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Coronavirus Cover Story

Pandemic Tests the Mettle of the Region’s Small Businesses

Over the course of this long, trying year, BusinessWest has offered a number of what we call ‘COVID stories.’ These are the stories of small-business owners coping with a changed world and challenges they could not possibly have foreseen a year ago. As this year draws to a close, we offer more of these sagas. Like those we documented before, they put on full display the perseverance, imagination, and entrepreneurial will that has defined the business community’s response to the pandemic.

Things Are Heating Up

Hot Oven Cookies Seizes Growth Opportunities During Pandemic


COVID Tails

Pandemic Has Forced This ‘Pet Resort’ to Consolidate and Pivot


Words to Live By

Greenfield Recorder Stays Locally Focused on Pandemic — and Everything Else


The Latest Word

At Hadley Printing, the Presses Have Started Rolling Again


Root Causes

For This Dental Practice, COVID Has Brought Myriad Challenges

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

While the arrival of vaccines is fostering some optimism across this country and we’re hearing phrases like ‘beginning of the end’ (for the pandemic) and ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ the sad fact is that relief won’t come soon enough for some businesses in this region.

The latest victim of the COVID-19 crisis is Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta announced they can longer continue operating their cultural-arts center, which had become such a critical part of Holyoke’s resurgence, and will now attempt to sell the complex.

Their message to the community sums up the plight of so many businesses in this region and the frustration that has accompanied the restrictions, shutdowns, and general lack of support from state and federal officials.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” they wrote, echoing the sentiments of many who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to hang on. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then COVID took it all away.”

The two went on to talk about life just before they were forced to close their doors. There was a sold-out concert with more than 500 people in the Hub (and an impressive upcoming slate of big-name artists), a theater production with more than 100 people, and a full house in Judd’s restaurant. And in the veritable blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Like most small businesses in this region, Gateway City Arts received a PPP loan last spring. It was intended to provide eight to 10 weeks of support and keep people paid — and that’s exactly what it did. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the pandemic has lasted far longer than a few months. No further relief, other than a GoFundMe campaign, was forthcoming, and with no end to this crisis in sight, Divine and Kruta had to let their dream die.

As we all prepare to turn the calendar to 2021, many businesses are some state of peril — and many more dreams may have to die. If there is a lockdown or further restrictions, as many fear is possible, if not imminent — or even if the status quo continues — many more small businesses will be forced to close their doors.

Yes, the vaccines are coming, and yes, there just might be some light at the end of this incredibly long, exceedingly dark tunnel. But for many, it won’t come soon enough. As this issue was going to press, Congress was making some progress toward a new stimulus package, one we have to hope will include some relief to embattled small businesses.

But these companies need more than that. As we’ve written on many occasions, they need the support of the community, in any way it can come, to get through this.

We were encouraged to see that a number of businesses were stepping up during the holidays to help. Indeed, instead of sending the traditional gift basket or tray of cookies to an office where few if any people are working anyway, some businesses have sent gift certificates or even small, pre-paid credit cards, with instructions to use them to support local businesses.

Likewise, instead of having that holiday party at a local venue, some businesses are instead giving employees gift certificates for local restaurants, a step that shows appreciation not only for valued workers, but for the local eateries that have been devastated by this pandemic.

It’s unlikely that such steps would have saved Gateway City Arts, a intriguing, potential-laden business that was just hitting its stride when the rug was pulled out from under it. Unless the region rallies around the still-surviving small businesses, other dreams may die as well.

Coronavirus

Root Causes

Dr. Ronald Goldsher

Dr. Ronald Goldsher says COVID has brought a host of new challenges for his practice, but also some rewards in the form of being able to help patients in need.

In many ways, Dr. Ronald Goldsher says, dentists and periodontists were better-prepared for COVID-19 than many others in healthcare, and certainly most business owners not in that sector.

“In some respects, dentists are way ahead of the curve because of what happened years ago with the AIDS epidemic,” said Goldsher, owner of Pioneer Valley Periodontics, which operates offices in Northampton and Greenfield. “At that time, there were a lot of mandated changes in infection control, so we’re used to sterilizing everything, using barriers on equipment, wearing masks, and disinfecting surfaces between patients; we may have ramped things up a bit [since COVID], but we were used to doing all that.”

But being better prepared certainly didn’t mean Goldsher and others in this profession were fully prepared for all that COVID-19 would throw at them — from the trepidation of patients to seek needed care to the equipment that would have to be purchased (from PPE to special air filters) to keep staff and patients safe; from confusion regarding what procedures could be carried out (and when) to the sharp reduction in overall business volume.

Add it all up, and it’s been ultra-challenging and even unnerving, said Goldsher, before adding quickly that it has also been rewarding at times. Indeed, to be open and able to provide needed services to those in need, especially those with emergencies, has been gratifying, he told BusinessWest.

“Every day, I have patients thanking me for being open and doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Some people tell me stories about how they have food delivered outside their home, their mail goes into plastic bags and they wait several days until they open it, they don’t exchange any money and they don’t leave their house — but they come to their dental appointment because it’s been eight months, and they used to come every two or three months to get their teeth cleaned, and they haven’t had a cleaning in a year. They’re so happy we’re open and providing this service, and, in their words, we’re taking risks to see patients. That’s brings a lot of lot of joy to my practice and my staff.”

Playing back the tape from a trying 2020, Goldsher said he was skiing in Colorado in late February as the news about the virus started to intensify. By the time he returned in early March, things were still normal, but soon began to change in a profound way — for both his business ventures; he and his sons also operate the entertainment venue Hawks & Reed in downtown Greenfield.

“In some respects, dentists are way ahead of the curve because of what happened years ago with the AIDS epidemic.”

Hawks & Reed had to close down, as all indoor performance venues did, and the periodontal office did as well, starting March 13.

