As Washington, D.C., enacted COVID-19 shutdown orders last March, John Tran, the owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Simply Banh Mi on Wisconsin Avenue, was left scrambling as uncertainty swirled and customers disappeared.
“We pretty much immediately shut down the dining room,” Tran said in an interview with The Hoya. “We started operating entirely out of the kitchen and basement, and I started working entirely on my own. There was the constant fear of people not coming back or not coming at all due to the pandemic.”
For many small business owners in Georgetown, the memories of March 16, the day D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) first instituted the city’s shutdown orders, remain vivid. Since then, many D.C. small business owners have faced a world of uncertainties, primarily regarding whether their businesses will even survive.
The loss of usual customer flows, coupled with Georgetown’s expensive property rental rates, threaten the existence of all businesses as the pandemic continues, but small businesses, which are more vulnerable to revenue changes, are particularly at risk.
Evolving Around the Circumstances
Small businesses across the country have been shutting down in massive numbers since the pandemic began, with over 80,000 businesses permanently closing in the first five months of the pandemic. Sixty thousand of the small businesses, meaning businesses that have less than 1,500 employees, that closed were also considered local businesses, indicating the business had less than five locations.
Small businesses in D.C. have been hit especially hard. An estimated 45.9% of D.C. small businesses have closed since January 2020, according to a Harvard University and Brown University economic tracker database. Many local Georgetown restaurants have already been forced to close, including Zannchi, a Korean restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue, 1310 Kitchen and Bar, an American-style restaurant also on Wisconsin Avenue, and Peet’s Coffee on M Street.
Among the businesses affected by various shutdown orders, the restaurant industry was hit particularly hard, losing 48.1% of jobs in the first three months of the pandemic. After the initial shutdowns in March 2020, many surviving restaurants dramatically shifted their business models during the first few days of the shutdown to better cater to a pandemic.
Many businesses and restaurants based in college towns and neighborhoods suffered economically because of lack of student traffic, according to Forbes. Georgetown businesses that typically relied on student traffic had to seek new customer bases altogether.
Just outside the university’s gates, for instance, Wisemiller’s Deli on 36th Street typically relied on Georgetown students for much of its sales, according to Christina Vogel, who co-owns Wisemiller’s with her sister. Wisey’s, as the deli is called by students, was hit particularly hard after many students left campus when the university moved to remote learning.
“So much of our business comes from the Georgetown campus and always has. Students went on spring break and basically didn’t come back, and so three-quarters of our business evaporated instantly,” Vogel said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “We tried to expand our customer base outside of just students to reach out to more people in the Georgetown area who are not students and to win them as customers.”
The business managed to stay afloat in large part thanks to a GoFundMe page organized by several Georgetown students and graduates, Vogel said. The GoFundMe has raised over $37,000 since May.
“The thing that was instrumental in keeping us going in the early days, but still people contribute to it, is our GoFundMe page,” Vogel said. “If it hadn’t been for the support of our loyal Georgetown community, students, staff, faculty, alumni, we wouldn’t have made it. It’s as simple as that.”
Chaia Tacos, a vegetarian taco restaurant on Grace Street, also saw the development of a completely new customer base during the pandemic, according to Bettina Stern, Chaia’s co-founder. Chaia’s location on a narrow street near walking paths on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal may have led to new customers discovering the restaurant while exploring the neighborhood on foot, Stern said.
“We’ve gained people in the neighborhood who initially maybe didn’t wander about as much and hadn’t found us yet or hadn’t explored,” Stern said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “What we’ve really seen is people from other parts of the city and all over have had time to come down to beautiful, historic, cobblestone-lined, right-near-the-waterfront Chaia and grow that consumer base that didn’t know we existed.”
Beyond catering to new customer bases, small business owners have begun offering delivery opportunities for the first time as a way to ensure customer safety while expanding their business’ revenue base.
Wisemiller’s Deli, for example, implemented a general delivery service for its food for the first time. In December, the business also launched a special holiday-themed delivery service for its cookies, which has since been re-implemented for Valentine’s Day. Implementing the delivery service has greatly helped Wisey’s increase its revenue, according to the GoFundMe page.
Some restaurants, like Chaia, have been better off because of a fast-casual dining business model that already caters to customers using takeout and pickup services more. Still, Chaia has had to implement temporary measures in order to survive financially, according to Stern.
“At the very beginning, in order to mitigate some of the financial disaster for our staff and families, we added a 15% gratuity charge for all pickup and takeout orders,” Stern said.
Yet, despite the adaptations, survival has been difficult, according to Stern.
“I think the hardest thing is just constantly pivoting and iterating and figuring out what’s going to help, what’s going to work, what’s going to get Chaia treading water, staying alive, keeping our employees going,” Stern said.
The Bottom Line
When Simply Banh Mi started losing revenue after initial shutdowns, Tran could not continue paying his employees and started running the restaurant entirely on his own, forcing him to limit the store’s hours.
“Even with rent alone, I was going to have to be working and barely able to make my bills. At that point, you’re just working to have the privilege of working,” Tran said.
These kinds of sacrifices have become increasingly commonplace as businesses continue to struggle, according to Leopold Liao, owner of Wisconsin Avenue restaurants Beautea, a bubble tea shop, and Reren Lamen & Bar, the second location of Liao’s ramen restaurant.
