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Downtown Businesses Fight for Survival

Langdon Street Tavern co-owner Brad Lamell hands a takeout order to Shannon Sweet of Williamstown (left) and Kiree Lapointe of Brookfield on April 16. Photo by Tom Brown
No sector of the economy is immune from the effects of COVID-19, but many of Montpelier’s fragile and agile retail and restaurant businesses are doing their best to survive in the age of shutdowns and social distancing.

Since Gov. Phil Scott last month ordered the closing of all non-essential businesses, most shop owners have turned to online and phone orders to keep at least some revenue flowing. For many of them, whose business model is heavily dependent on foot traffic and tourism, virtual shopping is suddenly a more critical endeavor.

Several stores already had an online presence for selling gift cards, but establishing a robust e-commerce site that can track inventory and connect with existing point-of-sale systems is a bit more complicated.

Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive, has been posting the latest essential and non-essential store offerings on montpelieralive.com and has been advising retailers during the crisis. Almost all of them are offering some method of buying merchandise or gift cards online, from Alta Vita to Zutano.

“Typical registers track sales for tax and inventory purposes, but the bigger issue is creating something online that talks to these different systems,” he said. “Taking the payment is easy but tracking inventory is another thing.”

A true e-commerce site will track the inventory and when, for example, a last item is purchased, let the customer know that the product is out of stock.

Bobbie Roehm, owner of Roam Vermont on Langdon Street, is one business owner who jumped into the digital realm with both feet after the shutdown. She and her two remaining employees set up an e-commerce site at roamvt.com in a matter of days, using Weebly for design integrated with Square for payment.

“We did not have an e-commerce website before this happened,” she said. “We were purely a brick-and-mortar store and e-commerce was not part of our business model.”

Roam Vermont sells footwear and clothing for an outdoor lifestyle that includes major international brands such as Patagonia and Birkenstock, which are very protective of their online representation. Each brand requires authorization before their products can be sold, and images used, online.

Roehm, who was forced to lay off three other employees, credits her store manager and footwear buyer Corrie Wilcox and social media and marketing coordinator Eleanore Nary for adding products and managing the website from home during the outbreak.

But even the best online presence is no substitute for her normal sales, Roehm said. She estimates she will lose $100,000 in sales by May 15 while collecting about $3,000 to date in gift cards and online orders.

“We were in growth mode before and this really put the brakes on everything,” she said. “We have sold some gift cards and sold some merchandise and we haven’t really advertised the site yet, but now we are trying to promote it, offering free shipping and free pickup at Capitol Copy. It’s still a small fraction of what our normal day-to-day business was and there is no way to recover our lost sales.”

Roehm has applied for several of the federal small business loan and grant programs designed to help owners keep employees on the payroll and with operating costs. She said she recently won approval for a forgivable Small Business Administration loan through the Paycheck Protection Program that was part of Congress’ $2 trillion coronavirus response bill. She was approved just before Vermont ran out of the $850 million it received to fund the loans. PPP loans are for an amount equal to 2.5 times the monthly payroll and no more than 25 percent can be used for non-payroll expenses in order to qualify for loan forgiveness.

Roehm said she will bring back her employees once the loan money is received, removing them from the unemployment roll. As the store nears its second anniversary on May 4, Roehm said she is optimistic that her business will outlive the virus.

“No matter what, we’re going to reopen the store and we’re going to bounce back from this,” she said. “I’m 100 percent confident about that.”

Dash and Dine for Restaurateurs

More than half of Montpelier’s restaurant and food vendors elected to close completely during the crisis, including such stalwarts as Sarducci’s and J. Morgans, but at least 13 are still providing takeout food in compliance with the governor’s order. For those that remain open, curbside orders also pale in comparison to normal sales.

Langdon Street Tavern has been busy with takeout orders six days a week (closed on Mondays) and providing bag lunches to first responders and other essential workers, but the daily revenue is, at best, equal to a “slow Monday,” co-owner Brad Lamell said, adding that it’s hard to run a sports bar with “no sports and no bar.”

He and fellow owner Dave Thomas are the only employees working as they were forced to lay off 14 employees. But despite the hardship they are willing to wait until the virus is truly contained before reopening.

“It’s too early,” Lamell said. “I’d rather take a beating for another two weeks than open and have to shut down again for another two months of this. In the long run it’s what we need to do.”

Thomas said the tavern is providing up to 300 bag lunches a week to police and fire crews, grocery store workers, Central Vermont Medical Center, the homeless population through Good Samaritan Haven, and others. These are off-menu meals that are priced in line with the organization’s budget, Thomas said.

“It helps them and it helps us,” he said.

Bobbie Roehm, owner of Roam Vermont on Langdon Street, built an online store to help continue to make sales during the COVID-19 closure. Photo by Tom Brown.

What Lies Ahead?

Gov. Scott outlined a partial plan for the reopening of businesses Friday, April 17, ordering that some workers in offices and construction companies could go back to work Monday, April 20, but only with two people per office or crew and while maintaining social distancing. Farmers markets could reopen by May 1, but with restrictions that were still being determined.

State officials have said that the virus may have hit its peak in Vermont, but left Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order in place through May 15. Should the economic shutdown persist into the summer tourist season, some businesses will face an existential threat, officials say.
“It’s a very trying time for a lot of businesses,” said Groberg of Montpelier Alive. “Just the upheaval and uncertainty is stressful for anyone, but especially if you rely on your business for your livelihood, and especially if you have employees who are relying on your business for their livelihoods.”

He encouraged people who want to help to buy from local merchants and to contact their elected officials to urge more financial assistance for small businesses.

“PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) does not work for a lot of businesses,” Groberg said. “What we really need is easy-to-get grant support so business owners don’t have to sit around completing complex loan applications and so they don’t have this loan that is going to be a burden to them when they are able to reopen. In many other countries they have simply written checks to businesses that will cover their operations and allow them to keep people on the payroll and not go on unemployment. It’s not this huge bureaucratic process that we’ve created here.”

Groberg said if business resumes by June or July, city businesses might gain from tourist visitors choosing to stay closer to home after the pandemic, but beyond May 15 the potential to lose local businesses becomes much more likely.

Langdon Street. Photo by Franklin Jensen.