As worries continue to mount about the potentially devastating loss of income to Montpelier businesses due to the COVID-19 crisis, residents and Montpelier Alive are promoting several ideas to support local businesses and their employees at a time when many stores are temporarily closed.
Alternative shopping ideas include ordering by phone or online when possible, purchasing gift cards to put money into the accounts of business owners, and making outright donations—all methods for keeping local money circulating in the local economy instead of sending it across the country.
Montpelier Alive’s Executive Director Dan Groberg said that downtown businesses are already taking a hit. “It’s a cash-flow issue, and (buying) gift cards would really help,” he said. “People can come back when this is over and use their cards or maybe spend even more than the card amount.”
Some businesses already featured websites that allowed for online purchase of gift cards, while others—such as Onion River Outdoors and North Branch Café—have added that capability in the past week.
Adding an online shopping feature is not always quick or easy. Three Penny Taproom general manager Jay Bothwell said he would like to add online gift cards, but Three Penny’s service provider has been “slammed” with similar requests.
Businesses without online gift certificates can often sell them over the phone or in person, Groberg noted. He urged customers to reach out to local businesses online, by phone, or by email.
The impact of the pandemic on business is obvious to anyone who drives or walks through downtown Montpelier. The sidewalks and most parking spaces are empty, even though parking tickets are not being issued at this time. Most state and local office employees are working from home.
Businesses outside the downtown are also affected. The Wayside Restaurant is closed and its parking lot is empty; an unusual sight for the popular eatery. Bob’s Sunoco stopped servicing cars for two weeks starting March 20, although self-serve gas is still available. “You can’t keep four guys working with one oil change a day,” an employee said.
Among the businesses hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis are restaurants, bars, and cafes, all of which have been ordered by the state to close, except for takeout and delivery. Retail establishments, hotels, and theaters are also suffering from a drastic loss of business, and many are closed. Grocery stores and pharmacies seem to be the only establishments with customers.
Montpelier Alive is keeping an updated list on its website of downtown stores that are open or closed, restaurants selling takeout orders or offering delivery, and which stores are offering alternative means of shopping. The web page can be found at: http://www.montpelieralive.org/515/COVID-19-Updates
Groberg said he had to update the page about two dozen times on March 17, indicating how fast the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the area. The page is now updated daily at 5 pm.
At Langdon Street Tavern, which offers takeout, business has been slow so far, one employee reported. “Our menu is on Facebook and people can order by phone,” he said. “Hopefully things will ramp up as people figure it out.”
Around the corner at Three Penny Taproom, the bar and restaurant are closed and there is no takeout, general manager Bothwell said. The restaurant had recently begun serving breakfast four days a week. “It was going really well, so we will come back with it when we reopen,” Bothwell said.
Kismet has 32 employees and is accepting donations to its “Kismet Relief Fund” on its website. It is also selling certain food items online for pickup on Saturdays from noon to 2 pm. Orders over $100 will be delivered.
Some retail stores are also offering innovative methods to serve their customers. For example, customers of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier can buy books online and have them shipped locally for free (or you can pick your books up at the back door).
Onion River Outdoors, which closed March 16, will service bikes if arranged by email and brought to their back door. And Bailey Road, also closed, is offering free local delivery of products purchased online. (See the Montpelier Alive’s web page mentioned above for other examples.)
The idea of buying gift certificates at local businesses as a way to support them at a time when their business is drying up is one that seemed to arise organically, with many residents coming up with the idea in recent days.
Westview Meadows resident Esther Farnsworth was one such resident. She posted on Front Porch Forum March 18: “If your paycheck has not been affected, you can help local stores, bars, and restaurants by calling them and buying a gift certificate. Don’t buy one, buy lots of them to all the places you do business. Buy it for a friend or buy it for yourself. It doesn’t cost you anything, you’re just paying in advance to help local stores. We love our local stores and our friendly downtown and I thought that is one way we can keep them in business. Pass this message on.”
The idea had already been circulating downtown, and Montpelier Alive quickly stepped in to help promote the idea. “Some of our businesses were already one bad season away from closing, so we really depend on getting the community to step up and help out,” Groberg said.