At Reren and Beautea, Liao has lost $30,000 to $40,000 every month since the beginning of the pandemic, forcing his family to work without pay to keep the restaurants afloat.
Small business owners struggle especially with bearing these revenue cuts, as they hope to avoid laying off employees who have been on staff for many years, Liao said.
“My employees have been with me for eight, five and three years,” Liao said in an interview with The Hoya. “We’re all like a family.”
Some small businesses have been able to retain their staff by taking advantage of government relief programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program designed to help businesses keep their workforce employed, and general funding from the Small Business Administration, a government agency that provides support to small businesses across the country.
Liao received PPP aid for Reren Lamen’s Chinatown location, but because the Georgetown location had just opened in September, the restaurant did not have enough necessary documentation to receive similar aid, such as Form W-2, which reports employees’ earnings to the IRS, Liao said.
“For Georgetown, we had really bad timing because the money requirement needed W-2 or payroll history, and because we hadn’t opened before and had no history, we had none of the documents. That’s why we didn’t get a penny,” Liao said.
Even for business owners who did ultimately receive aid, the application process can be especially taxing during an already stressful time, according to Stern. Chaia received PPP and SBA funding, but the application process was difficult, Stern said.
“That was probably, mentally, some of the hardest stuff right at the first few months when the PPP was coming out, and it was scramble, scramble, scramble, trying to figure out how to apply for all of the above,” Stern said. “The rules were changing daily, and things were coming out daily, hourly. Having to be on all the time was difficult.”
Though PPP and SBA funding are the primary avenues for COVID relief for small businesses and restaurants, the SBA also offers other options, including an SBA Express Bridge Loan, which provides previous SBA lenders with up to $25,000, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides small businesses loans to implement COVID-19 safety measures.
With these programs, businesses are required to meet certain criteria set by the SBA before applying. If a business meets the criteria, the owners must then submit varying financial documents for both the business, as well as the owners, according to the SBA website.
Not all businesses were able to secure sufficient aid to support the number of staff they had pre-pandemic, however. Keeping on any staff at all was not feasible for Tran, given the slow business he was getting at the start of the pandemic.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if this is going to work,’” Tran said. “I got all these people on staff, and I can’t afford to pay all of them.”
For others, like Brian Yousefi, owner of City Sliders and Cozy Bubble Tea and Coffee on Wisconsin Avenue, the problem has been holding onto enough staff to keep his business operational.
“The staff, they don’t want to stay because they don’t make money, and there’s nothing I can do to help them,” Yousefi said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
As a result, Yousefi said he has had to shoulder much of the burden of operation himself, which has made living through the pandemic much more difficult.
“I’m very tired,” Yousefi said. “I’m working really, really hard, 16 hours every day for almost two months nonstop.”
The Lucky Ones
Although facing many challenges, several businesses have been able to beat the odds and find success mid-pandemic, including Call Your Mother on O Street, which opened in July after COVID-19 restrictions had been put in place by the city government.
As a takeout restaurant specializing in popular foods like bagels, Call Your Mother was well suited for success in a pandemic when it opened, according to co-owner Andrew Dana.
“You know people are certainly flocking to comfort foods and carby food and ones that do well with takeaway,” Dana said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Likewise, the takeout-focused model of Chaia and other fast-casual restaurants made it easier to transition to new health and safety norms. Some business owners who have stayed operational during the pandemic, like Stern, have taken it upon themselves to give back to the D.C. community.
“I like to think that those of us in the food world are already in the trenches, but that we also have to step up and feed our communities, including those who are in need across our cities. We’re exploring every possible way that Chaia can be part of the solution,” Stern said.
Chaia has a number of partnerships with nonprofit organizations that work to deliver food and address food insecurity in the parts of D.C. hit hardest by COVID-19, according to Stern.
Call Your Mother is also working to keep up connections established before the pandemic with local community organizations, according to Dana. Among these nonprofit organizations are Food Rescue, which delivers excess food from grocery stores and restaurants to people facing food insecurity, Ayuda, which provides legal and social services to low-income immigrants, and Urban Alliance, which runs career counselling and job training programs for high school students of color.
“We’ve continued to maintain our relationships with Ayuda and with Urban Alliance. We take on high school interns from public schools. The only issue is that they aren’t able to come back in person,” Dana said.
Few business owners who have found hard-won success plans on making changes in the coming months. At Call Your Mother, Dana plans to continue the restaurant’s current takeaway model without allowing customers inside, both to maintain Call Your Mother’s relative success and to keep customers and employees safe.
“Until everyone’s one hundred percent safe, we won’t change anything,” Dana said.
For businesses that continue to struggle, adapting may be the only fighting chance at survival. Liao said he hopes he will be approved by the city government for outdoor seating and that he will have the funds to increase advertising to draw more people to his restaurants, he said.
Even as the future remains uncertain, Stern believes restaurant owners have what it takes to persevere and endure the challenges of the ongoing pandemic.
“I think the restaurant community has the impulse to lean into adversity and typically, as we are culture bearers and community gathering places.” Stern said. “Missing out on that has definitely been hard on all of us because we got into the hospitality business to welcome people, so we are incredibly thankful to each and every one of the folks supporting us.”