How COVID-19 is impacting small Downtown businesses

Written By Winnie Bobbitt

While our planet combats the COVID-19 pandemic, society desperately tries to continue on with their day-to-day lives. Millions have been laid off, but some still work despite the government’s stay at home orders.

There are small businesses still open, selling life-sustaining products to the public, and there are small businesses that are trying to transition to an online format, selling their goods exclusively over the internet. The fear of shutting down looms over the heads of micro-enterprise owners like a dark cloud, and as the public stays indoors, businesses struggle to survive the quarantine. Downtown businesses of all types face closure due to Governor Tom Wolf’s orders, some of which are popular and within walking distance for Point Park University students.

French bakery, La Gourmandine is one of the many small businesses affected in the Pittsburgh area. The popular pâtisserie opened in 2010 in their Lawrenceville location and is owned by Lisanne and Fabien Moreau.

“After 10 years we are still standing,” Moreau began. “It’s because of an entire team of dedicated people and such loyal customers.”

La Gourmandine now has four locations but has had to temporarily close its Downtown location. Their open locations are in Mt. Lebanon, Lawrenceville and Hazelwood. Moreau explained that sales began to falter around March, as more and more people began to stay home. This led to the downtown location being shut down.

“Like most businesses, we are losing a lot of money every month, but we are the lucky ones who are able to stay open,” Moreau said and gave all the credit to the bakery’s customers. “We cannot survive without them. Because of that, the majority of our employees have kept their jobs.”

Money is half of the battle for small businesses working and fighting their way through the pandemic. Operating at this time is difficult and requires more caution than ever before. La Gourmandine took certain measures to keep the public and their employees healthy.

Not only did the establishments begin to implement take-out orders, but, “all of the employees wear masks and gloves while dealing with the public and in the kitchen,” Moreau said.

Although COVID-19 may seem like everyone’s main concern right now, Moreau emphasized her concern for the many children who are struggling to be fed during this crisis. Some children rely on their school to feed them, and now that schools are no longer teaching in classrooms, these children are left without lunch.

Moreau stressed that school “was their safe haven” and that the bakery plans to start helping by donating food to local organizations who are working to solve this pressing issue.

“We have always donated leftovers at the end of the day in every shop, but now we will start producing more so we can help.”

Women’s’ boutique, Fresh Nostalgia in Market Square downtown is another small business impacted by the coronavirus. The shop opened this past year but is in the process of

changing locations. Although the timing makes the moving process more difficult, the store owner, Beth Buenaventura looks forward to the new scenery.

“I am so excited about the new location,” Buenaventura said. “We are moving only a couple [of] blocks away from Market Square and we will be in the Cultural District where so many cool things are happening.” The new shop will be located on the street level of the Roosevelt Building close to the corner of 6th St. and Penn Avenue.

When Allegheny County Health officials recommended all non-essential businesses close, Fresh Nostalgia shut down shop.

“This has had a great impact on our sales since the majority of our business is from our brick and mortar as opposed to online,” Buenaventura explained. To make things more difficult, the rent of Fresh Nostalgia’s new location is expensive and depends on the store exceeding its sales goals for next year. Brave and determined, the boutique owner looks at the situation like a glass half full.

“I’m remaining hopeful that the great people of Pittsburgh, and particularly our Fresh Nostalgia customers, will persevere,” Buenaventura said.

Even though the store is closed, Buenaventura still works hard behind the curtain. The owner has been filling online orders and hosts online sales through Facebook Live. In doing so, the Fresh Nostalgia staff are taking special precautions to stay healthy through the pandemic.

Buenaventura stressed that staff is “constantly washing hands and wiping down surfaces.” She also notes that she does not go out unless absolutely necessary, practicing social distancing.

A popular, Greek food restaurant, The Simple Greek in Market Square in downtown is another small business that has endured, “a total 180,” as store owner Sasha Machel put it, in terms of the effect the pandemic has had on their business.

The Simple Greek has been open since 2015 and was originally named My Big Fat Greek Gyro, which opened in 2012.

The establishment shut its doors and closed down shop in March, after St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday in which Machel claims normally, “kicks off to the busy season.”

However, it was the Tuesday before St. Patrick’s Day that Machel believes she started to notice a change in her business.

“That’s when PNC started to test their systems and had employees starting to work from home,” Machel said. “I knew after that that things were going to get dicey, but I didn’t think the whole world (or Downtown for that matter) would come to a halt.”

Like many other small business owners downtown, Machel fears having to permanently close down her restaurant, which means everything to her.

“I’ve given blood, sweat [and] tears and sacrificed my mental health for this place,” Machel said. “It’s really special because my dad and I built it together, and my brother has been a part of it too. I’ve learned so much about myself and business over the past seven years because of The Simple Greek.”

Despite the pandemic, Machel is still hopeful for The Simple Greek and is eager to open up business as usual, and hopes that people appreciate the human connection that they’ve been deprived of in quarantine.

“You know the human connection was dying before this,” Machel said. “I constantly am stressing to my employees about trying to strengthen it, and to just focus on that for the day. That’s what this business is about, after all: food and conversation.”

Machel has a passion for her restaurant like many other small business owners do for their establishments in the downtown area. Her words seem to embody the emotions many micro-enterprise owners face during this time of darkness.

“I’ve worked my ass off over the past seven years to build this, and to think it can end with not even so much as a goodbye—that’s sad.”