Local businesses adapting to COVID-19 changes

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COVID-19 restrictions have either closed or limited operations at most small businesses. Many—not just restaurants—are now offering curbside pickup, like Jen and Louise White at Paper Moon. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Many businesses have come up with creative ways to continue offering their products and services. Even though their popular painting classes can’t be held in-store, McGregor Mercantile created to-go kits, selling over 130 in just a matter of days. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“It’s kind of lonely here. Jen said it’s like running a pretend store,” said Louise White, who last week tried to put a humorous spin on how COVID-19 restrictions that have either closed or limited operations at most small businesses have impacted her and daughter Jen at Paper Moon book store in McGregor.

Even the shop’s iconic cats, Ruby and Sol, have noticed the absence of customers these past few weeks.

“The cats just got into a spat,” White remarked. “No one’s around, and they’re used to getting attention.”

“It’s different,” agreed By the Spoonful owner Katie Ruff, who, during seven years in McGregor, has gotten used to a routine. “I had it figured out what days were busier, what time of year is busier. Now, that’s thrown out the window.”

When one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ orders closed McGregor Mercantile to walk-in business, Monica Tiffany said she was immediately worried.

While that stress hasn’t necessarily gone away, she noted, “I talked with [husband] Paul, and we decided it was important to take it day by day, stay positive and get creative. Everyone’s dealing with the same thing.”

Restaurants are offering carry-out services and curbside pickup to continue serving their customers. 

Luckily, MJ’s Bar and Grill in Monona already did a lot of its business that way, so it was easier to adapt, said Matt Johanningmeier. There’s been a drop in sales since people aren’t going out as often, but customers are still consistently ordering food, and even drinks.

“It’s been nice since the governor let us stay open and do carry-out alcohol,” he said. “People are getting everything from Bloody Marys and Jack and Cokes to vodka drinks. You can get tap beer if you bring in a growler.”

He’s also continued to offer regular menu items and daily specials.

“We’ve tried to keep things the same,” Johanningmeier said. “That puts some normalcy in people’s lives.”

The transition’s been admittedly harder at the Marquette Cafe and Bar. 

“We’re known for our breakfast. On weekend mornings, it was packed here. You couldn’t sit down,” said Julie Troester. “It’s just weird now.”

Breakfast orders have been few and far between these days, she noted, and even the cafe’s popular burgers aren’t selling as well. Instead, daily specials—posted outside the restaurant and on Facebook—have become more popular.

“It’s like the exact opposite of what we were doing,” Troester said.

Many of the Marquette Cafe’s core customers are older, and haven’t been getting out as much, but regulars are still showing their support.

“We see a lot of the same people every day,” said Troester, “and the people we’ve had have been great. Fridays and Saturdays have been good, even now.”

Restaurants aren’t the only places offering curbside pickup. Many retail shops, including Paper Moon, McGregor Mercantile, By the Spoonful and Suhdron Fabrics in Monona, have adopted the practice too. Some will even safely drop items off at customers’ homes or ship packages to customers who live farther away.

Social media has been a handy tool, allowing the businesses to showcase the products and services they offer. Customers can pick out what they want, then call, email or message to set up a pick-up time or other form of delivery. Payment can also be done over the phone.

“I keep people updated on what I have now,” said Ruff, who sells everything from meat, cheese and take-and-bake meals to coffee, beer and wine. “You have to make sure it’s easy to find.”

“Even if they can’t come in,” she added, “it still keeps people excited until they can visit again. It gives people hope.”

Paper Moon has been working diligently to get their products on their updated website. Even if your store or restaurant doesn’t have that capability, Ruff said utilizing Google My Business can help.

“People can search for you and look at your profile. There’s a way to list products now,” she explained, as well as ways to update business hours and contact information. “That’s all there.”

Tiffany has been posting McGregor Mercantile home decor on Facebook, as well as deals on homemade signs. Even though their popular painting classes can’t be held in-store, she created to-go kits and posted different options. 

“A customer had reached out, looking for something creative to do with kids,” she said. 

Tiffany hoped to sell 10 to make the promotion worth it. Days later, she quipped, “I’m still filling orders.” Over 130 painting kits were spoken for.

The idea has gone over so well she said McGregor Mercantile will likely continue offering them when the COVID-19 pandemic passes. 

“We hope to resume in-house classes,” she said, “but those dates and times don’t always work for everyone. And if it’s rainy, people might be looking for something to do. I send instruction sheets with you, so it’s very user friendly.”

Looking on the bright side, Ruff, whose store remains open to walk-in traffic, said COVID-19 has actually brought more local people to local businesses.

“I’m seeing new faces,” she mentioned. “They’re not so rush, rush in their daily life right now, so they’re taking more time to stop at smaller local businesses.”

“We’ve had a lot of people coming in because they’re making masks,” said Lorraine Nordhus, owner of Suhdron Fabrics in Monona. “Elastic is one of the big things. So far, we’ve been able to get some. It’s been wonderful to see how many people are doing this for their friends, relatives and hospitals.”

Tiffany said she’s seen more people buying paint at McGregor Mercantile.

“People are home and have time to work on projects they’ve put off,” she noted, “so sales have increased.” 

Customers also feel more comfortable at smaller establishments.

“Customers know me, and they have faith and trust that I’m cleaning diligently. They can visibly see it,” Ruff said. “They’re also avoiding crowded, bigger places.”

By the Spoonful has begun carrying some new items, such as frozen vegetables and chicken choices, to make the store more of a one-stop shop.

Plus, said Ruff, “you can get curbside immediately. That’s a lot faster than the bigger box stores.”

The business owners said they’ve seen many random acts of kindness over the past few weeks. At McGregor Mercantile, one individual bought three painting kits for Tiffany to distribute to local families. One Paper Moon customer ordered a $400 surprise box to support the business, and another has pledged $100 worth of purchases each month until the pandemic’s over.

“Our friends really want us to survive,” said White, “and that’s touching.”

At MJ’s, said Johanningmeier, “someone paid it forward,” contributing $100 toward others’ meals. “People are also tipping the staff really well.”

Even kind words go a long way, stated Ruff.

“Just giving verbal appreciation that I’m here, that’s wonderful for me,” she said.

Aside from patronizing them now, the business owners encourage people to purchase gift certificates that can be used now or later.

“Any little sale helps a little business right now,” Tiffany said.

Tell others about your purchases, and show them off on social media. Comment on and share business posts.

“That helps give them exposure,” Ruff noted.

Even though the current environment is tough, Tiffany said she has hope things will turn around—especially in a small town.

“We’re all in this together, and we’re still here to help,” she stressed. “There are so many good people who are trying to make the best of it. People do step up and support.”

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