“We shut down for what we thought would be two weeks, and two weeks turned out to be almost three months,” he explained, adding that the green light to reopen came in late May, only to have that date come and then be moved back another week, forcing the practice to reschedule a number of appointments and inconvenience several patients — and staff as well.

“There was a lot of confusing information, even when were ready to reopen Pioneer Valley Periodontics; the timelines that were given us by the governor were convoluted and confusing,” he said, noting that these adjectives also describe the information coming out about which procedures fell into the category of ‘essential’ — those that could be undertaken at that time — and which ones didn’t.

But gaining clarification on such matters was just one of the struggles, he went on.

“We were available on an emergency basis, but that comes with a lot of other issues,” he explained. “Like having staff that can come in in an emergency — they can’t be there all the time — and preparing the office for those emergencies.”

As noted earlier, Goldsher said dental practices in general were in some ways better-prepared for this pandemic because of safety measures that have been in place for some time. And his practice was even better-prepared than that in some respects because of the way he had stockpiled PPE over the years.

“I had thousands of surgical gowns that I collected over the years from doing implants,” he explained. “They come in a pack — there would be four or five in a package; we’d use two, and there would be two or three left over. The staff would always say, ‘let’s just throw these away,’ and I would say, ‘put them in a bag.’ We had garbage bags filled with gowns, so we were able to donate several thousand of them to Baystate Franklin Medical Center.”

Still, the pandemic has tested this practice in myriad ways, he went on, speaking for all those in healthcare when he mentioned everything from maintaining adequate staffing to coping with sharply reduced patient volumes, to simply dealing with all the unknowns, not to mention the emotional trauma of seeing patients in the middle of a pandemic.

“Despite all those precautions we were taking, it was still a little unnerving, and it took a couple of weeks for people to settle down because the psychological impact of the virus was there; you can’t see it, but it’s there,” he noted, adding that the spouse of one patient treated by the staff developed COVID-19 and eventually died.

As the calendar turns to 2021, the practice is coping with patient volumes far below what would be considered normal, said Goldsher, mostly due to a fear factor that has always been prevalent, but has kicked into an even higher gear amid the recent spike in cases.

“Patients will cancel at the very last minute depending on the news of the day,” he told BusinessWest, adding that overall revenues are down probably 35% or more for the year, this on top of all those additional expenses. “And from the top levels on down, there has been a lot of confusing information that’s been disseminated.”

He’s not sure when something approaching normal will return, but he does know that challenges remain and it will be some time before there is significant improvement for those in the field.

As he said, being better-prepared certainly helped, but it didn’t fully prepare anyone for what this unforgettable year has brought.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

The Latest Word

Chris (left) and Greg Derosiers

Chris (left) and Greg Derosiers say Hadley Printing is back to something approximating normal, and employees have actually logged some overtime.

 

Chris Derosiers was searching for a way to describe what things were like last spring, at the height of what’s now being called the first COVID-19 surge.

And he found an analogy that probably works for just about every small-business owner in this region.

“It’s like being on the highway … you’re going to 65, 70 miles an hour and cruising along nicely, but with three-quarters of your trip still in front of you,” he said, effectively summing up how things were going during Q1 at Hadley Printing, the family-owned venture he serves as president. “And then … it’s like hitting a wall of traffic, and you don’t know how long that wall of traffic is. And six or seven months later, we’re just finally getting to the other side of that traffic jam.”

By that, he meant the company has been experiencing gradual improvement over the past several months, and is approaching something approximating normal: business that is off perhaps 10% from last year. Recently, and for the first time since the pandemic started, the workflow was such that team members were actually able to earn some overtime, a much-celebrated milestone because of what they believe it indicates.

What isn’t known is whether the company will hit another wall of traffic, or when, said Chris’s brother, Greg, the company’s vice president, adding quickly that this puts Hadley Printing in the same position as just about every company during the pandemic — an unsettling place, to be sure.

“What we don’t know is whether this ‘back to normal’ will stay that way, or whether there will be another cycle where people pull back a little bit,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the best this company, or any company, can do is find ways to cope and persevere until times improve.

Flashing back to mid-March, a painful exercise for most every business owner in the region, the brothers Derosiers recounted how their venture hit that proverbial traffic jam.

“When this thing broke back in March, we were doing just great; everything was rocking and rolling, and we had a ton of work in here,” said Greg, adding that things changed abruptly and profoundly. “Every time we picked up the phone or answered an e-mail in the second half of March, it was ‘cancel this,’ or ‘please put this on hold.’ Literally, everything was just getting stopped in its tracks.”

Elaborating, the two said that print jobs of all kinds and sizes were being shelved, and for various reasons. Cost was one of them, obviously, but in the case of the 2020-21 schedule for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, for example, it was a case of need — or lack thereof. Organizers had no idea when they could next stage live concerts, so there was no need for a schedule. And in the case of annual appeals launched by colleges and nonprofits (and there are traditionally many of those throughout the year), those leading area institutions decided the peak of a pandemic was certainly not the time to be waging such a campaign.

“Every time we picked up the phone or answered an e-mail in the second half of March, it was ‘cancel this,’ or ‘please put this on hold.’ Literally, everything was just getting stopped in its tracks.”

Add it all up, and the phone kept ringing, and each time it did, the person at the other end was canceling an order.

“And Chris and I looked at each other and went, ‘whoa.’ We didn’t know whether to look left or right; we didn’t know what was going on,” he went on, adding that, by late April, relief, in the form of PPP and other measures, had been rolled out with the intention of helping companies like Hadley — and the businesses that form their customer base — through what was projected to be eight to 10 weeks of very rough water.

“We all know now that it wasn’t an eight- to 10-week problem,” Greg continued, adding that one of the biggest challenges for this company was not knowing if printing would be deemed essential — status that was eventually earned.

