Running a small business is never easy, with daily concerns over everything from staffing to inventory to finances.
However, the coronavirus outbreak has turned an already tough road to success into possibly a matter of survival.
In Harrisburg, many small business owners have just begun to assess what the epidemic means for them.
“We just can’t ride the waves in the same way as a larger business can,” said Andrea Grove, owner of Elementary Coffee Co.
The challenge is two-fold, business owners say.
In the short term, small businesses are taking measures to continue to operate in the safest way possible for both their customers and their employees. In the long-term, they’re hoping simply to make it, trimming their sails and strategizing to survive the duration of the epidemic.
To that end, Grove decided on Friday afternoon to cut back the hours at her North Street shop, which just opened a few months ago. For now, the café will close at 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, two hours earlier than usual, as business already has slowed down.
“We feel we’re cinching our belts a little tighter and a little tighter,” she said.
For Grove, it’s a one-two punch, as, just last month, a water-main break forced her to close down for several days.
Up N. 3rd Street, Adam Brackbill, like Grove, opened a brick-and-mortar shop recently after finding success in the Broad Street Market. As a craft ice cream producer, he was just beginning to feel better now that winter had passed, with warmer weather usually leading to better sales.
But, now, the coronavirus—and people’s response to it—has him nervous.
“For the first time in my life, as a business owner, I am concerned about how the panic over the virus will impact business,” he said.
In the late afternoon, his scoop shop actually looked pretty busy, with a line of customers waiting their turn to order creative flavors like honey banana, pista mint and dirty chai.
Still, worry hung in the air—you might call it anxiety of the unknown, over both the outbreak itself and when life, and commerce, will return to normal.
“I fear that we might be at the point where we might start feeling a slowdown,” he said. “It’s a matter that you just don’t know.”
Brackbill is urging the community to stand behind Harrisburg’s small businesses, so that they survive past the health and now, the resulting economic, crisis. Even if you don’t want to visit the shop in person, you can order via a food delivery service like Grubhub or Uber Eats, he said.
Likewise, Grove said that she’d be happy to deliver coffee right out to your car if you call or text ahead. Another way to support Elementary, she said, is to buy whole coffee beans, enjoying her small-batch coffees even if you’re self-isolating at home.
Brackbill suggested purchasing gift cards to use later, which will help businesses survive a short-term cash crunch.
“In Harrisburg, there are a lot of regulars,” Brackbill said. “If they know they’re going to use them eventually, buying gift cards will really help.”
Some businesses have decided to close altogether, including Gamut Theatre Group and Midtown Cinema, which just announced that it will shut down through March 27. Open Stage has announced several show cancellations and plans to scale back its annual performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Late on Friday, Whitaker Center said it would close through March 20, and Harrisburg University is switching to all-online instruction through the end of the semester.
Many businesses that are remaining open are emphasizing that they’re re-doubling efforts to provide the cleanest and safest possible environments for customers.
Little Amps Coffee Roasters, for one, has stopped using mugs and has gone exclusively to single-serve cups.
“We’re being as proactive in our cleanliness and sanitation as possible,” said CEO Peter Leonard. “We want people to feel comfortable in our stores.”
Both Grove and Leonard lamented that the virus has another pernicious effect, keeping people away from places, like coffee shops, that play a unique social role in the community.
“We’re doing our best to continue to serve our community,” Leonard said. “So, we’ll adapt as needed.”
Another coffee hotspot, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, also announced on Friday that it would use only disposable vessels and utensils, would increase cleaning of tables and other high-touch areas, and would have hand sanitizer available.
Similarly, Zeroday Brewing Co. stated on its Facebook page that it is taking extra safety precautions. For instance, menus will be sanitized after each use, and staff will only fill new growlers.
Over at Outside the Box Escape Room, manager Sean Michael Kelly said that some room availability has been cut, as staff is taking more time to “clean and sanitize” rooms between groups. That includes the escape room’s “Outbreak” game, in which players try to prevent a deadly virus from spreading—in a bizarre case of fiction turning into reality.
“We want people to be safe and healthy and happy,” he said.
While it’s not giving refunds, Outside the Box is allowing people to reschedule without a penalty, Kelly said.
And, in another weird twist, one group had to cancel its Escape Room adventure this past week. The state Department of Health had scheduled a team-building exercise, Kelly said, but then attendees had to deal with a genuine virus outbreak.
“They suddenly had to disperse around the state,” he said. “We definitely understood.”
Click here for a related story on businesses at the Broad Street Market.