Restaurants are taking reservations, beer taps are flowing and retail stores are open to walk-ins as Gov. Phil Scott eases pandemic-related restrictions on the economy.
But it’s not business as usual. Restaurants are taking reservations because they are required to, and they can move up to 50 percent capacity as of Friday. Masks are required. And everybody’s waiting to see if Stowe’s tourism-driven economy will have the usual influx of summer visitors.
The Stowe Reporter spoke in depth with three business owners about their pandemic-induced closures, their reopening, and the future.
Shaw’s General Store
The weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, Shaw’s General Store on Main Street was bustling.
“We had the busiest weekend ever for that time of year,” said Sal Vespa; he and his wife, Anne-Marie, own the store. But fear of the virus was at a tipping point, and there were whispers of what would soon be acknowledged as a global pandemic.
Vespa suspected the March sales surge was driven by city dwellers taking refuge in Vermont.
“We decided, ‘That’s it, we aren’t exposing our staff to this,’” Vespa said, and the store closed its doors. From March 19 to May 18, Shaw’s had eight employees on payroll, who did what they could while the things were sorted out.
“Keeping our staff on, we burned through a lot of cash,” Vespa said. When the shutdown happened, they canceled their orders for new goods. “Now, we’re reordering things and being very careful.”
Shaw’s employees are being careful too, wearing masks and keeping things clean, and Vespa said they aren’t afraid to be working with the public. “People are excited to be back in Stowe, out of the house,” he said.
Customers are also following precautions.
“We have mostly local people coming in, and thank goodness for that local support,” he said. Some have sent Vespa emails, thanking him for keeping the store a contagion-safe space.
“There was only one customer who told me if she had to wear a mask she would never shop here again,” he said.
While he’s optimistic, Versa said sales are only 30 to 40 percent of what they were a year ago.
In this, the 125th year for Shaw’s General Store, there won’t be an Independence Day parade, the float the store was planning won’t happen, and without Main Street fanfare and other events in Stowe, downtown businesses will likely take a hit.
But, when lodging and visitor centers can reopen, Vespa is certain visitors will return.
“I don’t see (sales) going over half before that,” he said.
Café on Main
Another downtown business, Café on Main, has been inching back to normalcy.
When the shutdown hit, Neil Handwerger — he and his fiancée, Laine Ogden, own the café — tried a takeout-only setup, but it didn’t work. Their six full-time employees were furloughed, and the doors were closed to the public for two and a half months.
“During our time off, we thought really seriously about what a reopen would look like,” he said. “We’re like family,” and the whole café crew was in touch during the weeks of shutdown.
Handwerger suggested opening May 15, but “the general tone from the staff was they weren’t ready.” he said. They agreed on June 1.
The business bought an espresso and cappuccino machine, set up online ordering, and made plans to install a takeout window, hoping to bring in more customers. And then the day came.
“The first week was doom and gloom,” Handwerger said. But the next week got better, and so did the week after that. “It’s a steady increase, so much so that I’m speaking about it in a positive way,” he said.
Sales are about half of what they were last year, but Handwerger has faith that the upward trend will continue as people overcome the shock of a three-month shutdown.
“Two weeks ago, the comfort level was less than it is now, and hopefully it will be more than it is now next week,” he said, and he thanked Stowe residents for supporting his restaurant.
As for safety precautions, masks are a must, and no customers have given Handwerger any trouble over that rule.
“We don’t live among a bunch of dum-dums. Everyone takes this seriously,” he said.
Handwerger comes from a fine-dining background, and has been taken aback by the number of high-end restaurants across the country that won’t survive the pandemic.
“I think the restaurant business will be forever changed,” he said. “No one’s immune to disaster, and this is going to be disastrous for a lot of businesses. I think we’re going to be one of the lucky ones.”
Café on Main and Shaw’s General Store are smaller operations, with no more than a dozen employees at peak season. But Idletyme Brewing Company has more than 100 people on its payroll when it’s fully staffed.
The restaurant and brewery stayed open for takeout through the shutdown, but business was nowhere near normal.
In April, Idletyme’s revenue was down 69 percent from the year before, said Charla Davis; she and her husband, Bill, own the business.
Now that restaurants can host diners indoors again, Idletyme has 50 seats outside and 71 inside. Business is getting better, but the restrictions pose unique challenges.
“When we were told ‘outdoor dining only,’ people don’t realize what that means for restaurants,” Davis said. For instance, weather can determine whether a restaurant has a dining room at all. And, when your product is food, that could lead to the loss of a lot of perishable goods, she said.
Nevertheless, people still showed up. Over the Stowe High School graduation weekend, the temperature dropped to the low 40s in some areas, but even so, “people were so excited to get out and dine, we had people sitting out there in the cold,” Davis said.
A silver lining to this odd time: Having takeout seven days a week brought Idletyme new business.
“We started getting new people. And now we’re starting to see those people coming back,” Davis said.
The staff members have challenges to face — wearing masks in a hot kitchen, being ready with to-go containers if a storm suddenly appears, and keeping track of the now-required reservations. Davis said the staff members were excited to come back, and have met these new responsibilities head on.
When the patio and dining room opened, only a handful of employees didn’t return. But, even with 55 employees, Idletyme still needs cooks, bartenders, servers and hosts.
“We want full-time people that want to be at Idletyme,” Davis said, looking ahead to the summer season.
“Even if it’s not the Fourth of July that we’ve had in the past, it’s still going to be busy,” she said.
Idletyme pays well, she said, but “there’s some incentive to take advantage of the unemployment opportunity.”
The $600-a-week boost that Congress gave to unemployment benefits could be thinning out the workforce, she said, and on top of that, she’s noticed some unemployment funny business. The more unemployment claims filed, the more a business’s unemployment insurance rates rise, and Davis says reports she’s seeing don’t make sense.
“There are people who were fired with reasonable cause, there are people who resigned, there are people showing up that I don’t even know who they are,” she said. “It’s kind of scary when you take a look at the names and say, ‘Wow, where did all of this come from?’”
Davis said the pandemic is a prime example of why unemployment insurance is so important for businesses to have, especially restaurants.
Like many Vermonters, she’s had trouble contacting the Vermont Department of Labor to sort out unemployment issues.
But business is getting better, and she has high hopes for the summer — with a cautionary note.
“Unless hotels are able to open and accommodate the out-of-state guests who support the Stowe economy, we will not likely see the level of summer business we have seen in the past,” Davis said.