State St., a usual hub of student activity near the University of Michigan campus, has been directly affected by epidemic orders, COVID-19 restrictions and stay-at-home orders since March 2020. Less than a year ago, students would have found themselves walking down a very different State St. than today.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted small businesses in Ann Arbor, causing financial losses and permanent closures. A number of Ann Arbor favorites on State St. have been forced to permanently close their doors, including Piada and Espresso Royale. Among the many empty storefronts, however, a new bubble tea store named Sharetea has arrived, a popular international franchise opening its first Michigan branch. 

Brothers Justin and Yale Zhao opened Sharetea on Oct. 22, hoping to appeal to both Ann Arbor locals and University students with the “wide variety” their menu offers. Though Sharetea has had success, opening in the middle of a pandemic had its challenges for business, Justin Zhao said.

“On the day of our grand opening, (the county) issued a stay-at-home order (for University students),” Justin Zhao, a University alum, said. “We weren’t sure if anyone was going to come or not, but it ended up being okay, our business was really good when we opened but then a few weeks later they closed dine-in.”

Despite opening in a pandemic, the brothers have found ways to adapt their business practices to the changing rules, regulations and policies, calling themselves “lucky” they are not reliant on dine-in services. 

 “We’re more like fast-casual, so we’re kind of lucky in a sense because Governor (Gretchen) Whitmer’s policies hurt sit-down restaurants more since customers can’t have the experience of sitting down,” Justin Zhao said. “We had to get on every single delivery platform, pick up, so people can order safely online or whatever they feel comfortable with. We have kiosks in our store so that people don’t have to be in contact with us.”  

Yale Zhao said he feels “fortunate” that they opened Sharetea in the midst of a pandemic, because they never had to rapidly adapt to restrictions as other businesses did. 

“We opened full well knowing that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so we were kind of more prepared,” Yale Zhao said. “So when we started our business we already had contactless ordering, delivery and pick-up optionsI find myself a little bit fortunate. We knew what we were getting into.”

Though he has enjoyed opening his own business in Ann Arbor, Justin Zhao lamented the loss of other businesses on State St. 

“It makes me feel terrible. A lot of my favorite places have closed down,” Justin Zhao said. “This area is especially fragile because it relies on students and COVID scared everyone away.”

Students returning to campus for the first time during the winter 2021 semester, like LSA senior Noah Bonello, echoed this sentiment. Bonello said it makes him “so sad” to see Ann Arbor favorites such as Piada go. 

“While I understand why it had to happen, it was still just heartbreaking to see one of my favorite quick stops for food shutting down,” Bonello said. “Hanging out at quick food stops is such a quintessential part of the college experience, and I just hope that the underclassmen have the opportunity to experience that to its fullest.” 

Espresso Royale, another Ann Arbor and U-M student favorite, was forced to close their doors permanently. Jonathan Martin, Espresso Royale’s chief financial officer, said the coffee shop’s unique attachment to college towns made their business model unsustainable when classes moved online.

 “Unfortunately, that strength turned out to be a vulnerability when things came through with the coronavirus,” Martin said. “Universities and colleges, in particular, were very quick to shut down and send students home and what that meant was that those markets, those near campus markets, were just deserted.”

Martin said it is hard to pinpoint specific reasons why certain local businesses closed.

“I’m always discouraged when small businesses go out. It’s bad for not only the business owners but also all the staff, students and the folks who are around those businesses,” Martin said. “It’s hard to pinpoint though. Is it public policy with the shutdowns or is it just coronavirus itself and people’s reluctance to be out? I think everybody’s doing their best to figure this thing out and it’s just an unfortunate reality that not all the businesses are going to make it through.”

Despite State St.’s recent transformation, some Ann Arbor staples, like outdoor gear shop Bivouac, have managed to survive. 

Bivouac’s President AJ Davidson said the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the business even though they remain open.

“COVID hit us really hard, just like it did a lot of other retailers across the country,” Davidson said. “Ann Arbor is like a resort town because we rely so heavily on the student population, and with classes going online and Michigan urging students to stay home, the foot traffic in front of the store has just been down.”

Davidson said Bivouac was able to stay afloat because of their ability to adapt to this new way of business and life. 

“In life, I think it’s adapt or die, and we just pretty much said every day: What can we do to survive?” Davidson said. “Transitioning to focusing online and launching our new website has absolutely helped us survive. It’s a constantly changing thing and we’re constantly trying to adapt.”

 Daily Staff Reporter Isabelle Regent can be reached at    

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