Downtown Kutztown and Hamburg businesses changed how they serve customers, using online services, takeout curbside pickup and delivery to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is both a challenge and a change-maker for businesses in our area,” said Northeast Berks Chamber Executive Director Lori Donofrio-Galley. “Leveraging online platforms, e-commerce and virtual tools is a natural next step for many business owners. For some, a learning curve exists; however, experts and resources are local and ready to consult with businesses about tools for remote teams and managing virtual teams, for example.”
Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown closed the store to the public and offered curbside pickup but soon only offered shipping.
"Based on the advice and input of both the American Booksellers Association and the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, we have stopped offering pickup options. We are still offering mailing options, most items with free shipping to Berks County residents," said owner Matthew Williams on Saturday, May 21.
While they already sell online world-wide, the bookstore is providing free shipping for Berks-area zip codes, as well as special offers and products, care packages, gift cards and quick gift items to pick up or be sent easily. Also, they are keeping in contact via phone, email and social media.
“Our customers are great, very positive and supportive. Right now, everyone is trying to figure out what needs to happen, shifting schedules and planning their home lives. Most people are not on a staycation, so coming to grips with their families' needs is part of the process,” said Matthew Williams of Firefly. “Once things settle, I think they'll be looking at how best to connect with downtown businesses. Our plan is to help make it easier.”
More than just the economic impact, Williams believes local businesses should be part of keeping the community functional.
“We can't all just put our lives on hold while waiting for two weeks. We should be following health guidelines, and aid in efforts to contain and prevent outbreaks, while at the same time trying our best to support one another. There are vulnerable members of the community that in particular we should be looking out for as well,” he said.
Williams noted that if customers want to help out, purchasing a gift card to use later is a quick and easy way to support the local businesses.
Also, while food establishments can continue to serve via curbside pickup or delivery, as of Friday, March 20, he said the state has not made it clear about retail pick-up and delivery options. He emphasized that online operations are still up and running as well as orders by phone. Payment is by gift card, credit card or PayPal.
Young Ones offers shipping via the website, featuring 500,000 plus items, as well as music downloads available for purchase.
“People are going to start to get a bit stir crazy if they are cooped up too long at home. We have great entertainment products for people who are trapped at home, including music, movies, video games, puzzles, books, guitars, ukuleles, and music instrument accessories,” said Chris Holt, owner.
“The more things that people can acquire locally, the less that they need to travel,” said Holt. “Keeping travel at a minimum is a must to help contain the virus. We also need to keep the local economy going as best as we can, so that people have jobs and businesses don't end up having to close forever due to this crisis. While things are shut down to some extent, there still needs to be some element of normalcy for people to grab onto. People need to have hope. They need things that make them feel positive even more than usual in times like these.”
Holt believes the growing buy local movement is really going to have to be ramped up in the months ahead to keep the local economy strong.
“Most people aren't aware that small businesses employ approximately 50 percent of all the workers in the United States. We need to make sure that our local businesses stay open and that our local community members stay employed."
Lidia and Diana from Donut Lover’s Boom are taking orders over the phone for pickup and delivery only. They installed a new door with a window so they can pass orders through for safety precautions. They also established new hours, Tuesday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with weekend hours updated on Facebook.
Second Nature Health Food Store L.L.C. has seen an increase in mail orders and are "dedicated... to be on the front lines of being a major source of help during these stressful, difficult times,” said owner Elaine Kilgannon, a clinical herbalist. “It is our primary focus to help our community keep their immunity strong. We are able to provide an arsenal of products as well as personal consultations to empower their well-being during this battle against the coronavirus.”
Sandy Green, Community Liaison for Kutztown Community Partnership, said KCP created a button called Distance Dining Kutztown Area on the Kutztown Mobile App to assist customers on what types of services restaurants are offering. Also a link will be placed on the KCP website.
Many businesses closed.
“We care about our community’s safety and urge everyone to do the same. This is a time to reflect on what is most important which is our loved ones and keeping everyone safe,” said owner Jon Escueta about closing City Cuts Barbershop in Kutztown. “Our clients understand that for us to better serve our communities and safety of others we must close our barbershop per Gov. Tom Wolf. It is our duty as a citizen first to fully support our well-being and our clients. Plus, it also would be a tremendous help to medical personnel if less people are in their care during this crisis.”
Renée Spaide of Renée's Finders Keepers at 19 E. Main St. in Kutztown pulled all of her merchandise out of the store’s windows and closed the high-end consignment shop during what are usually her busiest months of the year. She fears this will be a permanent closure.
“I don’t want to make anyone sick and I don’t want to get sick,” Spaide said.
In Downtown Hamburg, the story is similar.
3rd Street Cafe in Hamburg, for example, closed its dining room, offering take out and free delivery locally certain days.
Others in the Hamburg, Shoemakersville, Lenhartsville areas to offer take out, curbside pickup or delivery include 1787 Brewing Company, Way-Har Farms, Andali's, Backwood Brothers Authentic Texas Cuisine, Heckys Sub Shop, Fiore's Restaurant Italian Bar & Pizzeria, Lou'ees Pizza, Kwik Shoppe, 3rd Street Cafe, Dee Dees Diner, CJ Hummel's Restaurant, Grube’s Dairy, LaFaver Family Farm, Lucky Leprechaun Vineyard & Winery and Kramer's Korner. Visit their Facebook pages and websites for updated details.
Deena Kershner, executive director of the Our Town Foundation revitalization non-profit organization in Hamburg, said half of the businesses in Hamburg closed. OTF shut down the Hamburg Strand Theater (a source of income to the OTF), as well as its offices and the Art & Craft Gallery (no artwork sales means no commissions).
Also, OTF canceled a business workshop, a featured artist reception, several committee meetings, and moved its annual chicken BBQ fundraiser to First Reformed Church since the Municipal Center was closed. Its annual community clean-up held the end of April may have to be canceled also because PennDOT (which is closed) supplies the cleanup supplies as part of the Keep America Beautiful Program.
But the biggest impact was cancelling the annual Art of the Brew Fest on April 4. Last year the event raised more than $8,000 in profit.
“Obviously, the shutdown will have a tremendous negative effect on all business throughout the U.S. I have not heard any business owners react negatively towards the closures, but they all are concerned with how they are going to survive even a two-week shutdown,” said Kershner. “Small businesses have a very small profit margin and many struggle to remain open even in good economic times, so the impact of this virus may unfortunately result in business closures.”
Hamburg Mayor George Holmes said, “In a word, devastating. Devastating to small business owners, workers, community organizations and our economic development. There is no way, and no reason, to sugarcoat it.”
Holmes said that the COVID-19 pandemic attacks two cherished American institutions: a capitalist free market economy, and what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the spirit of association,” the glue of community bonds that holds our society together.
“But we will dust ourselves off eventually and stand on our two feet again, both individually and collectively. We will be forever changed, but we will be stronger for it,” said Holmes.
Kutztown Mayor Jim Schlegel agreed.
“All I can say is it is hard on all businesses everywhere, even the ones that are allowed to stay open such as Mr. Food," said Schlegel. “The entire local economy will be affected by the shutdown, however, if this is what all of us must do to fight this new enemy, then we must all stick together and live with it.”
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Schlegel said he knows what it means to hunker down.
“It isn’t pleasant but we will survive,” he said. “Hopefully, this is just a speed bump in the fight to control the virus and beat it and make things right in the world again for us.”