Downtown stores, businesses await the return of their customers

NEW YORK (AP) – In many inner-city areas where businesses have closed their offices and shutdown workplaces, sandwich shops, bakeries and other small businesses are cautiously optimistic about their customers’ return.

Teresa Ging could count on a constant stream of office workers coming to Sugar Bliss Bakery for muffins and cupcakes ahead of COVID-19. They all but disappeared when the Loop, downtown Chicago, became deserted amid government orders to stay at home.

In March, a local business group, the Chicago Loop Alliance, found in a survey that a year after the start of the pandemic, the number of people coming to work downtown was still below 20% of normal . But Ging is optimistic; some of his regular clients return to their offices one or two days a week.

“I really think the loop will get back to normal at some point,” she says, although she doesn’t expect that to happen until 2022.

The next few months will be a difficult period in the business districts of the country. With cities reopening and the number of people vaccinated, office workers are expected to come back – especially with big companies like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America notifying employees they will need to return to work. But many companies should give their employees the flexibility to work from home. And some companies have closed their offices for good and gone completely remote.

This will make small business owners wait and wonder, with varying degrees of optimism. When people started working from home, the early morning and lunchtime crowds turned into a trickle. Many restaurants and stores went bankrupt, and those who survived relied on government help, owners’ concessions and, if possible, online sales to shore up their income.

The downtown Philadelphia bakery owned by Edna Cruz and Michael Caro has only a fraction of its regular customers. Before the pandemic, office workers made up about 70% of their business. Now, Cruz fears that the customers of Nook Bakery & Coffee Bar will never come back in force.

The couple continued with a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, leniency from their owner, and the sale of their roasted coffee and personalized cakes. But they still see a lot of juggling to come.

“If the rent stays the same and the foot traffic decreases, it will be very, very difficult for us,” says Cruz.

But Cruz will likely see more people on the streets – Philadelphia officials announced last week that all restrictions on office capacity would be lifted as of this Friday.

Downtown Atlanta is full of office towers, and businesses generally expect to receive a boost from visitors to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, convention center, and city tourist attractions. There is only a fraction of that traffic these days, and city officials have yet to announce Atlanta’s full reopening.

Kwan’s Deli has lost around 80% of its business, reduced its hours and laid off its two full-time employees as well as its handful of part-time employees. But co-owner Andrew Song is optimistic – even if the number of office workers does not return to pre-pandemic levels, the deli will be able to survive as hotel guests, conventioneers and tourists return.

“As we get back to normal in our personal lives, there is a kind of understanding that the rest of the country will too,” he said. “There is certainly hope.”

Claudio Furgiuele, who owns neighboring sandwich shop Reuben’s Deli, is less optimistic. His business has rebounded from the worst days of the pandemic, but he doesn’t expect workers to visit downtown offices as regularly as before. And he needs their stuff.

“If you think it’s normal in the fall, there’s a good chance you won’t be here in the winter,” he said. “Because it’s not business as usual.”

Salons, dry cleaners and other service providers are also waiting to see how many customers come back. Beret Loncar’s massage therapy office in midtown Manhattan serves only half of its usual number of clients, and many commute from other parts of town or the suburbs because they are not in the office. . His company, Body Mechanics, is actually busier on weekends than during the week.

“Normally they would come at lunchtime or after work and that’s not the case anymore,” Loncar says. “I have the impression that they are coming to see us to get out of the house.”

Many of Loncar’s clients are mothers who cannot return to work until they have the opportunity to babysit. She advertises new clients in the short term, but is optimistic that her business will return to normal.

“I think everything will be fine. I have high hopes, ”she said. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city will fully reopen by July 1, but many New Yorkers are expected to continue working from home.

Michael Edwards, who heads the Chicago Loop Alliance business group, is also optimistic. Pedestrian traffic in downtown Chicago, at its worst, was 25% of normal, encompassing only local residents and essential workers. Now that number goes up to 60%.

“He was climbing,” Edwards says. He hopes that the occupancy rate of office buildings will reach 50% during the summer, compared to 20% currently. While Illinois aims to fully reopen on June 11, Chicago officials have not said when they will follow suit.

While many people prefer to work from home, Edwards thinks they’ll want to come back when they find their coworkers socializing without them.

“There’s the fear of missing out – if enough people come back, they’ll miss the cocktails after work,” he says.

In downtown Dallas, Keith Fluellen sees increasing signs of office life.

“It looks like a few other people are slowly coming back,” says Fluellen, who has a cupcake shop named after him. Customer traffic in his store is down by around 35% although there are no restrictions on office space.

Fluellen knows that a full recovery is still a long way off: “We are a stone’s throw from AT&T headquarters, and we have been doing business every day, all day, with different meetings, group visits with their teammates . And we don’t see that yet.

Fluellen has closed two more stores during the pandemic, but if business is good enough, it might consider opening another.

“You don’t want to make any plans until you have a good half year of solid sales, until everything is back to normal,” he says.

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AP writers Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia, Kathleen Foody in Chicago, and Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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