Businesses and restaurants in southeast Iowa looking for ways to weather the COVID-19 storm

'It's a really important time for us to start getting back on top of things and its dead'

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Despite having to close their storefront, Batter and Dough in Mt. Pleasant are weathering through the closures forced by the recent coronavirus pandemic with take-out and delivery options.
Union photo by Ashley Duong Despite having to close their storefront, Batter and Dough in Mt. Pleasant are weathering through the closures forced by the recent coronavirus pandemic with take-out and delivery options.

A week into Gov. Reynold’s decision to declare a Public Health Disaster Emergency, requiring restaurants across the state to move to carryout and delivery systems as well as closing down certain recreational facilities and bars in response to the coronavirus outbreak, local southeast Iowa businesses are looking for ways to continue to reach customers.

For bakery Batter & Dough and More in Mt. Pleasant, though orders have been down just a little since the declaration, co-owner Mary Garmoe said the community has really rallied around its small local businesses.

“It was a little bit down but not horrible. Our baked goods are flying out of here. On an average, it’s about 200 to 300 cookies. This last week, it was 505. We did have an uptick in baked goods,” Garmoe said.

Though the change has gone well for Garmoe and her business, she said her immediate reaction to the news was “stress.”

“You don’t know what it’s going to mean. It’s hard to have to close your storefront,” she added.

To keep customers up-to-date about menu options, Garmoe has moved to a heavier digital and online emphasis.

“I post two to four times a day now, just because for one, I can’t make a weekly food menu because I don’t know what I can buy at the store so I just have to go day-to-day,” Garmoe pointed out.

Like Batter & Dough, Green Gourmet in Fairfield has also altered their menu due to short supply of ingredients and food. Currently the restaurant is in its third week in carryout only, following the lead of New York City, even before Gov. Reynold’s declaration.

“We’ve lost about 50 percent of our business since we stopped doing dine-in,” Singh said.

Singh said the restaurant has gone to great lengths to disinfect surfaces, and it’s put alcohol wipes outside the store for customers to use before and after they come in. He said customers have been good about keeping a distance of 6 feet between themselves and other customers.

“People have adjusted to that, but we’ve still lost some business,” Singh said.

In Washington, Cafe Dodici is also staying afloat with their carryout and delivery only format.

Owner Lorraine Williams said only three items hae been dropped from the menu due to quality.

“We feel if you put those in a box and you eat it half an hour later, it’s not going to be quality,” she said.

Instead the restaurant has begun selling take-and-bake foods and has offered more affordable dinners to the menu to try and meet the communities needs. The hours have been cut and the restaurant is only open Thursday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Dodici’s shop, next door, is closed currently but customers can order a coffee or drink from the store but must order through the restaurant.

Keeping the community calm and providing for them is the goal of both locations, she said. During this difficult time it is hard to find a sense of comfort and ordinariness but employees are trying anyway.

“I’m here for when the community needs us. It’s not about me, it’s about them. We want to create some sort of comfort and normalcy about food. Want to take one thing away from the difficulty of it all and our goal is to help people feel comfortable and safe.”

Gary Glandon, owner of the Country Market, also based in Washington, reported that in 39 years of business he has never seen anything like this.

“It’s hard to be prepared for,” he said.

Glandon reported he has been cleaning the counters and doors every hour on the hour as his store remains open to the public. Due to the lack of foot traffic, his business has been effected greatly.

“It’s effected our business when you don’t have traffic in town. There just aren’t people out and about,” he said.

Although these times are unprecedented and startling, Glandon said he felt he has a good handle on keeping things sanitized and sustainable for the future that he does not foresee the need to close.

“It changes so much everyday. It’s a confusing time and a hard time to deal with for everybody,” he said.

While restaurants have the option to carryout and deliver goods, retailers are looking to be the hardest hit by changes in response to the current public health crisis.

Char Andersen, owner of The Village in Washington, reported on Tuesday she only had one sale since the previous Wednesday.

“It’s pretty grim,” she said, explaining the store has tried to run promotions on Facebook to let the community know they are still open and will ship or deliver goods.

The store hours have been changed to 12-3 Monday through Friday and 12-6 on Saturday but due to the lack of customers, that is subject to change she said. Sustainability moving forward is stable for now but low sales could impact the store negatively.

“We’ll be OK for a month I would say and then things will have to get reevaluated again, but it certainly is a trying time for everybody and we hope main streets like ours survive,” she said.

Lisa Kalkbrenner, owner of Perfectly Vintage in Mt. Pleasant echoed similar sentiments.

“Six weeks, I can survive, eight weeks. If it gets to four to six months, I’m not sure. This is my entire income, it supports my home and rent, keeps the lights on,” she said.

Kalkbrenner is hoping that once things begin to die down with the coronavirus, local shoppers will “come back strong.”

Kalkbrenner has also noticed much less foot traffic, which was disappointing because she just got through her first winter.

“It felt like things were beginning to ramp up and more people coming in with the normal weather,” she added.

Sam Riepe, owner of antiques shop Vintage Raven in Mt. Pleasant, said the slow down of shopping comes at a particularly rough time.

“This comes at a really bad time for use because January and February, everyone has holiday hangovers and its dead. March is when business starts to pick up again. So here we are in the second half of March when it’s a really important time for us to start getting back on top of things and its dead,” Riepe said.

Like restaurants, retailers have also gone to more online marketing. Riepe said his shop has offered to mail items or deliver them to customers. He also said buying gift cards from shops, even if people cannot purchase things in the moment, can be helpful. Unlike the restaurants, Riepe has not yet closed his storefront yet.

“We’re a luxury. There’s nothing in here that anybody needs. And especially in a time like this where people are worried about their own jobs, they don’t have the disposable income, so it is tougher for us,” he said.

Riepe notes legislative action from the state that could help with fixed costs would probably be most beneficial, especially for small businesses. The store owner added that the governor’s announcement of the Iowa Small Business Relief Program was encouraging but long-term solutions are still up in the air.

“Anything to help with utilities or rent, that would help us right away. Going forward, I don’t know what the solutions are,” Riepe said, “If this extends into April, I would be surprised if there aren’t at least a couple stores downtown that close. Maybe some will close temporarily but it’s very possible a good number will close permanently.”

Many of the stores in Fairfield have decided to close their doors to regular walk-in traffic.

Neil Cunningham, who runs Central Park Home Furnishing in downtown Fairfield, now meets customers by appointment only — a decision he made last weekend.

“Business was going quite nicely in the weeks leading up to that,” he said.

Cunningham said he plans to “lay low” until the threat of the virus passes.

“My daughter is here, and she’s the one who’s been going out for groceries,” he said. “We have a nice big backyard and a dog. We have our little recreation area. We’re OK.”

Cunningham didn’t have an answer as to how long his business could sustain being closed to walk-in traffic. He said there are too many unknowns at this point.

“It’s important that everybody supports everybody else, and pitch in with community spirit,” he said.

Kathy Eklund of Fairfield Flower & More said her business is open for carryout but not to foot traffic. She made the decision to close the door this week, and reported that foot traffic had declined anyway the week before.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen if we have to remain closed for a month,” she said. “Some people might be able to shut down, but the average small business cannot shut down for a long time.”