“A lot of the printers rallied together to fight and make the case that printing was essential,” Greg said. “When the governor initially sent out the guidelines on this, the lines were a little blurred; it didn’t say in black and white whether commercial printing was essential.

“The few orders we did get were communication and mailing pieces focused on how to deal with COVID,” including man from hospitals and other healthcare providers, he went on. “Chris actually sent a letter to Governor Baker explaining why printing wasn’t an essential business.”

From the start, the priorities, the two said, were to be conservative with spending and watch every dime, and do everything they could to hang onto to talented, hard-to-replace printing professionals.

“The difficulty that we have in the manufacturing world is that we have some pretty highly trained people who are very good at what they do,” Greg explained. “Finding these people is very difficult, so we don’t want to let our workforce go. And so, for us, the last resort was to lay people off or furlough them; we hung on for as long as we could before we made any decisions like that.”

Fortunately, the company has historically been conservative fiscally, he went on, and had the ability to put money aside and weather a storm of this consequence, although it certainly hasn’t been easy.

“That part has been a blessing, but we need to make that back up,” he went on, adding that the company, which turned some type of corner in September, believes its improved situation is part of a broader pattern within the business community — and society in general — to find ways to cope with the pandemic and not merely cancel or put things off, as was happening in the second and third quarters.

As for 2021, Greg said no one really knows what to expect. He does believe that, because of what businesses went through in 2020, and because they don’t know when ‘normal’ will return, many will remain conservative in their approach — right down to print jobs.

“It’s like walking on a sidewalk on an icy day,” he explained. “You’re going to be careful where you walk and what you do, as opposed to proceeding as usual. I think 2021 will be that way — like walking on ice.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Words to Live By

Joan Livingston

Joan Livingston says reporters are working hard remotely, but she’s looking forward to the unique energy of a full newsroom.

Late last winter, Joan Livingston and her team at the Greenfield Recorder were planning a comprehensive, multi-part series of articles marking the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the U.S. But, as businesses of all kinds can attest, plans made in February had a way of shifting in March.

“We were planning a series on suffrage; it was going to run, and we stopped that immediately,” said Livingston, editor in chief of a daily publication that covers some 30 communities in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. But while the editorial focus may have changed — we at BusinessWest also remember, quite clearly, those early days of all COVID stories, all the time — the Recorder’s philosophy of hyper-local coverage did not change.

“That has remained our focus, how those communities have been impacted,” she said. “We had to shift gears pretty fast. We weren’t expecting this; no one was expecting this.”

Michael Moses, publisher of the Recorder and several other community newspapers in Western Mass. and New Hampshire, remembers closing all the buildings on March 16 and setting up reporters, designers, salespeople, and others at home.

“At that point, everyone wanted to work remotely, so we took steps to make sure they were able to work from home,” Moses said. “Like everyone else, we didn’t have a lot of time for planning for that, but everything came together pretty well. From an IT perspective, we were already teed up with our front-end system for the news to operate from anywhere, and that flexibility certainly helped us. So it was an essentially seamless transition.”

Since then, the newspaper offices have been open to employees who need to use them, from customer-service staff to the business offices, as well as some reporters, but in general, much of the work of producing these daily and weekly publications has continued remotely.

“A few people work only from home, some are hybrid and come in half the week, and then there are people like myself, who work in the newsroom all the time,” Livingston said of the environment at the Recorder, which is headquartered in downtown Greenfield. “We wear masks when we talk to each other, and we practice safe-distancing rules, but I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

That said, “I’m impressed with our hardworking staff,” Livingston went on. “They continue to generate coverage — that’s one good thing the pandemic did not stop. They’ve been great.”

Like all community newspapers with a wide coverage area, the reporters tend to stick to specific geographic beats, getting to know their communities intimately. The pandemic has shuttered municipal offices to the public and canceled annual events, making a reporter’s traditional in-person contacts harder to come by.

“I miss that camaraderie, reporters just sitting around and swapping stories. I look forward to getting that back when things turn around eventually.”

However, “business hasn’t stopped in terms of what’s happening in town governments, which we cover pretty heavily,” she added. “Some of it’s done virtually, we’ve had annual town meetings in cars or a field, and people have been inventive about trying to be safe during this time. That has been nothing like being in person, but we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now.”

At the same time, readers’ reliance on locally generated news is more critical than ever, especially in a year when locals need to understand how COVID-19 affects them personally, yet messages from national media sources and (especially) the internet have ranged at times from sensationalized to misleading.

That reporters are delivering that news by communicating with team members remotely is all the more impressive, Livingston noted. “Our computer system allows us to work anywhere, and that’s really helpful.”

It’s a slightly smaller team these days, too, she added.

“We had some layoffs after a few months [of the pandemic], and the paper got smaller because businesses are struggling and advertising is not their priority. But I’m impressed by the work ethic of the staff because we are down a few people, and hopefully, when things change, we’ll be able to restock those positions. But they’ve picked up the slack, and I’m impressed.”

Moses sees a silver lining in this year’s shifts in the way people work, because the industry was already moving in some ways toward more remote work, or at least asking questions about the best use of physical space.

“This has allowed us to accelerate where we were going anyway, so there are some positives to all this,” he said. “Like everyone else, we’re always trying to find efficiencies, and I want to be able to draw on those efficiencies.”

That’s not to say publishing hasn’t been challenging this year; it certainly has. “No surprise there, but, thankfully, we’ve been able to manage through it, and as difficult as it’s been, everyone has stepped up pretty well, regardless of which part of the business they’re functioning in.”

The Recorder did eventually get to that series on suffrage over the summer, examining the issue over a period of weeks, not only from a national perspective, but also — and maybe more importantly — through the lens of local history, local organizations, and local viewpoints.

That’s how the newspaper has continued to handle COVID-19 as well.

