Businesses on the Mountain emerge from the pandemic

Maggie Lorenzen
Executive Staff

Photo courtesy of Beylie Ivanhoe.

As local businesses continue to struggle with supply chain and staffing issues from the COVID-19 pandemic, they have emerged with new strategies for attracting and catering to local consumers. To remain profitable with a smaller customer base and greater constraints on staffing, businesses had to make difficult decisions about the services they provide. However, business owners who survived the most challenging days of the pandemic are grateful to the community and hopeful for opportunities for expansion. 

On September 28, Mountain Goat Market in Monteagle announced that it would close its dining area and temporarily move to carry-out only, citing the difficulty of “reopening to the public ridiculously understaffed.” This came after it announced reduced hours of operation starting in June, due to staffing and supply issues.

Another Monteagle business, Mooney’s Market and Emporium, provides everything from food stuffs to yarn and antiques. Sarah Stapleton, a Mooney’s employee of four-and-a-half years, explained that the pandemic caused the store to discontinue some previously essential offerings and expand other services.

Before the shutdowns in early 2020, Mooney’s offered organic and vegan food supplies and groceries, yarn, antiques, and other items, however a main source of profit came from their food truck café. Selling vegan wraps, sandwiches, and sides and staffed by University students, it was no longer safe nor realistic after students left the Mountain, causing Mooney’s to lose both employees and a customer base.

Owner Joan Thomas recently sold the truck used for the café, citing the lasting effects of the pandemic like decreased demand, increased risks, and supply chain issues. However, Mooney’s began offering call-in orders, opening the store to two masked customers at a time, and buying basic necessities like rice and beans in large quantities for specific customers. 

“We were supplying a need on the Mountain so that people didn’t have to go to the valley,” Stapleton explained. Because of the extreme precautionary measures Thomas and her employees took, no employee got sick, which Stapleton said, “would have really been a calamity,” for the small staff. Especially as the demand for the specialty goods Mooney’s provides rose, any member contracting the virus or potentially spreading it to other employees would have led to a long-term closure of the store. 

Stapleton said that while “it all worked, we got through it,” she and her co-workers were “worried sick about contracting it or sharing it with others. I was so scared because of the influx of travelers and our location in a hotspot, I did not see my mother for a year.”

She continued: “We’ve got all the people coming up here to ‘escape’ and ‘be safe,’ but it is actually one of the most dangerous places in the United States in terms of COVID.” 

Despite this increased emotional toll on workers, Thomas was granted a government loan for small businesses in hardship. The loan allowed Mooney’s to pay for sick leave and ameliorate the loss of revenue throughout the shutdown and the cap on the number of customers allowed in at a single time. “We got through on the skin of our teeth,” Stapleton said.

Similarly, the Blue Chair in the Sewanee Village, owned by Sarah and Jimmy Wilson (C’73) since 2012, have even made lifestyle changes to accommodate for the effects of the pandemic. They have made Sewanee their more permanent residence, and Wilson explained the greatest effect on the business as “becoming more efficient” through moving the ordering and check-out process to the beginning of the dining experience, as opposed to a sit-down process like it was before.  

They have also removed items on their menu to accommodate supply chain and sales point issues. The only menu item that they have had to increase by more than 50 cents is the chicken wings, but as pandemic repercussions subside, they added certain menu items back. Blue Chair has also added outdoor seating and a tent to accommodate it from the 37383 Grant from members of the Sewanee community. 

Only two employees had to be furloughed in the beginning of 2020, however they have since been rehired, along with three new student hires. Wilson also explained the importance of their customer service as, “the reason we have remained different.” They are also “extremely grateful” for the increased gratuity of their customers and the increase in student patronage in the Village.

An issue faced by all of the businesses interviewed was the difficulty with supply chains. Each supplier acts somewhat as a monopoly, however if one aspect of the production or shipping process goes awry, the businesses reliant upon their services are punished both by a lack of supplies and a decreased amount of sales because the businesses are unable to create their products without the goods supply chains provide. “This system is especially discriminatory against small businesses,” Stapleton said.

The Scoop, an ice cream shop in Monteagle, however, found the pandemic to be the time to open a business. Emily Wallace and her uncle have co-owned the store since August 7, 2021, and exceeded their projected sales for next summer within the first month of opening. “Business has been fantastic,” Wallace said. 

She described the beginning process   as “like everything just fell right into place,” as it only took 31 days from the first presentation of the idea to the first sale day. After securing a location to rent,  the Monteagle City Hall passed a resolution the next day to allow the business to start. “It’s good for us to see people coming together again after a period of fear,” Wallace said.