In a normal semester, Good Time Charley’s — the Ann Arbor bar located in the heart of the South University Avenue district — would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder with students and community members gathered to watch sports games or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But since the pandemic began, Charley’s and other local small businesses have received less business and faced additional challenges.
Charley’s co-owner Adam Lowenstein said since March of 2020, Charley’s has suffered a 60% decrease in sales, along with multiple different shut-downs and a minor fire caused by an outside heater. Lowenstein said the fire was “the cherry on top” to an already hard year with the pandemic.
“The whole year was a major blow,” Lowenstein said. “It was kind of a crazy year where we had to just adapt on the fly and adjust to everything that was being thrown at us.”
Ann Arbor businesses like Charley’s experienced major declines in sales, staff, in-person capacity and store hours over the course of the fall and winter semesters due to public health guidelines set by the state and University of Michigan administration. Lowenstein and other small business owners were forced to completely alter their traditional business models due to COVID-19, and will continue to navigate running a small business through the aftermath of the pandemic.
Lowenstein said the constant fluctuations in curfew policies, capacity and more challenged Charley’s traditional business model.
“We’ve had to alter our business model entirely,” Lowenstein said. “We’ve shortened our hours; focused more on takeout and delivery; we’ve not done a happy hour; we’re doing a lot more regular sit-down restaurant sales. A business model like that is not profitable.”
During the fall and winter months, Charley’s relied heavily on their newly updated takeout and delivery service, which includes alcoholic beverages, as well as the warmer weather that allows for maximized outdoor seating. However, Lowenstein said that even with these successes, the fluctuating rise of COVID-19 cases in Ann Arbor still presented difficulties for Charley’s.
“The hardest part is the uncertainty: trying to always be changing and always be adapting and not knowing when you’re going to be able to just go back to normal,” Lowenstein said.
Zingerman’s Delicatessen, another Ann Arbor and U-M community favorite, has been closed for in-person dining since the pandemic began in March 2020. Jennifer Hall, marketing and communications manager for Zingerman’s, said, like Charley’s, Zingerman’s had to completely revise their original business model by implementing new programs.
“We’re always looking for change and are able to experiment with different approaches and take the best of what we learn in that work and then try it out,” Hall said. “If it works, it’s great, and if it doesn’t work, we try again. So we’ll continue to do that, we’ll continue to look for ways to improve and opportunities to make changes across our operations and our service to meet whatever the demands of the time are.”
Zingerman’s “Reuben Tour” was one of the new ideas the business put together last summer in the hopes of increasing business. According to Hall, the “Reuben Tour” was a success and could be repeated this upcoming summer.
“We took orders from people in different cities like Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids and Detroit,” Hall said. “Last summer, people weren’t traveling very much outside of their own communities, so they placed orders with us, and then we took the orders out to them. It was like a giant takeout project, and that was a great idea. We have a lot of people who were super interested and they loved it.”
Ann Arbor Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, is the owner and operator of Jerusalem Garden. He said there is adversity rooted in keeping a business alive and well during an ongoing pandemic.
“When you can’t plan in business, it’s very stressful,” Ramlawi said. “You want to plan for your staff, how you train your staff, how much staff to have, how much food to have. And you would get these dictates at the last minute, and you got to redraw your plans again. You’re trying to run a business, and with anything business you want to be consistent with everything, and there was very little consistency in the last year.”
Ramlawi also discussed the ongoing struggles and battles small businesses in Ann Arbor have to endure and try to overcome.
“As entrepreneurs, small business owners and restaurateurs, we are creative, fighters, hard workers, and we show up every day and we know every day is a new day,” Ramlawi said. “Even though yesterday was one of the worst days you’ve had in a long time, you’d come back, dust yourself off, show up again, hope that your staff joins you, and you fight to live to see another day.”
In addition to undergoing declines in sales and revamping business models in accordance with regularly shifting public health guidelines, small businesses suffered challenges relating to compliance with mask guidelines and personability in customer service. Eve Arnoff Fernandez, chef and owner of the popular Cuban-inspired restaurant Frita Batidos, said this was a challenge for her business to overcome.
