Bethlehem restaurateurs fear colder, blustery weather will causes sales to further plummet after already enduring financial blows during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of the small business owners lost significant revenue streams when Gov. Tom Wolf shut down indoor dining in March, forcing the food service industry to offer only takeout either through curbside pickup and delivery options. The latest restrictions call for 50% capacity inside eateries and no alcoholic beverage sales after 11 p.m. Patrons ordering an alcoholic beverage must remain seated with a meal, under the guidelines.
Some businesses are reporting as much as a near 50% loss in monthly sales revenue since the shutdown began.
A small group this past week met for a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, who represents the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, at the National Museum of Industrial History in the city. The roundtable came 26 days after the Democrat’s vote in favor of the updated HEROES Act which the House of Representatives passed by a 214 to 207 vote. The Senate has yet to vote on the updated stimulus bill.
Wild told the restaurant owners that the package includes a $120 billion restaurant stabilization grant program. The RESTAURANT Act is designed to help independent restaurateurs deal with the long-term structural challenges facing the industry due to COVID-19, as well as support 11 million independent restaurant workers.
Wild said she is also pushing the Paycheck Protection Small Business Enhancement Act, bipartisan legislation she co-introduced, which would allow a second Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan for businesses that have experienced a reduction in gross receipts of more than 20% as compared to last year.
The Paycheck Protection Program in the spring made $349 billion of forgivable loans available for U.S. small businesses to help pay salaries and keep workers off unemployment, and of that amount, about $21 billion went to Pennsylvania small business owners. However, funding quickly ran out before many restaurants and businesses could submit the lengthy applications.
Additionally, Wild said she spearheaded the Century Community Learning Center Coronavirus Relief Act, bipartisan legislation to create academically-focused childcare options for parents to enable them to return to the workplace. This legislation passed the House by voice vote and recently its provisions were included in the updated HEROES Act.
The congresswoman is running against Republican challenger Lisa Scheller in the general election on Tuesday.
Scheller told lehighvalleylive.com Thursday she also backs continued economic stimulus in the forms of loans and grants for small businesses. The PPP program, she said, was very successful in the beginning of the pandemic and did help many businesses.
“We need to turn the lights back on in small businesses and get Americans back to work,” Scheller said. “As a small business owner, I know what it takes to get the economy back up and moving.”
Scheller blasted Wild’s motives, saying she feels her opponent does one thing in district and another in Washington. She specifically took aim at Wild voting in opposition to some earlier forms of small business funding.
Wild said she didn’t vote for the original HEROES Act because the package was not created in a bipartisan fashion like the previous relief bills were, it was too big, and not exclusively focused on COVID-19 relief, which she believed to be the top priority.
Social Still co-owner Kate Flatt said any additional funding from the government will help keep cash registers ringing for independently-owned eateries.
Flatt knows the struggle. She had to completely overhaul her business following the March shutdown.
This meant going from a hustle and bustle dining destination to solely takeout and curbside — something not offered in her six years in operation. Kate and her husband, Adam, nixed delivery due to fees of upward of 30% of the total bill when using a third party company, she said.
The Flatts launched an online store and sold alcohol statewide. They helped during the pandemic by crafting hand sanitizer for area police departments, post offices, assisted living centers, and prisons. A saving grace, Kate said, was gaining permission to expand the eatery’s outdoor licensed area so Social Still could double its outdoor dining capacity from four to eight seatings.
“The restaurant portion of the CARES/HEROES Act is imperative to help our small businesses survive this pandemic,” Kate told lehighvalleylive.com. We want to keep everyone as safe as possible and I feel that restaurants can do that if we have the support and funding from those in charge.”
While some restaurant owners have reportedly defied social distance orders, did away with mask-wearing, or increased capacity, the Flatts don’t plan to relax any practices set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anytime soon. She said it’s not going to help any small business owner if they go back to complete normalcy too soon only to be suddenly hit with a resurgence of positive cases of COVID-19.