“I’m reminded every day that, on a whole range of subjects, whether or not they’re health-related, we’re helping readers manage through this, giving them critical news they need, and trying to provide them the right local information they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” Moses said. “That’s even more critical now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Coronavirus

COVID Tails

Chris Pratt, right, and Tracy Faulstick

Chris Pratt, right, and Tracy Faulstick have had to pivot and create new revenue streams, because COVID-19 has left fewer dogs home alone.

“Because no one wants to be left home alone.”

That’s the marketing tagline for a venture called Wagging Tails Pet Resort, and until the middle of last March, it effectively summed up what this company was all about and why it was so successful; dog owners wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment.

That was true for the boarding side of this operation, obviously, but the day-care component as well, said owner Chris Pratt, who told BusinessWest that many professionals had come to understand the value of leaving a dog in a day-care facility — for companionship and also, in the case of larger, athletic breeds, to work off some off their considerable energy before their master gets home at the end of the day.

But starting in March, most dogs didn’t have to be left home alone. Their owners were working remotely for the most part, if they were still working at all. Meanwhile, very few people were traveling anywhere.

Almost overnight, business for the day care, boarding, and other components of the multi-faceted Wagging Tails operation plummeted, said Pratt, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for her — not that it’s come at a good time for anyone.

“Going into March, we were overbooked in Hadley … by March 15, we had one dog left, who actually went home with me at night. I called the owner and said, ‘your dog is the only one here; do you mind if I take him home?’ They said, ‘no, please do.’”

That’s because business had been so good at her resort on Russell Street in Hadley that she moved aggressively and opened a second location on Florence Road in Easthampton — the Heritage Farm — last February to handle what had become an overflow.

Just a few weeks later, though, there was no overflow. She said she kept operating both locations as long as she could, but when Thanksgiving came and the numbers of boarding and day-care dogs were just a fraction of what they were a year ago — and not able to generate enough revenue to pay the staff — Pratt was forced to shut down the Hadley operation, with the intent of reopening when things get better.

“We’re combining our resources to get through the winter,” she explained. “And we’ve been very fortunate that a number of customers have decided to make the 15-minute journey across the bridge to bring their dogs here to the farm.”

That farm, all 30 acres of it, like the Hadley setting, is described by Pratt as a one-stop shop for dogs and their owners, offering everything from boarding to grooming; from day care to retail sales of food and other pet supplies; from walking to training. But because there’s less of all that, there’s now even more that people could do during one stop — or a few.

Indeed, Pratt is making the most of the indoor and outdoor spaces at the farm, and now offering new services ranging from horse boarding to riding lessons, to animals (such as several goats that arrived recently) that children and families can visit with.

“There’s a lot of things going on here that families can take part in,” said Tracey Faulstick, a business consultant working with Pratt to revise the Wagging Tails business plan. “There’s farm animals … there’s a lot that families can participate in in terms of training, horse lessons, and more. There’s an entire community here that’s dedicated to taking care of animals and people in a very safe environment.”

Creation of this community is a classic case of pivoting, making do, and trying to earn a living and keep people employed until things get better — a business survival plan, if you will. It’s also another case — among a great many in this region — of a company doing very well and expanding its operations … until the word COVID became part of our lives.

Indeed, as dogs barked parked consistently — and loudly — in the boarding area, Pratt recounted how and why she amended her business plan more than a year ago and put some ambitious expansion plans on the table.

“Hadley was full at the time … we had a waiting list,” she noted, adding that, essentially, all aspects of the business were booming, from the grooming to the training to the boarding and day care. But COVID-19 changed things in a hurry.

“Going into March, we were overbooked in Hadley … by March 15, we had one dog left, who actually went home with me at night,” she recalled. “I called the owner and said, ‘your dog is the only one here; do you mind if I take him home?’ They said, ‘no, please do.’”

But that was just the start. Indeed, restrictions imposed by the governor essentially shut down the grooming and training operations, two reliable revenue sources, for two months. Meanwhile, as noted, few people were traveling anywhere, for work or pleasure, putting a deep dent in the boarding side of the venture.

Some aspects of this business have returned to one extent or another — grooming and training, for example — and the day-care side has bounced back somewhat, as some dog owners realize the value of that service, even if they are home working all day. Pratt is hoping more people get that message.

“Dogs still need to socialize,” she explained. “Even if people are home working and with their dogs, they should still bring them to day care occasionally, to keep them socialized and keep them from getting separation anxiety; it’s better for the dogs. We were seeing, with people who hadn’t been here for weeks, that when they brought the dog back to day care, the dog was so happy, so excited, and so energetic that they lost most of their socialization skills — so we had to reteach them.”

This reteaching is just part of the COVID story at Wagging Tails, an intriguing saga that, like many in this region, involves imagination, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which are needed to get to other side of this pandemic.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Things Are Heating Up

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand

For Sheila Coon and her husband, Dan, the pandemic has been a time to expand, not retrench, and set new and ambitious goals for the future.

For many small-business owners, 2020 has been a year to hunker down. To focus on survival. To put plans for expansion on hold and devote time and energy to simply getting to next month, or even next week.

Not so for Sheila and Dan Coon, owners of Hot Oven Cookies.

For them, 2020 has been a year to take their brand to places, and a level, it had never been before, and to foster plans to take it further still in the years to come. It’s been a time to establish themselves downtown and uptown, as they like to say (we’ll explain later), and expand not only the footprint, but also the product lines, including cookie dough by the pint — ‘dough to go,’ as they call it.

There has been some good fortune, or serendipity, if you will, along the way, and some strong evidence that cookies have become a comfort food in the midst of this global pandemic — there’s even talk of a possible cookie shortage for the holidays. But mostly, this has been about entrepreneurial spirit and seizing opportunities when they have come about — traits that have defined this venture from the start.

About a year or so ago, none of what has transpired since seemed likely or even possible. In fact, as Sheila recalls, the husband-and-wife team were thinking about packing it in and turning the oven off for good.

