‘This pandemic has not gone away’

By Scott Carlson

Twenty months since the onset of Covid-19 and local food businesses are still feeling the effects of the pandemic with their owners fervently hoping the virus is dissipating.

With the arrival of fall, October is a month of pumpkin pancakes, new beers and wines and other seasonal delights and at the busiest time of the year for many retailers. But this year these also remain uncertain times for them, too.

“This pandemic has not gone away,” said Pam Johnson, owner of The Little Wine Shoppe in St. Anthony’s Park Milton Square. “We all need to band together, with distancing and masking and being fully vaccinated, in efforts to protect our neighbors and friends.”

The Little Wine Shoppe sells wine, beer and spirits, which were classified as part of an essential business, early on in the pandemic, and that enabled her shop to remain open, Johnson said.

“In our business, our sales went up.”

Still, Johnson added, “This pandemic has been brutal for many businesses, and for that my heart aches. And it was bittersweet for me. I couldn’t see my mom in assisted living, l couldn’t see my children or granddaughter.”

To adapt to the pandemic crisis, Johnson implemented several protocols at her store including frequent employee hand washing, putting out hand sanitizer for customers and giving away free masks.

“We began offering curbside pickup, which we will continue during this new variant stage, and probably forever,” Johnson said.

She said some relief came this past summer when the federal Centers for Disease Control said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in retail stores.

“Within that window we had our one and only wine tasting outside in July to help celebrate the second anniversary of Winding Trail, our new neighborhood bookstore,” Johnson said.

“And then the window closed for future wine tastings. We’re now offering a wine of the week at a deep discount so customers can at least taste our new wines, with the discount.”

At the Colossal Café, owner Elizabeth Tinucci reports her restaurant had steady business in the summer and is looking forward to a busy fall.

The café will continue offering weekly menus for its take-and-bake, house-made soups and entrees. In October, the café will have pumpkin pancakes with whipped maple butter on the menu, a food highlight of the year for many customers, Tinucci said.

Tinucci said Colossal Café has made a huge comeback considering that the pandemic last year forced her to temporarily close the café and lay off her staff.

“We quickly adapted our business to a take and bake and take out model, which was a steep learning curve for us and our guests. We are grateful for the grace our communities have shown us over the last 20 or so months. Slowly we added staff back.”

Meanwhile, Tinucci remains concerned about the health and safety of her staff, “as we continue to navigate through times that are unknown. The vaccine brought a lot of peace of mind to those working closely with others and the public. We do hope that vaccine rates continue to rise.

At Tim & Tom’s Speedy Market, owner Tom Spreigl said his grocery store has stayed very busy despite shortened hours.

“When Covid hit, we were busier than any point in store history,” Spreigl said. “While there was panic buying, we also saw many people buying food to donate to people who had lost their jobs due to lockdowns.

“We started working with Keystone Community Services to donate groceries to those in the Midway area. We still offer online shopping and curbside pickup.”

At Urban Growler, co-owner Jill Pavlak said her microbrewery and restaurant in south St. Anthony Park is starting to book more events, a trend she hopes continues.

Still, Pavlak isn’t expecting any easy slide into fall. “We are expecting sales to drop,” she said. “If the Delta or some other variant continues it will hit our business hard. So we will keep some of the things we did last year. We still have a strong take out business and we will broaden our family style menu to go.”

Pavlak’s cautious optimism for fall business is tempered by the downturn Urban Growler suffered during the peak of the Covid pandemic in 2020—a 50 percent drop in sales and layoff of up to 35 employees.

“We have received federal assistance, state and city assistance,” Pavlak said. “We would not have made it without that. We also saw a lot of support from our St. Anthony community.”

At The Lab, the pilot microbrewery and taproom are working hard to regain the momentum the venue had when it debuted in 2019, said Lauren Bertrand, Lab taproom general manager and marketing strategist.

“Covid really put a damper on our first year,” she said. “It was hard to close our doors and not have the opportunity to engage with the community as closely as we typically like to.

“So we pivoted to focusing on the advantages we had through this hardship and began producing hand sanitizer out of our pilot facility as a way to give back to the local community,” Bertrand continued. “We promoted to go crowlers and powered through 2020 and then finally fully reopened our taproom doors in May 2021.

“We are still working to get back to the momentum we had after first opening our doors but have great hope and big plans for the future,” Bertrand said. “We have dreams of hosting beer gardens and small summer concert series in the summer of 2022.” 

Scott Carlson is managing editor of the Bugle.

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