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Adapt and survive: Mid-valley businesses discuss operating during coronavirus pandemic
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Adapt and survive: Mid-valley businesses discuss operating during coronavirus pandemic

The streets of downtown Albany and downtown Corvallis were nearly empty — some business owners used the phrase “ghost town” to describe the atmosphere — and that was no surprise in the time of the novel coronavirus and new government measures to enforce social distancing.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered the dining areas of restaurants, bars and other business that serve food to close March 16, forcing them to pivot to to-go or delivery orders. Then on March 23, she issued a stay at home order that also completely shut the doors of several types of businesses, including barber shops and hair salons.

But several mid-Willamette Valley shops, stores and restaurants have remained open despite the uncertain environment and the loss of vehicle and foot traffic.

During the course of more than a dozen interviews with independent business owners and managers, a few themes emerged:

• Adjustments, often above and beyond state rules, are necessary to ensure that bills get paid. This includes switching to deliveries, offering expanded services, limiting hours of operation or streamlining menus. And, of course, in many instances, there are lay-offs.

• Many business owners said an online shop or the ability to interact with customers online, even if that meant Facebook messages or communicating via Instagram, made them better positioned to remain open and retain sales.

• The familiar name brands of the Mid-Willamette Valley, the family traditions if you will, also were in a better spot than new businesses that were still trying to gain recognition before the world changed.

*The product offered can make a big difference right now. People aren’t just hoarding toilet paper. They’re stuck at home and want to do projects around the house, yardwork and read books.

• Gift cards that can be used in the future take pressure off businesses, and can even be bought for some shops, restaurants and stores that are temporarily closed due to coronavirus concerns.

• Another recurring idea was that owners engaged in philanthropy are rewarded by their communities in tough times.

But perhaps the biggest reason for shops and restaurants to remain open is mid-Willamette Valley customers who are eager to help them in tough times.

“That’s the idea, to do pickups and support local businesses,” said Diane Bancroft. She and her husband Stephen Bancroft were grabbing a late lunch from Shortstops in North Albany on Wednesday.

“It’s convenient. We live just up the street so it stays warm,” added Stephen Bancroft. They planned to support other businesses in North Albany and just across the bridge in Linn County.

Jason DuBose of Corvallis was buying a hot pink bike from Peak Sports in Corvallis on Thursday for his daughter Raquel’s upcoming eighth birthday, and said it was essential for him to support local shops. After all, he’s the owner of two Corvallis-based businesses, Rogue Sky and Element Grow.

The world has to keep going in some crucial ways, despite the challenges of the times, DuBose said.

“We have to keep the image that everything is fine for our kids and they can still have birthdays,” he added.

Here are “snapshots” of several independent mid-valley businesses, capturing representatives’ thoughts on operating during the pandemic. Interviews were conducted on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Grass Roots Books & Music

Customers can’t wander and scan the shelves full of volumes at this downtown Corvallis store. But they can browse online or have a book in mind to buy from the business.

“We’re still available. We’re answering the phone. We’re providing free shipping for all books. We’re still available but the door is locked. And we’ll deliver books,” said owner Jack Wolcott.

Concerned residents are regularly calling the shop just to see how the business is surviving, and several customers have bought large gift cards.

“It’s just a priceless thing. We have so much gratitude for our local community,” Wolcott said. “We’re getting a lot of people saying they would rather give their business to local shops rather than ordering on Amazon.”

He said sales were down only 50 percent.

Grass Roots has cancelled or postponed author talks. But the store is trying to engage people who have to self-quarantine with the Grass Roots Irregular, a new newsletter.

“We want people to feel involved and still connected with their neighbors,” Wolcott said. “The people who are taking the biggest brunt of this are our employees. We’re trying to find extra things for them to do.”

Urban Ag Supply

Sara Chonaiew, owner of the downtown Albany business, said that she hasn’t seen hardly any downturn in business, though that may be because of the products she offers – including seeds, compost, potting soil and other gardening supplies.

“Right now, people are home and the weather is nice so they’re planting gardens. People are concerned about the food system, so they’re planting gardens. Especially new people who haven’t gardened before,” Conaiew added.

