By Amelia Leaphart
The economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus prevails in every mainstream news source. While many corporations have enough capital to survive economic distress, there is public fear for small businesses and their employees. Downtown Sewanee is composed of locally owned businesses, which are vulnerable to an economic downturn.
Ed Hawkins, a co-manager of The Blue Chair Café and Tavern, described his reaction when he found out about the University’s closure alongside the reality of COVID-19: “It was fear. We were wondering how we will survive. All the businesses in Sewanee met together to figure out how to do this.”
Hawkins remarked that the community is coming out “in droves” to support businesses, and community members are tipping unprecedented amounts because they know the servers are suffering. Retail stores and offices in Sewanee closing decreases foot-traffic, further hurting restaurants. Now, many restaurants have gone into curbside pick-up during limited hours, and are relying on the community to call-in orders.
“The great thing about Sewanee,” Hawkins said, “is that we’ve banded together. We’ve updated our web-page to have a donation section that all the other restaurants have put on their page.” The Sewanee Business Alliance support page includes a fund where people can directly donate and gift items that can be mailed.
Hawkins said that as long as the community continues their support, the Blue Chair Café and Tavern will be fine through this time.
“We have no anticipation that we’ll close in the future,” he said, “We’ve been open for twenty years, and have no plans of ending that.”
Rick Wright, the Director of Dining Services at Sewanee, is in charge of Stirling’s Coffee House, and decided to temporarily close Stirling’s the day after the University announced its closure.
Wright commented, “I just didn’t want to risk my staff or community, because many of us travel. My manager had just gotten back from New York, I had just gotten back from New Orleans. We wanted to isolate for at least two weeks.”
While Stirling’s is managed by Julia Stubblebine and Amber Smith, alongside students, it is also one of Wright’s responsibilities.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Wright said about the University’s closure, “We’re in a very unusual time. The University wants to keep people safe. Because of the nature of this disease, and we really don’t know a great deal about it, we have to err on the side of safety.”
He added, “We’re working on trying to get Stirling’s back open, but first we’re dealing with the more pressing issue of feeding students here and keeping them safe.”
McClurg has developed a system where they split the staff into two teams, where they switch off every two days.
“The team at Stirling’s is currently doing planning, inventory, and cleaning,” Wright said. “So, they’ll hopefully open up in a limited capacity. Maybe with a pickup window when we have more people on campus.”
Wright, like Hawkins, remains optimistic. “The truth is we’re going to get through this,” he said. “In a few months, we’ll be back to work. They’ll be some great take-aways from that. We’ll learn more about ourselves, we’ll learn about how to do business in a much safer way.”
Wright highlights how the food-service industry already emphasizes safety and caution because of the threat of other bacterial outbreaks, “so this was not a huge shift for us.”
“We’re remote and close to the community anyway. One of the things to recognize is how wonderful the University is treating their staff,” said Wright. “It’s guaranteeing that all employees will be paid, as long as they can do it.”
Wright has spoken with directors of the South Cumberland Farmers Market, and says that they are currently having one of their biggest markets ever, as people are wanting to buy local now more than ever. Wright’s larger distributors, such as Sysco and Dixie Produce, still have plenty of food.
The system suppliers use a “just in time” system, meaning grocery stores and dining halls usually restock as needed. This system often collapses during times of crises when people bulk-buy supplies. While Wright does not fear scarcity, he is concerned about a logistics problem. Delivery workers may become quarantined or transportation may become more restricted.
While many employees remain hopeful for this time, Shenanigans have had to drastically reduce hours due to loss of student staff and turning to curbside pick-only, according to their website. Luckily, they can sell drinks to go, a mitigative measure taken by many states. However, employees are relying on call-in for the time being.
The Sewanee business community has banded together during this crisis, but still relies on patrons to intensify their support to keep well-loved businesses afloat.