A cold coronavirus January sends small biz back in time

Three-quarters of the companies that responded to a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce survey in early January said their holiday sales were lower than in previous years, giving them less of a cushion going into a month that’s slow even in good years. Companies that responded to the survey included gyms, restaurants and retailers. Among them, 1 in 5 temporarily closed during the holidays, survey data showed, and 60% had some of their employees call out sick. City, state and local business groups have recently come forth with offers of funds and support to help business owners make it until the spring.

Still, the blow is hard to take, especially because of the relative bustle that preceded the current freeze, said Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Brooklyn chamber. “Just when many of our small businesses were hoping to make up some ground for losses incurred throughout the pandemic,” he said, “they now face another uncertain winter as we head into 2022.”

Another indicator of the up and down is subway ridership. In November and early December, estimated ridership hovered around 55% of its pre-2020 level, going up to 75% on weekends. Since Christmas, it has stayed in the 40% range. In Lower Manhattan, pedestrian numbers doubled in October, compared to September’s figure, said Jessica Lappin, president of the Downtown Alliance. She added that the sidewalks are much quieter now.

“The emotional roller coaster has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” she said.

At Eugene & Co., Oxley said she makes a game of trying to guess why patrons aren’t coming in. “Is it because it’s after the holidays and they want to save money?” she said. “Because it’s really cold? Or people not wanting to eat inside,” even though she has limited capacity to make her staff feel safer?

The upshot is that she has culled shifts. On especially slow nights, she cuts the server and take over. “It’s being creative and saving money where you can to make it through the lean months,” she said.

At the clothing store Astoria Boutique, customer traffic is way down, and even many regular customers have stopped spending, thanks to their own financial problems, including lost jobs, owner Jamaal Bouidra said. Bouidra, himself, owes seven months’ rent. His strategy for sticking around until sales pick up is to keep his staff tiny: just him and one other employee.

Some owners are refocusing their energy on incremental business lines that brought in revenue during the spring of 2020, Lappin said.

“Businesses are more resilient in terms of attracting customers,” she said, “and I do think there have been adaptations.”

Oxley said although that her goal in opening the restaurant was to create a community gathering place, takeout cocktails have been a boon to sales, especially pre-mixed Negronis that sold for $60 for 10 drinks. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced in her recent State of the State address that she would allow restaurants to bring back to-go alcoholic beverages.

Oxley said she loves dehydrating ingredients, sometimes using them to flavor salt, and she is spending extra time crafting this kind of speciality for her line of provisions. Sales of specialty ingredients have been helpful, but they can’t sustain the business, she said.

Watching the empty dining rooms at his restaurant in Queens and on Staten Island, owner Alejandro Nava is pivoting even further: He is opening a takeout-only Mexican restaurant in Nassau County called Mala Madre. “It will just be for takeout, because that is the new thing,” he said.

Nava is debating whether to close Cabo Mexican, his restaurant on Staten Island that he said is in a difficult position. Locals who are angry about the vaccine mandate won’t come in, Nava said, but he worries that if he stops checking for proof of vaccination, government agencies will plaster the business with fines.

“It creates a very difficult situation, having us enforcing the vaccine cards,” he said.

Hochul said this week that the current wave of Covid-19 cases appeared to be easing. Business owners certainly know that January’s chill will warm up soon. Moreover, the state recently announced that it would spend an additional $1 billion on various small-business relief programs. Membership groups, Downtown Alliance among them, and even private firms such as Uber have come out with their own pots of financial relief for small-business owners.

But even the suggestion of some relief can’t rev many owners out of the new year’s doldrums.

“The grants and applications—they don’t make it simple,” Nava said, pointing to a pile of forms and figures needed to apply to most programs. “I’m not going to go crazy over that.”

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