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Claremont businesses make comeback serving during COVID

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Shortly after I was hired in March 2021, publisher Peter Weinberger said he wanted to appoint me as the COURIER’s next business journalist. He essentially tasked me, a lifelong Pomonan with no knowledge about Claremont or prior experience in writing business profiles, with covering the resurgence of business traffic happening around Claremont.

I responded, “Sure, what could possibly go wrong?” or something along those lines, and here we are nine months later after surviving year two of life under COVID-19.

After reading story after story about the dire circumstances faced by many businesses throughout 2020 in preparation for the new beat, I thought 2021 would be much of the same, another year of reading — and now writing — about the same recurring struggles businesses faced. I expected more closures, more plexiglass barriers at restaurants, more anti-maskers spitting [rhetoric] at business owners, and a lot less traffic in the Claremont Village. Thankfully I was mostly wrong.

While 2020 was dominated by closures, quarantines and missed events due to the pandemic, 2021 was the year of the comeback kids on the business front.

Remember when only essential businesses could remain open after the March 16, 2020 safer-at-home orders debut? Well in 2021, the business owners in my first profile on the Cheese Cave shared how they forged their own path toward reopening, [essentially] becoming an essential business in order to stay afloat.

In the April article, I wrote, “With no plan to move forward at the time, Marnie Clarke and her husband, Milan Dragojlovich, rode out the first month of the closures while exploring ways to keep the store open. Dragojlovich devised a plan that involved turning the Cheese Cave into a downsized grocery store fulfilling special curbside pickup orders … buying extra supplies of what they already sold in-store such as produce, milk, cheese, wine, and once scarce essentials like toilet paper and wipes … Though the idea was met with skepticism from Ms. Clarke, the curbside business quickly grew in popularity, overwhelming the couple.”

The second article I tackled was about a local training studio called Worth FiT Studio, a small, six-person capacity fitness facility owned and operated by Stephanie Worthington. Her story not only showed how quickly the pandemic changed her just 40-day old business, but also how the pandemic upended gym life and forced trainers like Worthington to move all of their courses to the Zoom platform to keep their doors open during the closures. Worth FiT Studio reopened at 10% capacity in March 2021, and Worthington continues to offer both in-person and Zoom sessions.

I also spoke with Tara Naughtin Tabije, project manager and operations officer for the Four Sisters Inn, the parent company of Claremont’s Hotel Casa 425. She said that prior to COVID-19 closures the hotel was actually forecast to have a “killer year” in 2020. However, the property group received notice in March 2020 they had to shut down their 19 hotels and what followed was what Tabije described as a “whirlwind.”

“I think a lot of us were like ‘Oh this isn’t going to come here. This is not going to affect us.’ But then it seemed to just…it felt like it happened overnight for us in Claremont,” Tabije said. “It was quite a challenge for us and it was a couple to a few months of really planning, of what’s really going on, what are the guidelines, can we reopen, when can we reopen.”

In April 2021, Claremonters could once again enjoy an afternoon lunch at their favorite restaurants, with the expectation of having plexiglass barriers between you and your lunch mate.
Throughout the summer for our Almanac, I interviewed staff members at three Claremont restaurants, Bardot, Pizza N’ Such and Walter’s Restaurant, to get an understanding of how the industry was affected by the virus.

Bardot General Manager Robert Corral shared that COVID-19 made him, the hostesses, and the servers learn new ways of communicating and engaging with guests. Due to COVID-19 safety and health guidelines, servers could not linger around guests for too long, too often and could only talk with patrons when necessary — taking their order and giving them their food or check.
Dawoud Ghafarshad, the director of events and operations for Walter’s Restaurant, said that the pandemic forced his family’s restaurant to upgrade their technology, how they serve guests and communicate with one another.

As I wrote in our August Almanac, “Technology advanced to help not only keep the restaurant’s sanitation efforts up, but also help the staff become more efficient when they reopened in late fall [2020]. Special barcodes on each table allow customers with smartphones to scan and pull up a digital menu on their phone. Staff also had to master a new handheld point-of-sale system, essentially, they had to learn how to work computers.”

Pizza N’ Such manager Laura Verbal said that with so much pandemic demand for comfort food, traffic remained steady at the restaurant and that she and her crew became more efficient at producing bigger orders of food and managing the oven during peak hours.

However, with so many to-go phone orders and customers not actually being served in the dining room, Verbal said, “Coming back to being a full dining restaurant, it made me realize that I do like the customer interaction. When [service] is just to-go only it’s literally I hand their pizza to them and it’s like a 10-second hello. Then there’s somebody right behind them so you have to be six feet apart so it’s like ‘Okay, nice seeing you again!’”

With indoor dining off limits for most of 2020, Verbal and her crew created an outdoor dining space, known as a parklet. In 2021, outdoor dining became the norm. Though capacity limits were later put in place for indoor dining and bars, the restaurant industry officially came back in 2021.

Throughout 2021, Claremont also welcomed new businesses and restaurants, including Neon Moon Art and Supply, Honeybird, The Outdoor Store and Graze and Gather Meats and Provisions. We’ve also seen a few businesses undergo new ownership, as in April 2021 when Victor Ojeda took over Everett’s Shoe Repair from former owner, Ernest Marcy.

Claremont’s biggest individual business story of the year was the closure of Barbara Cheatley’s antiques in May 2021. The store opened on October 30, 1975 and was Claremont’s very first antique store. After 45 years, owner Barabra Cheatley said it was time to drop the curtain on that chapter of her life and the store which supplied Claremont with fun and unique trinkets.

“We’ve been here for 45 years, it just seemed like time,” Cheatley said in May. The store officially closed its doors on July 1 after its ‘everything must go’ sale, leaving a hole in the Village and Claremont residents’ hearts.

The pandemic shuttered approximately 200,000 U.S. establishments during the first year of the viral outbreak, according to the Wall Street Journal in April 2021, citing a study from the Federal Reserve.

However, it also made way for new business practices such as Jon Peltekci’s toy store, Boon Companion Toys, adding curbside and delivery options to their online orders, which Peltekci fulfilled himself.

As we look back on and close the business chapter on 2021, we should do so with a drink in hand, preferably a spirit, as this year was not easy by any means, especially for business owners. While 2021 allowed us to take those first baby steps back into pre-pandemic normalcy, here’s to hoping 2022 will let us run in a full on sprint toward the light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel.

As the business reporter for the city, I hope to not only cover more up-and-coming and mom-and-pop shops in 2022, but also learn more about Claremont while doing so. If you have a new business or idea that you want to share with the COURIER, contact me at aalonzo@claremont-courier.com.

 

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