“Staff are sometimes understood as being unfriendly — we’ve never had that in 10 years, and it’s happened kind of repeatedly this year,” Fernandez said.“Everybody’s working with masks, so that can literally mask your emotions and your communication, so there’s been more issues with miscommunications with guests and amongst the staff.”
Businesses like Charley’s, Frita Batidos and Zingerman’s all survived the pandemic, while other local small businesses were forced to close. Lowenstein said Charley’s persevered thanks to increased takeout and delivery services, as well as government loan programs that helped cover employee pay.
“The reason that we were able to get through — and even survive up until this point — is because the government has had some programs in place, with what’s called PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans,” Lowenstein said. “Basically, if you spend the money on payroll, then the government forgives loans. They’ve done that twice now, and we were able to partake and then maintain our staff and the existence of the company through this period that without (the loans) we would have closed.”
Despite the numerous hardships faced this past year, Ann Arbor business owners are looking forward to the upcoming summer and fall semesters. Many owners are hoping that nicer weather, increased state vaccination rates, the prospect of a normal football season and hiring more staff will increase sales and restore normalcy.
AJ Davidson, owner of clothing and accessories store Bivouac, said he is especially relying on the projected increase in vaccinations for his business to perform better this fall.
“I think over the next few months, anyone who wants to be vaccinated will be vaccinated, which means that more and more people will feel comfortable shopping in the store again,” Davidson said. “I’m excited for the fall football games — I heard that there’s going to be fans in the stands again, which means more people in town, so I think that we’re going to see a little bit more normalcy come the fall and I am excited for that.”
With the increase in vaccinations, Davidson said he anticipated there will be a heightened sense of positivity and uniformity in Ann Arbor.
“Within this past month, this is the first time I can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Davidson said. “One thing that’s also helping with that is the downtown street closures; allowing us to set up and sell clothing outside on the weekends is also helping with sales, and I look forward to seeing how that helps us all summer and early fall.”
Rising LSA sophomore Meredith Dirkman has only experienced shopping and dining at local businesses in Ann Arbor during the pandemic. Looking toward the fall, Dirkman said she is most looking forward to a more normal student experience that allows her to patronize Ann Arbor’s businesses.
“I’m most excited to just be able to be in big groups of people and do things instead of just sitting outside,” Dirkman said. “I’ll be excited to be able to take big groups of friends to ice cream and stuff like that.”
Regarding what’s ahead for small businesses, Ramlawi said he believes nothing will look the same again since what was once seen as the traditional successful small business model has been altered forever due to the pandemic.
“I think we are going to be introducing new technologies and new ways of doing business that require less labor,” Ramlawi said. “We are going to be shifting and changing the way we do business to focus on our core strengths.”
Ramlawi also predicts that sales will not reach pre-pandemic numbers due to the new business model.
“We’re gonna have to be more prescriptive with where we apply our efforts and still maintain a high quality of service,” Ramlawi. “But I don’t think we’re going to go back to the numbers for full-time employees that I had prior. We’re just gonna have to do more with less, and some of that’s going to come at the expense of full service.”
With these changes, Ramlawi hopes that society will appreciate the tireless dedication and determination from small businesses more.
“As we try to, as a society and as a community, recover and come back, we appreciate people for what they’re doing,” he said. “We need greater empathy or sympathy for others. I think we need to have a better appreciation. I think we need to be saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’ more often. I hope that message gets through because I think, unfortunately, and in some instances, not too many, but more than before, that sense of gratitude is gone.”
In slight contrast, Hall described how grateful Zingerman’s is for the support from the University, the Ann Arbor community and customers over the course of the year.
“From the University to other businesses, everyone really stuck together during this pandemic, and it felt really good to be a part of that,” Hall said. “We saw lots of supportive things happening in the community. We took food to food-gathers, people bought food from us and gave it to the hospital, and it just felt really good that we were able to work as a community to get ourselves through this.”
Daily News Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.