Another advantage for her store is that it’s never very crowded compared to larger businesses, so it’s easy to do social distancing. “There’s more safety and less risk,” she said.

Urban Ag Supply also is helping out another local business by selling merchandise from Margin Coffee, which closed its doors temporarily.

New Morning Bakery

Owners Keara and Tristan James said that business is down more than 90 percent. Catering and wholesale accounts have dried up, and they’ve streamlined the options available for take-out.

The restaurant space has green tape on the floor about every six feet in front of the display cases to provide social distancing cues.

They married couple temporarily laid off about 30 of their 40 workers, allowing them to file for unemployment. “Some of them have worked here for 28 years,” Keara James said.

Bakers are still working, and the business is still providing bread for Market of Choice in Corvallis.

“Long-term, with this model we would not survive. But it helps us get through a rough period. It’s better than selling nothing at all,” Tristan James said.

“There’s a lot of people who really care about us. There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘We really want you to make it through this,’” he added.

The restaurant also is selling flour and rice and beans to customers to keep them out of crowded grocery stores.

Southpaws/Shortstops

The pizza joint and nearby burger and shake stand in North Albany haven’t seen sales suffer much in recent weeks, and Amanda Bullock, a manager for both eateries, attributed that to Christopher Reese, the owner of both businesses.

“I think it’s because of him and all he does for the community,” she said.

Reese has been selecting five to 10 families in need every day and providing them with a free pizza, Bullock said. The program is called “The Giving Pizza.”

And that’s in addition to providing pizza and salads for two days for workers at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home in Lebanon, according to the American Legion Post 10 in Albany, which delivered the food.

Peak Sports

The multi-pronged business has shut down its outdoors store and nearby annex in downtown Corvallis, but its bike shop remains open, though customers can’t come in through the door.

Orders are made with credit cards by phone, and customers can pick up the products (or order) at the front door under a canopy. “It protects our customers and it still lets people know that we’re open,” said employee Gregg Rouse.

Among the other changes is that bikes brought in for service are cleaned and disinfected before they are brought through the door.

Rouse said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the customer traffic Peak Sports has received in its condensed hours. “You can only sit around the house for so long,” he said.

But he worried about the impacts of Oregon State University closing McDonald-Dunn Research Forest, a popular spot for mountain biking.

Sniffany’s Pet Boutique

In October, Sniffany’s doubled its space in downtown Albany. “We were just starting to hold our own and do really well,” said Angie Scavone, who owns the business with her husband Joe Scavone.

“It’s scary, to be honest with you. We’re nervous,” she added.

The temporary closure of other nearby businesses on First Avenue in downtown Albany has hurt foot traffic enormously, Angie Scavone said.

Still, the Scavones are trying to get creative in a bad situation. They’re making games to stream on Facebook live and offering pet boredom bags, filled with $45 worth of goods, for $30.

“We’re doing what we can to stay afloat,” Angie Scavone said.

“We’ve always offered free delivery, but now it’s more important,” Joe Scavone said.

Five Star Sports

Since Oregon’s stay-at-home order was issued, the running apparel store in downtown Corvallis has had just one or two customers a day, said Jim Elwell, sales associate.

“Once the lockdown came, whoosh, nobody was going out,” he added.

The few customers who do come in aren’t messing around.

“They’ll call ahead a lot of times, make sure we’re open. They’ll know exactly what shoe they want. … There’s no browsing,” he added.

Five Star Sports also has pivoted to taking phone orders and making deliveries in Corvallis and Philomath.

The Frame House

Al Severson said traffic in downtown Albany is “way down” and he’s never seen anything like it before.

Many of the organizations he volunteers for, such as the Linn County Lamb & Wool Fair, have cancelled meetings or events.

But Severson isn’t going anywhere, nor will he close he shop willingly.

“The only way I’m going to close the door is if John Law comes through here and tells me I have to go,” Severson said.

“This thing’s going to blow over if people would just use common sense,” he added. “We’ll get through this, but I think somebody wasn’t paying attention at the start of it.”

