re going to be able to just get back to normal,” Lowenstein said.

Zingerman’s Delicatessen, another Ann Arbor and UM community favorite, has been closed for in-person dining since the pandemic began in March 2020. Jennifer Hall, marketing and communications manager for Zingerman’s, said, like Charley’s, that Zingerman had had to completely overhaul his original business model by implementing new programs.

“We’re always looking for change and are able to experiment with different approaches and make the most of what we learn in this job and then try it out,” Hall said. “If it works, it’s great, and if it doesn’t, we try again. So we will continue to do so, we will continue to look for ways to improve ourselves and opportunities to make changes in our operations and services to meet all the demands of the moment. “

Zingerman’s “Reuben Tour” was one of the new ideas the company brought together last summer in the hope of expanding its business. According to Hall, the “Reuben Tour” was a success and could be repeated this summer.

“We’ve taken orders from people in different cities like Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Detroit,” Hall said. “Last summer, people weren’t traveling a lot outside of their own communities, so they placed orders with us, and then we placed them. It was like a giant take-out project, and it was a great idea. We have a lot of people who were very interested and they loved it. ”

Ann Arbor Board Member Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, is the owner and operator of the Jerusalem Garden. He said there was entrenched adversity in keeping a business alive during an ongoing pandemic.

“When you can’t plan in business, it’s very stressful,” Ramlawi said. “You want to plan your staff, the way you train your staff, the amount of staff to have, the amount of food to have. And you will get these diktats at the last minute, and you have to redesign your plans. You’re trying to run a business, and with whatever you want you have to be consistent with everything, and there has been very little consistency over the past year or so. “

Ramlawi also discussed the ongoing struggles and battles that small businesses in Ann Arbor must endure and try to overcome.

“As entrepreneurs, small business owners and restaurateurs, we are creative, fighters, hard workers, and we show up every day and we know that every day is a new day,” said Ramlawi. “Even though yesterday was one of the worst days you’ve had in a long time, you came back, dusted off, showed up again, hoped your staff would join you, and you were fighting to live to see another day.” “

In addition to experiencing declines in sales and revamping business models in line with evolving public health guidelines, small businesses have faced challenges in meeting mask guidelines and personalizing customer service. . Eve Arnoff Fernandez, chef and owner of popular Cuban-inspired restaurant Frita Batidos, said it was a challenge for her business.

“The staff are sometimes seen as unfriendly – we’ve never had this in 10 years, and it has happened on several occasions this year,” Fernandez said. “Everyone works with masks, which can literally mask your emotions and your communication, so there have been more communication issues with customers and among staff.

Businesses like Charley’s, Frita Batidos and Zingerman’s have all survived the pandemic, while other small local businesses have been forced to close. Lowenstein said Charley persevered with increased take-out and delivery services, as well as a government loan. programs who helped cover employee payroll.

“The reason we were able to get through – and even survive to this point – is that the government put programs in place, with what’s called Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans,” Lowenstein said. “Basically, if you spend the money on payroll, the government cancels the loans. They have done it twice now, and we have been able to participate and maintain our staff and the existence of the business during that time that without (the loans) we would have closed.

Despite the many challenges encountered over the past year, Ann Arbor business owners are eagerly awaiting the upcoming summer and fall semesters. Many owners are hoping that better weather conditions, an increase in the state’s vaccination rates, the prospect of a normal football season and the hiring of more staff will increase sales and restore normalcy.

AJ Davidson, owner of clothing and accessories store Bivouac, said he is particularly counting on the planned increase in vaccinations to keep his business running better this fall.

“I think over the next few months anyone who wants to get vaccinated will be vaccinated, which means more and more people will feel comfortable shopping in the store again,” Davidson said. “I’m excited for the fall soccer games – I’ve heard there will be fans in the stands again, which means more people in town, so I think we’ll see some more of normality in the fall and I’m excited about it.

With the increase in vaccinations, Davidson said he expected there would be an increased sense of positivity and consistency in Ann Arbor.

“In the past month, this is the first time I’ve seen a light at the end of the tunnel,” Davidson said. “One thing that also contributes to this is the downtown street closures; Allowing us to set up and sell clothes outside on weekends also helps sales, and I can’t wait to see how that helps us through the summer and early fall. “

Second-year LSA student Meredith Dirkman knew only the shops and restaurants of local businesses in Ann Arbor during the pandemic. Turning to fall, Dirkman said she can’t wait to have a more normal student experience that allows her to attend businesses in Ann Arbor.

“I’m very excited to be able to be in big groups of people and get things done instead of just sitting outside,” Dirkman said. “I’d love to be able to take large groups of friends for ice cream and stuff like that.”

As for what lies ahead for small businesses, Ramlawi said he believes nothing will be alike again since what was once seen as the traditional model of successful small businesses has been changed forever due to the pandemic.

“I think we are going to introduce new technologies and new ways of doing business that require less labor,” Ramlawi said. “We are going to change and change the way we do business to focus on our core strengths.”

Ramlawi also predicts that sales will not reach pre-pandemic figures due to the new business model.

“We will need to be more prescriptive in the areas where we apply our efforts while maintaining a high quality of service,” said Ramlawi. “But I don’t think we’re going to go back to the full-time employee numbers that I had before. We’re just going to have to do more with less, and part of that will come at the expense of full service. “

With these changes, Ramlawi hopes the company further appreciates the tireless dedication and determination of small businesses.

“As we as a society and as a community try to recover and come back, we appreciate people for what they do,” he said. “We need more empathy or sympathy for others. I think we need to have a better appreciation. I think we need to say “Thank you” and “Please” more often. I hope this message gets through because I think, unfortunately, and in some cases not too much, but more than before, this feeling of gratitude has disappeared.

In slight contrast, Hall described how grateful Zingerman is for the support from the University, the Ann Arbor community, and clients over the year.

“From the University to other companies, everyone has really stuck together during this pandemic, and it was really nice to be a part of it,” Hall said. “We have seen a lot of supportive things happening in the community. We brought food to food gatherings, people bought us food and gave it to the hospital, and it was really good that we could work as a community to get by.

Daily News reporter Martha Lewand can be contacted at [email protected]

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