by Ken Katz
Grand Avenue businesses have been taking different approaches to weathering the COVID-19 viral storm. The overall trend, however, is for individual businesses to adapt as much as possible by gradually adding more customer options including increased hours, pickup and delivery (sometimes by multiple services), gift cards, online retail sales, and so forth. To some extent, they’re hindered by the lack of coordinated efforts, such as those on Lakeshore Avenue that are provided by Kira Pascoe. Nonetheless, there are multiple success stories on Grand as well.
The single best example is Walden Pond Books. In his most recent email update, manager Paul Curatolo noted that they had just upped the ante and are now offering curbside pickup 7 DAYS A WEEK from 10 am – 5 pm for books in stock AND special orders too! They are also now shipping directly from their distributers to customers’ homes for books ordered online via the Walden Pond website. In addition, as a marvelous indicator of the extent to which Oakland residents value books and Walden Pond Books in particular, their GoFundMe campaign quickly surpassed their $100,000 fundraising goal.
While Walden Pond and other iconic destinations such as The Alley and The Grand Lake Theatre have the advantage of huge followings, at least some of the “newbies” look like they’re hopefully charting a path to survival. In a recent email, Wild Rabbit Bakery co-owner Janet Bennett noted that “we’re hanging in there, thanks to the support of our local community, and we’re now selling flour and yeast. We sold out last week, but will continue to up our quantities as there seems to be a need.” A couple of days later, she added “butter” to the list of baking essentials they’re now offering to their customers for curbside pickup.
While all or most of the restaurants on this stretch of Grand continued to operate to varying extents under the shelter-in-place order, Almond & Oak simply shuttered their doors. But last Saturday, they opened for brunch for the first time in a very long time. According to restaurant manager Megan Fawcett, they will now be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am-2:00 pm for takeout brunch as well as cocktails and bottles of wine (no delivery). Look for their brunch menu on their website. Megan also indicated that they’re hoping to announce limited days for pick-up dinner service sometime soon.
At this point, I should note that I usually walk the main stretch of Grand Avenue all the time and just before publishing the monthly News, regularly pop in for updates and photos. Due to the considerations delineated in my Thinking Long-Term article, I chose to rely instead on a survey form I emailed to a list of Grand Avenue merchants. Here’s a sampling of their replies:
WATHANYU SAE-KANG, restaurant manager at Dozo Ramen, replied that they were continuing to stay open from 5 – 9 pm for pickup or delivery by Grubhub. Asked if they are still hopeful, he replied that yes, although they have only been open for about six months, they hope to minimize the impact of this crisis as much as possible – despite the fact that they haven’t gotten any help from their landlord or any governmental entities. He added that they were trying to do their best to take care of their business and make sales sufficient to pay rent and their one employee.
ROBERT TOWNSEND is a chiropractor with an office at 3718 Grand, Suite 3. He noted that his practice is considered an essential service and he is open for walk-in patients but much prefers that you make an appointment online through his website.
CONNIE PERDOMO at Connie’s Cantina said she’s only accepting takeout orders from noon – 7 pm. Closed Sundays. Asked if she was hopeful for the future, she replied, “I love my community and I will continue to serve my community in every way possible. I am hopeful things will get better, but it’s going to be a slow start before we all can get back on our feet.”
Asked if she were close to giving up, she answered, “I will never give up, but I’m hopeful the city and the loans I have tried to get approved for come through. Tracey (from Urban Furniture and Boutique) has set up a GoFundMe account for the restaurant and with her help I am also hopeful I can stay afloat.”
Asked about her sources of support, she wrote, “At this time very little. Regarding the government, I have not heard from them and have revived zero help. My community, my regulars, are very concerned and are very generous when they order food. Their generosity is amazing. My landlord at this time is willing to work with me, but he still wants his full payments.”
As to my question regarding, what’s working and what’s not, Connie replied, “I am working shorter hours and it’s very slow. I’ve lost probably 80% of my business.” The one concern she doesn’t have is paying employees since she’s operating solo and has been pretty much doing that for most of the last 20+ years.
RUTH STROUP, whose Farmers Insurance Agency is at 3560 Grand Avenue replied, saying that they are open regular hours (9 am – 6 pm Monday-Friday and 10 am – 3 pm Saturdays) for Zoom or phone meetings to answer questions from businesses or families about their insurance or billing. Half of her employees are working from home, leaving room for the other half to work with appropriate distancing.
She advised that, “As a business that relies on renewal revenue, we are not recession proof, but we are in a better place than many business owners. We did not apply for the PPP loan so that money could go to others who have greater needs. And we continue to support local small business by shopping local, donating to those who are fundraising, and doing everything we can to help our neighbors.”
One particularly pertinent example of how Ruth is giving back to the neighborhood is that her agency agreed to help sponsor the farmers market Bounty Box curbside pick-up program, which has been hugely successful. This past week they also hosted a neighborhood “pay it forward” flour distribution event, during which they gave away over 150 pounds of flour (3 pounds per person) and are considering re-ordering.
Ruth concluded by saying, “If there’s anything I’ve learned about disasters over the years as an insurance agent, it’s that community makes all the difference. I am so happy to see Oakland neighbors being so generous and helping each other.”
KORI SAIKA CHEN, co-owner with Jessica Moncada Konte of Alkali Rye, revealed that their current plans are to launch an online store and curbside pick-up on May 21, assuming that the shelter-in-place orders will not have been lifted by then.
Asked if they were still hopeful about the future, Kori noted that, “While there is so much uncertainty in these challenging times – and we truly feel for all the laid-off workers and shuttered businesses in the community – we are still hopeful. Things like the overwhelmingly successful crowdfunding support for Walden Pond Bookstore show us that our community values and supports local small businesses, and we can’t wait to share our selection of wine, spirits, coffee, and teas with you all!”
TRACEY WILLIAMS, founder and Executive Director of Urban University, provided a detailed accounting of what Urban Furniture & Boutique is doing to cope with the COVID-19 virus. The shop will remain closed until the shelter-in-place order is rescinded but they are pivoting to an e-commerce platform and have launched an online store that can be accessed through Instagram or via this link. Online sales will help generate revenue that funds their services. As an added enticement, Social Enterprise Manager Elsa Cardona is willing to personally deliver items or offer curbside pickups.
Additionally, they started a meal delivery initiative for single mothers (Single Mama Meal Delivery Service) in collaboration with local Oakland chef Lamont Perriman of Montperi Catering. Their website has been updated in order to receive donations that will specifically help provide meals to low-income single mothers who are sheltered in place and now homeschooling their children. Donations for this initiative may be made weekly or monthly.
Urban University recently launched a weekly Instagram livestream called Tiny Mission which airs every Sunday through May at 3:00 pm. On May 3, Tiny Mission will include low-income single mothers as guests – sharing their stories about navigating COVID-19.
All of their employees are hanging in there, though hours have been significantly reduced. They meet virtually on a weekly basis and are doing well but are in need of school supplies, puzzles etc.
Tracey said, “We are not giving up, we have single mothers and children on our watch so we are fundraising in absence of our store revenue in order to continue essential housing and case management services. Our landlord offered a 50% discount on rent through April with the opportunity to extend through May and Freya Prowe at Brothers and Sisters purchased from our new online store and sent a social media post sharing our mission and online services from her IG account.”