Indeed, by late 2019, the company, then located at 1597 Main St. in Springfield, had endured several months of turmoil with its landlord over conditions that had made it increasingly difficult to do business — no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, for example. By mid-November, matters had come to a head, and the company had essentially ceased activity in that location, operating for a time out of its Cookie Cart (a food truck of sorts) until its pipes froze in the winter.

The two partners eventually went back to their storefront at the behest of customers, but when they did, it was late February, just before the pandemic arrived and a wave of restrictions on small businesses like this one went into effect.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad,’” she recalled, adding that, instead of shutting down, they decided to hang in — mostly due to the strong loyalty displayed by long-time customers.

That decision to persevere became just the first of many watershed moments over the past nine months or so. The company has since opened two new locations — one in Sixteen Acres at the Bicentennial Plaza (that’s the ‘uptown’ location) and then another (a replacement for the old site) further south on Main Street in Springfield, in a location formerly, and briefly, occupied by a Delaney’s Market. Both opened just last month.

Sheila knew about the downtown location and had her eye on it — sort of. She had long thought it out of her reach price-wise, but then, there was some of that serendipity.

“My husband and I were thinking, ‘we should probably close and collect unemployment, because this is going to be bad.’”

“I remember saying to someone, ‘if I could open up where Delaney’s was, I would do it in a heartbeat,’” she told BusinessWest. “It was wishful thinking, but two days later I got a phone call, and someone said, ‘hey, we have the keys, would you like to go see it?’

“We came to see it a few days after we opened Allen Street, and we thought, ‘this is beyond our reach,’” she continued. “But our brand reputation preceded us, and the landlord was extremely willing to work with us because he wanted us here. And here we are.”

In addition to those two locations, the company still operates the Cookie Cart, which has been parked at a number of area colleges, businesses, and even private residences for birthday parties and anniversaries, and also has a kiosk at Bradley International Airport, which has been idled by the pandemic — the one aspect of the venture to be slowed by COVID-19.

As BusinessWest talked with Sheila at the downtown location on a Thursday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, customers steadily filed into the store. At one point, the line became long enough that she hit pause to go help her employee behind the counter.

It has been like this pretty much since the location opened, she said, adding that the Hot Oven brand — featuring more than 100 flavors, including staples like Dark Chocolate + Seal Salt Chip, Boozy Cake Batter Sugar, and Coquito Snookerdoodle — has always been popular and sought out by those in this market and others residing well outside it.

And the pandemic has made it even more popular, she believes, theorizing that the cookies provide a measure of comfort, a measure of normal, at a time when people are craving both.

Indeed, when asked how the downtown was doing since opening, she started with “wow,” paused for a second, and put it in perspective.

“My husband and I had a logistical meeting before we opened both the shops,” she recalled. “And the conversation went something like this: ‘we’re moving two blocks over to a new location and new customer base, and we’re moving uptown to another location; it’s going to take a while for people to catch on that we’re here.’

“Nope … that hasn’t been the case,” she went on. “Business down here for us has been double or triple what we’re doing two blocks over. And uptown is a beast of a shop — we sell out every day.”

Looking ahead, Sheila said the company is looking forward to the day when the kiosk at Bradley can open and become a strong source of revenue that can finance future expansion — perhaps into Worcester, Boston, and other cities. And there has long been talk of franchising this brand and taking it well beyond its Western Mass. roots.

For the immediate future, though, the two have their hands full with the two new locations and the brisk business they are witnessing.

There have not been too many business-expansion stories during this pandemic, but this is certainly one of them.

Call it a feel-good story if you like, but this is also, and especially, a taste-good story. And a very intriguing one at that.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Event Company Works to Pivot, Position Itself for the Long Term

Mike Zaskey says his ‘spreadsheet of doom’ includes more than $1.2 million in lost events for this year, but he’s pivoting with virtual events and other initiatives.

Mike Zaskey calls it his “spreadsheet of doom.”

And for good reason.

It chronicles what he estimates to be $1.2 million in lost business since early March, when the phone started ringing … and kept on ringing. On the other end were representatives of corporations, colleges and universities, and nonprofits calling Zaskey to let him know they were canceling or postponing — in most all cases, the former — the large events his company, Chicopee-based Zasco Productions, has come to specialize in.

“After a while, I was afraid to answer the phone, because every time I did there was a cancellation,” said Zaskey, noting that more than 40 major events, including 20 college commencements, have been erased from the calendar. In fact, when he talked with BusinessWest just after the Memorial Day weekend, he was lamenting how what was normally a very busy week for him — clients Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, and the Rhode Island School of Design traditionally schedule their commencements for the final days in May — was now anything but.

Indeed, a business leader who rarely has time on his hands, especially at this time of year, now has way too much of that commodity. And he’s devoting it to everything from finding ways to somehow pivot — some more successful than others, as we’ll see in a minute — to advocating for an industry that is large and impactful, but often flies under the radar.

“The Live Events Coalition has put together some interesting statistics, and by their estimates, the live-events industry employs 12 million people and contributes more than $1 trillion into the U.S. economy,” he said, adding that few understand the size or importance of a sector that includes everything from venues to caterers to companies like Zasco. “If live events were a state, we’d rank seventh in population.”

Turning the clock back to early March, Zaskey said that’s when he first started getting calls from “six-figure clients,” as he called them, inquiring about cancellation terms in their contracts.

“It was around Friday the 6th,” he recalled, noting that some dates stick in his mind, for obvious reasons. “I got a few e-mails before that, but things really started to get scary on March 6. We had a team meeting at the end of that day, and I said, ‘something’s going on here, and we all need to be aware of this.’ And it just ballooned from there.”

The calls kept on coming, he went on, adding that the events, as noted earlier, have been canceled, not postponed.

“Most of these events are not being postponed — it’s revenue lost; it’s not coming back,” he told BusinessWest. “If there’s an annual event, a 2020 gala or conference, the 2020 event is not taking place, and they are going to have one in 2021. But the event in 2021 is the 2021 event.”