The Flatts have been keeping operations at 30% capacity — lower than the maximum 50% — as an added precaution.
“I’m not comfortable with having a lot of people; get rid of regulations,” Kate said. “I don’t think that is the answer.”
Elaine Pivinski, Adam’s mother and owner of Franklin Hill Vineyards in Bangor, said she was able to stay afloat after the shutdown through online orders and selling wines to several major area supermarkets and smaller convenience stores. She sold curbside at her retail locations at Main Street in Bethlehem, Palmer Township and in Bartonsville, Monroe County.
The latest restrictions of having to eat a meal while enjoying an alcoholic beverage continue to complicate operations. Currently, there are two windows for orders at the Bangor Vineyards and everyone must be seated with their alcoholic beverage. Pivinski is making an additional push by selling at the Christkindlemart festival, the holiday Huts on Main, and running a social media campaign.
“We do more explaining than ever before,” Pivinski said.
Derek Wallen, owner of Roasted in Bethlehem, said things can be better, but they also can be worse.
His interior location provides 62 seats but it’s cramped seating and not socially-distance friendly. The layout has prompted him to provide no indoor service and only takeout and some outdoor seating for nine parties.
Wallen additionally had to cut back on third party delivery due to the 30% to 35% in fees, which he described as excessive. Instead, he is delivering for free for those living within a 2.5 mile radius. Wallen’s also had to come up with more creative ways to bring in revenue, such as offering baked goods, catering, and family dinner meals — all for the first time.
“We’re doing anything we can think of outside the box to survive,” Wallen said. “Our takeout went from 3% to 100%.”
The small business owners interviewed for this story said they normally look toward the holiday season to recoup any lost sales throughout the rest of the year. Heading into winter this year, however, things remain doubtful, especially with dining al fresco soon to be eliminated.
“October, November and December is pretty much how we pay our bills,” Kate Flatt said. “That’s where all the money is made. This is it.”
The Flatts are using outdoor heaters to lengthen the time of outdoor dining before frost sets in. The couple is hoping to make it until at least Thanksgiving.
Other businesses across the Lehigh Valley have brought in heavy plastic sheeting to partially enclose outdoor patios. Propane heat lamps also have been popping up around the area to help warm other makeshift outdoor dining areas.
At Franklin Hill Vineyards, Pivinski said winter sales will only be made curbside and she is hoping for a second stimulus to keep staff on the payroll, ward off unemployment, and continue problem-solving.
“We are resilient,” she said. “We will make it through the winter.”
Wallen said all of his outdoor seating currently is being provided by the city in the form of a “parklet,” which essentially are sidewalk extensions providing more space for businesses. However, once winter arrives, the parklet will become an emergency lane for snow removal. As of now, he can only provide outdoor seating in the parklet until the end of November.
“The outside tables have positively impacted the business, but when they go away, our sales will drop again,” Wallen said.
Other restaurants aren’t as sure the 50% indoor capacity will be enough to turn profits, especially after previous months sustaining on outdoor dining coupled with takeout and delivery. The National Restaurant Association reported in September more than 100,000 restaurants across the country have closed in the last six months. Forty percent of restaurants owners said it is unlikely they will still be in business in six months if there is no further federal financial relief.
“Restaurants are the backbones of so many cities and it’s part of our lifestyles,” Pivinski said. “We can’t have any more foreclosures.”
Wild said when she first moved to the Lehigh Valley in the 1980s there weren’t a whole lot of different restaurants for patrons to choose from. The first Allentown restaurant she ever dined at has now closed permanently amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“What I’ve seen in the past 35 years is restaurants have become so unique, so diverse in this area. It’s a huge part of people’s recreational opportunities in this area and so it’s part of our cultural fiber,” Wild said.
The congresswoman said she will continue to fight for more economic relief with the hope of a spring turnaround.
“So many people spent their life earnings and their time and energy on getting these wonderful small businesses started,” Wild added. “I just don’t want to see them crash and burn.”
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Pamela Sroka-Holzmann may be reached at [email protected].