HomeFeatured | Home PageFishtown-area businesses grapple with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic

Fishtown-area businesses grapple with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic

As grocery stores profit from the pandemic, most Fishtown-area businesses are left twiddling their thumbs, waiting for customers to walk through the door.

An empty Frankford and Girard intersection on a rainy Monday morning in Fishtown.

As the coronavirus pandemic rears its ugly head, government-mandated social distancing practices have ended plans for not only sporting events and concerts, but weddings, bar mitzvahs and other social gatherings. 

“It’s clearly affected us severely,” said Skip Schwarzman, owner of Feast Your Eyes Catering. “It ramped up from reluctance to hold events to a virtual mandate that events not be held.”

As a result, businesses like Schwarzman’s have had to adjust. Since the city mandated closure of all non-essential businesses and dine-in service for restaurants, Feast Your Eyes Catering has begun selling “boxed meal deliveries,” Schwarzman said. Each delivery, which includes eight meals, can be selected from the company’s online menu and will be delivered on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Schwarzman is hopeful that things will start returning to normal in May.

“Certainly the longer it goes on, the worse it’ll be for us, just like everybody,” he said. “We’re not sitting down and doing projects for how long this is livable. Our feeling is that right now we feel it’ll be shortly enough that we don’t need to worry, but when it becomes time to really worry it’ll be obvious.”

The company, Schwarzman said, is still getting inquiries for weddings and other events scheduled to happen in the fall, winter and into next year. But until then, “quite a few” of his employees have been furloughed because there’s no work for them, although the company has maintained their health insurance so far. He only maintains a “skeleton staff” to help clean.

Kyle Costill, owner of Ortlieb’s, a bar and music venue in Northern Liberties, said that he and his staff are meeting each week to divvy up the bar’s sales among its 10 employees. Unlike some bars and restaurants across Philadelphia, however, Ortlieb’s is not open for takeout. In fact, it’s not open at all. So where are the sales coming from? Online orders of T-shirts emblazoned with the Ortlieb’s logo.

“We’ve sold about 100 or so,” Costill said. “We thought that was a cool way for people to support the bar.”

Costil said he encouraged his employees to file for unemployment and other grants. His main concern right now is the safety of his wife and kids, but the health of his business – and its future – lingers on his mind.

“If we’re closed for months at a time, there’s no way we’ll be able to survive without getting a loan of some kind,” he said. “I don’t want it to sound dire. We’re like four days into this. We’re just trying to stay on top of it as much as everybody else. It’s kind of hard to play fortune teller into the future. We’re just hoping for the best and staying optimistic.”

Marc Collazzo, executive director of the Fishtown Kensington Area Business Improvement District, said that he’s doing the best he can to relay information to local businesses in the area about small business loans and grant opportunities. He’s optimistic that local businesses will be able to pull through in the end.

“Business is going to return to normal,” he said. “We hope sooner than later.” Until that happens, Collazzo wants to prepare for when the crowds come back.

“I think what we’re going to find is that once the all clear is given, people are going to have cabin fever,” he said. “They’re going to want to get out and enjoy the nice weather.”

That’s assuming that the weather will still be nice when the pandemic is over with.

“I think that businesses in the short term will be OK, but if we’re still having this conversation in June, that might be a different story,” he said. “The good part is that everybody, from my board to the staff, is that they get it. They understand the first obligation is to keep everybody safe and healthy.”

He said the BID is deferring assessments without late fees during the crisis.

Many restaurants have had to adapt to selling takeout food only. As a result, many hourly wage workers have been laid off. In lieu of the layoffs, a Gofundme page has been started for furloughed workers at Johnny Brenda’s.

“The shutdown has basically devastated the hourly workers,” said Greg Mungan, Johnny Brenda’s venue manager and salaried employee. “That would include just about everybody with the exception of some salaried managers.”

Mungan, who believes he “stands a pretty good chance of getting laid off” himself, said that many employees at the restaurant/venue have side jobs as artists or musicians or craftspeople and will be turning to those activities to find ways of making income during these difficult times.

“In short, people have their own art and they do that on the side anyhow in addition to their work at Johnny Brenda’s,” he said. “I would think they’ll continue to try and make money that way.”

Not all businesses in the area are struggling, however.

“Put it this way, we’re hiring,” said Dana Ward, communications and public affairs manager at Acme. “We are having more increased business than ever before.”

Ward said just like all Acmes across the country, the one in Northern Liberties is hiring people both so current associates are available to get the time off they need and because the extra hands help keep the stores clean.

“We are spending a lot of time reevaluating cleaning procedures and ramping them up to make them more in depth compared to what they were,” she said. “Cleaning and safety is always a No. 1 priority, but it had to be revamped a bit.”

Ward said Acme stores are cleaning and sanitizing all their surfaces “once every hour.” The biggest challenge has been keeping everything in stock.

“If people are stockpiling we can’t keep things in stock,” she said. Because the coronavirus is affecting the entire world, there’s no extra stock that can be pulled from other regions.

“This isn’t a snowstorm that’s just affecting the east coast,” she said. “It’s affecting the entire nation.”

From 7 to 9 a.m. during the week, Acme has limited shopping to just people in “vulnerable” communities, such as pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and people with disabilities. The store is also closing later – at 10 p.m. – “in an effort to give us some more time to stock and clean,” Ward said.

But as Acme profits from the pandemic, most Fishtown-area businesses are left twiddling their thumbs, waiting for customers to walk through the door.

“We’ve been in business for a long time, and we still operate on a guerrilla level to some extent,” said Schwarzman. “We could do a party tomorrow. But when is tomorrow going to be? We hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

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