Despite these losses, one of the first decisions Zaskey made was to work with clients when it came to deposits and existing balances.

“A number of clients have multi-year contracts with us, so their deposits were paid two or three years ago, depending on the terms of the deal,” he explained. “Technically speaking, our contract says that, when an event is canceled, the deposits are non-refundable, and, in some cases, the client would still be liable for the cost of the event. But, in looking at the situation going on in the world, we decided that the right thing to do would be to apply those deposits to future events for clients, and that’s exactly what we did across the board.

“Most of these events are not being postponed — it’s revenue lost; it’s not coming back. If there’s an annual event, a 2020 gala or conference, the 2020 event is not taking place, and they are going to have one in 2021. But the event in 2021 is the 2021 event.”

“While it’s not the greatest for our financial position,” he went on, “it’s the best for our customers, and we’re looking to build long-term relationships with those customers and keep those customers.”

And a few customers have returned the favor by essentially paying balances due for next year’s event now, to help the company with cash flow.

Faced with its spreadsheet of doom, Zaskey said his company, which eventually had to lay off most of its 12 employees, looked to pivot in an effort to create some revenue streams. And upon taking a hard look around, he said one early option that presented itself was to put Zasco’s large fleet of trucks to work as couriers.

“But it doesn’t generate as much revenue, and we would probably actually lose money if we tried to turn into a delivery company — we’re not set for that,” he told BusinessWest. “We did actually try it — a friend of my owns a courier service, so we did a day of deliveries. But the revenue we generated versus the hassle of trying to pivot into an industry we weren’t suited for just didn’t work out.”

The company has had more success pivoting toward the staging of virtual events.

“A virtual event is more than just a video webstream or livestream,” he explained, adding that he’s now working with several clients on such initiatives. “We’re trying to capture the elements of a live event that can be held across multiple sites and make them feel like they’re at the actual event.”

Summing up what’s happened and what might happen moving forward, Zaskey summoned a phrase put to use by just about every business owner in Western Mass.: “we’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Indeed, and while the short term (and that spreadsheet) looms ominously, this company, which put itself on the map by pulling off big events, continues to position itself for the long term — and, more specifically, a time when Zaskey won’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

In a Sign of the Times, This Company Has Pivoted into New Products

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably because major clients like MGM Springfield have shut down, but he’s managed to pivot and get work like these social-distancing signs.

Jim White says it took him 15 years to go from zero to 60 with his business. And 15 days to go from 60 to zero.

That’s how the co-founder of East Longmeadow-based Go Graphix, a maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and a host of other marketing products, described that two-week period back in March when business came to a near standstill.

That’s because most all of the company’s major clients — MGM Springfield, the MassMutual Center, sports teams like the Thunderbirds — came to a complete halt.

It seems like years ago now,” White said of those days in March. “It was tough — probably the toughest times I’ve experienced in business.”

With many of those businesses still shut down, Go Graphix has pivoted into other niche products that could be described as ‘COVID-related,’ said White, adding that it now has what could be called a line of ‘back-to-work’ products, including social-distancing graphics — those ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs now appearing across the region — as well as the protective barriers that are also appearing almost everywhere.

Still, revenues for April and May of this year are down roughly 80% from their levels of a year ago. The company, which had to lay off a few workers and cut most employees back to four days a week, has been helped by federal assistance, specifically the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — and White’s ‘save for a rainy day’ philosophy, passed down by his parents.

“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep,” he said. “We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”

Flashing back to early March, White said that’s when a number of major clients had to shut down operations, which brought operations at the Benton Road facility to something approaching a standstill.

Those clients include MGM Springfield, for which the company makes a wide variety of promotional items, from signage for upcoming events to the dasher-board advertisements for the skating rink.

“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep. We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”

“They’ve been one of our best customers,” said White, noting that his company was one of many fortunate local businesses to become vendors for the casino operator. “Throughout the casino, you see a lot of promotional graphics, and we were doing things on a weekly basis — work that came to screeching halt.”

But even clients that weren’t shut down and were actually doing well had put work given to Go Graphics on hold, said White, citing the example of beer distributors, for which the company provides vehicle wraps.

“They were so busy, they couldn’t leave the trucks with us for a day to be wrapped — they needed them on the road,” he explained. “They were hitting all the package stores, which were doing really well during all this. That was tough one for us; we’re thinking, ‘even the guys who are doing great can’t do any business with us.’”

Beyond the PPP loan, what has helped the company through the crisis has been its ability to adapt and create new product lines. White calls this the “great pivot.”

It involves making plexiglass shields for a number of clients, including Baystate Health, Monson Savings, J. Polep, Hartford Hospital, and others, as well as social-distancing signage now seen in virtually every sector of the economy.

As he talked with BusinessWest at the plant, he stopped to display the round ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs bound for Staples’ corporate headquarters, a contract that has provided a good amount of work for the company.

As for the plexiglass partitions, most of them are custom orders, and the work is intricate, which is why a number of businesses across several sectors have decided on Go Graphix for the work.

“We’re not just providing an off-the-shelf solution,” he said, while pointing to some models bound for Baystate Health. “And the orders keep coming in — we’ve pivoted, and we’re going for it.”

And White has to hope that the orders keep coming in, because plexiglass is now a commodity; amid fears that short supplies would become even shorter, he ordered a lot of it.

“It’s kind of toilet paper in the early days of this pandemic,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone’s looking to get it, and it’s becoming harder to find. But we have some good suppliers, and I’ve made the investment in a good amount, even though it scares me to the core. I figured, ‘I’d better be the guy who has it on hand,’ and just pray that we sell it.”

All indications are that he probably will as companies scramble to take the necessary steps to reopen, a process likely to play itself out over the next several months.

