NEW LONDON — Although restrictions are lifting and the vaccine rollout is underway, New London’s small business owners say their revenues remain far below what they saw before the pandemic began.
Rod Cornish, owner of Hot Rod Cafe on Bank Street, said he’s taken advantage of any opportunity to bring funding into the restaurant. He was able to obtain PPP grants, an SBA loan and a grant of about $1,300 from the City of New London.
“If I’m eligible, I will absolutely apply for anything,” he said. “We’re literally down 50 percent.”
Jake Johnson, owner of Jake’s Diner on State Street, said the diner has only reached about 45 percent of its previous business – and this is after being shut down for 4.5 months.
Director for Economic Development Felix Reyes said that applications for the City of New London’s Small Business Emergency Relief Grants, which they first offered last May, increased when they reopened the program in January.
In May, New London gave out $169,000 in funding to 43 small businesses, to be used at their discretion. After receiving the second round of CARES funding in December, the city opened up a second round of funding to help businesses pay utility bills. They received 53 applications. The city then put aside an additional $15,000 to reach any businesses that missed the first deadline.
“These businesses are trying to keep the lights on, literally,” said Reyes.
The payments were critical for business owners like Johnson, who said he received PPP money, $5,000 from the City of New London and help with his electric bill.
For Coastal Brewing Supply on Bank Street, however, the prospect of utility bill assistance is less of a means to survive than it is an opportunity to grow. Co-owner Sean Derby said that his business has actually benefited from the demand for new forms of entertainment that arose out of the pandemic.
“We are effectively a hobby shop, and when everything blew up, people needed something to do while they were at home,” he said.
But even with the uptick in sales, Derby said he was “treading water.” He said that a grant to help with utilities would enable Coastal Brewing Supply to expand its product line and update its website.
“It would go a long way to help us grow our business,” he said.
Leaving the negative stuff in the back
Few people know the situation in New London’s business community better than New London City Councilman Kevin Booker Jr.
Booker has visited businesses around the city, interviewing the owners and then posting the video clips on his Facebook page. He sees it as a way to encourage people to come out and support the stores and restaurants.
Booker said he’s lost count of how many businesses he’s interviewed since the pandemic began. In February alone he featured 17 businesses and community members on his Facebook feed. Jake’s Diner and Hot Rod Cafe are among the businesses he’s highlighted.
He said he has been struck by the many creative ways that businesses have reinvented themselves in order to stay alive during the pandemic.
For example, when the pandemic forced Jeffrey and Kendy Zapata to shut down Jeffrey’s Barber Shop back in the spring, they created Facebook Live Tutorials showing people how to give themselves a home haircut.
They also encouraged people to post videos of themselves giving haircuts, and gave away professional hair clippers as prizes to the people who did the best ones.
While they never received a PPP loan from the federal government — Kendy Zapata said they were told that their business didn’t qualify — they received about $1500 from the City of New London. Zapata said that they are still operating at about 60 to 70 percent capacity.
Zapata said their philosophy through the pandemic has been to think positive, while “leaving the negative stuff in the back.”
Cornish at Hot Rod Cafe said he’s tried to keep his employees’ spirits up during the pandemic through group texts and making sure they were in touch with one another. He said he increased their pay as customers began to tip less and less.
After the pandemic ends, he expects to see two extremes among his customers — the people who have gotten used to takeout and no longer want to come out, and the people who can’t wait to come back to eat in person.
“A lot of people view local restaurants, their local bar, [as a] big social outlet for them,” he said.
A sense of hope
At the start of the pandemic, Booker began posting videos online of himself, head bowed and hands clasped, asking people to join him in prayer. He said that he began posting prayer videos because he wanted to encourage people through difficult times, and to share things he was grateful for.
“Prayer, for me, brings me a sense of hope,” he said. “and being in tune with something that’s higher than who I am.”
He hears a lot of hope, he said, in his conversations with the business owners as well. Beyond the promotional aspect, Booker said his visits with business owners has given him a chance to listen to their needs.
He said he believes the current struggles could provide a chance for New London’s community to grow closer than it was before the pandemic.
“When you go through obstacles, when we go through trials and tribulations, a lot of times we have to take a step back and reflect,” he said. “When we come together as a community, we will continue to persevere and move forward, and our city will continue to grow.”