The Frame House doesn’t have an online presence, and Severson said he still operates with paper and a pencil. “I’m just a low-tech guy in a high-tech world,” he said.  His shop, however, is one of the longest surviving businesses in downtown Albany.

Old World Deli

Ted Cox said residents haven’t forgotten about the Old World Deli during the pandemic.

“People come in or call in orders and they thank us, because it helps keep a sense of normalcy in this time,” he added.

Cox, however, had to lay off most of his employees, and has kept only two part-time workers and himself at the downtown Corvallis business.

He’s also streamlined his menu to the top sellers and cut back on soups, which aren’t as popular for take-out orders. And he’s increased the Old World Deli’s social media presence.

Business has dropped off by 80 percent due to the coronavirus, but in the deli’s current form he’s been able to cover operating costs. “But we’re just barely in the beginning of this whole thing,” he added.

As the pandemic fades, he said he’ll hire his people back. “That’s the heartbreaker. I have this great group of young men and women and they’re struggling and just lost their jobs. I think they’ll come back faster because we’re keeping going right now,” Cox said.

Sybaris Bistro

Things have slowed down at one of the mid-Willamette Valley’s most acclaimed restaurants, but the downtown Albany business still has enough orders to pay its bill and its staff, said Janel Bennett, who owns Sybaris with her husband Matt Bennett.

Cars start to line up to pick up dinner orders at about 5 p.m., though things are a bit different. The menu is more streamlined and changes every day, and price points are lower, with entrees offered for $15 each. “We changed everything. We changed to meet the times,” Matt Bennett said, behind a surgical-style mask.

“The biggest thing is, the town has jumped up to support us,” he added.

He said he’s hoping and praying for other businesses to survive the current situation. “I hope everybody makes it. Newer businesses, those are going to be the ones that are really hard hit,” Matt Bennett said.

Robnett’s Hardware

Tori and Scott Lockwood are the sixth generation owners of the downtown Corvallis business.

Tori Lockwood said Robnett’s Hardware has cut its hours and paid its three staff members to stay home for the most part. There’s a bottle of hand sanitizer that customers are urged to use as soon as they walk through the door.

But things are surprisingly busy and sales are down only about 50 percent, the married couple said.

“People are working in the lawn, people are fixing things at home,” Tori Lockwood added.

And those people are focused and looking for specific products. “There are no lookie-loos,” Scott Lockwood said.

Among the top sellers are do-it-yourself toilet repair kits, locks and batteries.

Novak’s Restaurant

The popular downtown Albany restaurant reopened in early March a year after a fire caused heavy smoke damage to the business, but the dining scene quickly changed to the coronavirus and new government rules.

“Last Sunday, things started to slow down a bit. At least we do have people coming up and ordering,” said owner Karen Novak.

The Albany Downtown Association provided a pop-up canopy for the family restaurant, so people could order at the window and not get soaked in this week’s downpours.

The business has split shifts for its workers, so many can get at least a half shift, and its hours are significantly shorter since it is just doing takeout. The menu also has been pared down.

“All things considered, I can’t complain. Our doors are open, so I’m really grateful for that,” Novak said.

Long Timber Brewing 

Takeout food, growler fills, crowler fills and keg sales are all offered at this ambitious gastropub in downtown Monroe. But one of the biggest attractions for the business, its palatial lodge-like building, is off limits for dining.

The Long Timber, which opened in early June, also is heavily dependent on through traffic on Highway 99W, which doubles as Main Street in this small town.

“It’s definitely not easy to get people to drive from out of town, especially when the stay at home orders are issued. It’s hard,” said Natalie Payne, whose family owns the Long Timber.

“We’re hoping this blows by fast and we’ll be open for business again in no time. That’s the goal,” she said.

She worried that the Long Timber will almost have to start over in less than a year, build recognition and become a habit for customers once again. She also was concerned that consumer habits could change in the long term due to the pandemic.

“I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope people will go back to going out and socializing. I think we’ll be okay in the end,” Payne said.

Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or kyle.odegard@lee.net.

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