As White said repeatedly, this isn’t work he could have imagined doing just four months ago, but he’s very grateful to have it — an attitude that’s understandable after watching a company go from zero to 60 to 15 years, and 60 to zero in just a few painful weeks.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Practice Owner Says Many Patients Still Wary of Returning to Her Office

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy, like many healthcare practitioners, says many of her patients are reluctant to come to the office out of fear of contracting COVID-19, leaving overall volume down considerably.

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy admits to not knowing exactly what would happen when she officially reopened the doors to her Chicopee-based dermatology practice on May 18.

She knew what she was hoping to see — that patients who had put off coming to see her for more than two months out of fear of the virus would start scheduling appointments and getting their concerns and even routine checkups addressed.

And while that’s happening to some degree, the numbers are not what she hoped, although Lenzy would be the first to say that two weeks’ worth of data is probably not enough to make a definitive statement on what it all means.

“Last week was better than this week,” she said toward the tail end of May, adding quickly that she wasn’t sure just how this was attributable to the Memorial Day holiday or other factors. “We’re still not reaching the numbers we set as a goal — even the reduced numbers we established by limiting the number of office visits to half what they would be normally to allow social distancing.”

Lenzy, who opened her practice in 2014 and quickly built up a clientele of some 30,000 patients, believes her venture is typical of most others in the broad healthcare realm when it comes to the impact of the pandemic and the ways in which it has changed business — in some cases for the long term.

This is true of everything from the emergence of telehealth as a way to evaluate patients remotely (more on this later) to the manner in which the crisis brought the practice to a precarious place, where Lenzy, who has a staff of nine, wasn’t sure if she was going to able to make payroll.

With some relief from the CARES Act, specifically in the form of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, Lenzy has been able to pay people and keep all her staffers employed — although that money can only be used for another few weeks.

She — like just about every small-business owner who has received such a loan — is already starting to think about what happens when that money runs out. That’s because normal, as in life in mid-February before the pandemic reached Western Mass., still seems a long way off.

Flashing back to the pre-pandemic days — that’s a phrase all business owners and managers have added to their lexicon — Lenzy said hers was a very busy practice. And while deemed essential because of the services it provides, the office closed on March 18 — again, like most all healthcare practices in the region — and shifted to seeing patients virtually.

And, for the most part, this move to telehealth went smoothly.

“It was definitely a generational piece,” she explained. “Some of our older patients had some difficulties, but they were able to get people to help them; some people don’t have smartphones or don’t have computers with cameras, so we did so some phone visits. But some people preferred to wait until we were back in the office.”

As for the business, while Lenzy she kept all her employees on, she cut back hours from 40 to 30 a week. “That was still a stretch,” she said. “But I wanted to keep everything going.”

“Even with seeing people virtually, we were barely able to meet payroll, let alone all our other expenses. That program did exactly what it was designed to do.”

The PPP money arrived her account in the beginning of May, and it provided some desperately needed breathing room.

“Even with seeing people virtually, we were barely able to meet payroll, let alone all our other expenses,” she said, adding that there are many of those, including rent and supplies. “That program did exactly what it was designed to do.”

The practice reopened exactly two months after it closed, but this was and is a phased reopening, she explained, noting that, to maintain social distancing, roughly half the staff works at home a few days each week and continues to see patients virtually.

“There’s always one provider in the offices at a time to see patients,” she said. “And we’re limiting the number of patients per hour that are in the office; with our specialty, we do a lot of procedures, like biopsies and freezing, so a lot of the patients that we’ve seen virtually needed to come into the office and have something done.”

They’re coming in, but, as noted earlier, not in the numbers this practice needs to get back on secure financial footing.

“We cut our volume in half, but we haven’t been able to even do that,” she said, adding, again, that she’s working with a small sample of data. “In talking to our front desk, we have some people who still don’t want to come out, so we’re trying to convert those people to virtual care.”

As for when things will get better and those numbers will improve, Lenzy said that will happen when and if more people feel comfortable enough to go back to the office.

“Our success and how we fare depends on peoples’ comfort levels,” she told BusinessWest. “And right now, it’s too early to say when people will reach this comfort level. My front desk is telling me that now, many people are saying, ‘I just want to wait.’”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Shop Owner Finds Ways to Share Joy at a Time When It’s Badly Needed

Liz Rosenberg

Liz Rosenberg says customers appreciate the messages on the front door of the Toy Box, as they wait for her to reopen that door.

One of Liz Rosenberg’s favorite games — to both play and sell — is called Lion in My Way.

“It’s for ages 5 and up,” said the owner of the Toy Box in Amherst. “You’re presented, in card form, with obstacles, like a lion in your way, a giant wall, all sorts of things. And then you have a hand of cards that are ideas how to get past this obstacle — maybe a catapult or balloon or a sandwich to feed the lion. You have to create the story. I feel like this is the greatest game.”

And not just because she feels like she’s living it every day.

“It’s a great lesson in, ‘ugh, yes, this is awful, but what do I have in my pocket that I can use to get past the awful part and start making progress?’” she continued. “It’s all here in this game.”

Retailers across Massachusetts being told, three months ago, to close their doors indefinitely? That’s no game — but Rosenberg has been playing some effective cards.

Like morphing into a delivery service.

She recalls shuttering her shop on Sunday, March 15. “But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

The strategy was to offer delivery within 20 minutes of the store — which gave her some solid territory to cover without infringing too much on similar stores in the region.

“It allowed me to get in my car in the morning and drive to the store and open it up, work all day, and at 2:00 make a route map and deliver to people’s driveways, and then go home,” she explained. “I didn’t have to interact with anyone.”

She soon found this model was actually functional, and used the Toy Box’s Facebook page to showcase as many items as possible to keep customers engaged. “My website is under construction, and now isn’t the time to focus on that, and people require visuals,” she said of her Facebook photo albums.

She also spends plenty of time offering gift ideas over the phone. “I find myself absolutely cracking up, standing here trying to describe something, my hands moving, hoping they get a visual on this. It’s really entertaining.”

The result hasn’t been anywhere near normal sales volume, but it has kept the shop afloat.

“But I knew I was going to be in the next day to figure something out, and by the end of Monday, I was delivering toys. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘building the airplane as you fly it.’ It felt a lot like that.”

“I didn’t know what it would bring in; I didn’t really think about success,” Rosenberg told BusinessWest. “I just thought about day by day, and at the beginning of this, that’s where everyone’s head was — ‘it’s 10 in the morning; where is life going to be at 11?’”

Another card she drew on was humor — “because that’s how I live.” For example, the first day the doors were closed, she arranged a group of stuffed animals in the store window, with speech bubbles offering messages like “we miss your faces” and “we will deliver toys” and “we love you!”

“I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen from behind the register, taking pictures outside the front door. It makes me giggle.”

In the past couple of weeks, Rosenberg has played the curbside-pickup card — well, parking-lot pickup, “because we don’t have a curb” — and continued a popular gift offering known as ‘mystery bags,’ for which customers provide the recipient’s age and pay a discount price for a surprise assortment of goodies, such as putty, markers, stickers, mini-games, bouncy balls, and more.

“People trust our judgment on things their children or grandchildren or friends’ children might like,” she explained. “People tell me the age of the child and a couple things about them, and I put together little activities to keep them busy, keep them curious, and keep them educated. It’s gone over really well.”

Rosenberg is hoping to reopen the Toy Box in mid-June, depending on the guidance she gets from Boston, and is mulling ideas like shorter hours — perhaps half-days, or full days by appointment only — so she can manage staffing and sanitizing in a safe manner.

“As much as we’d like to be open for business, I only want to do it safely — against the virus and against unnecessary worry and anxiety,” she noted. “Anxiety is a real thing, and I don’t want people feeling forced to come into the store. So I will continue with deliveries and parking-lot pickup because, in my mind, that’s the safest way.”

One of the speech bubbles in the window reads, “we are essential.”

That may not be true in the eyes of Gov. Baker, but Rosenberg is quick to note how important it is for kids — who have, after all, been cooped up in their homes for about three months now — to experience joy through play.

“We are essential — not necessarily from the government’s perspective, but from families’ perspective. Parents are being required to stay home and work and be parents at the same time. That’s a challenge beyond all challenges. To be able to assist with that … that’s my job. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can bring some joy.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

During Peak Season, This Area Fixture Is Making Up for Lost Weeks

Ted Hebert surveys the line outside his store — well, roughly one-third of it, anyway.

When BusinessWest recently caught up with Teddy Bear Pools and Spas owner Ted Hebert, he was surveying a line of customers around his Chicopee property that ran roughly 40 deep.

The wait to reach the premises was about 45 minutes — typical on most days recently, Hebert said, although it can reach an hour or more. And it would be longer still if the store was still letting just 10 customers in at a time, but Teddy Bear was recently approved for 20.

“We worked with the Health Department and got it up to 20 customers at a time, and we have not seen a letup since we opened on March 18,” he noted. “I’ve never seen it like this. It’s nuts.”

Compare that to the middle of March, when the governor’s orders forced Teddy Bear to close its doors.

“That didn’t really kill us because it wasn’t pool season yet. But it hurt us a little bit — we have hundreds, if not thousands, of spas and hot tubs out there, and those people do need water chemistry.”

So customers would leave water samples outside the door, and Teddy Bear employees would conduct the water chemistry and then deliver whatever products they needed to their homes — sometimes 70 or 80 deliveries a day. Hebert jokingly referred to this period as ‘TedEx.’

“We weren’t making a lot of money; we were charging 10 bucks per delivery, as far as Palmer and Monson, and we grouped them up,” he recalled. “We had a lot of fun meeting customers.”

From a safe distance, of course. In fact, Hebert put off the start of pool-installation season, which usually begins in April, out of concern for customers — not just their physical health, but their anxiety about being around other people.

“Our reputation means more to me than money, and I didn’t want to have my trucks out there,” he recalled. “A lot of customers — a lot of citizens — are scared of the unknown, so I didn’t want my trucks out there, guys doing construction, and we held off. We probably could have been out there, but we didn’t want to take a chance. So we started in May, four weeks behind.”

May brought a gradual opening of the retail store as well. “We were trying to figure out how to open, and we were able to do curbside for a few days, but it was still a lot of work. People had to go online and pay for it,” he explained.

“Our reputation means more to me than money, and I didn’t want to have my trucks out there. A lot of customers — a lot of citizens — are scared of the unknown, so I didn’t want my trucks out there, guys doing construction, and we held off.”

But then he started working with local officials — entities like the City Council, Mayor John Vieau, the Health Department, and the Police Department — on what it would take to be deemed an essential retailer so he could open the store to foot traffic. Through the city, he appealed to the governor’s office and was indeed deemed essential. The key selling point, he said, was the water-chemistry testing service.

“We ended up putting together what you see at the store now — this line with every six feet marked,” he said. “We have signage everywhere and a sanitizing station as you go in and go out.”

Meanwhile, carriages are sprayed with disinfectant after every use, employees interact with customers from behind plastic shields, Hebert himself greets people in line to answer their questions before they enter, and everyone, of course, must wear a mask. “If you don’t have one, which is seldom, we’ll offer you a free mask,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make it safe for them — the customers and my employees. We just want them to be healthy and safe.”

The first few days, traffic was parked up to a quarter-mile away; it didn’t help that roadwork narrowed East Street that first week. “Traffic was bad the first week, so we rented the church parking lot around the corner,” he added, noting that the store plans to make a donation to the church.

Sales of new pools are slightly down, partly because people were buying hot tubs and pools online during the shutdown — “I’m old school; I never thought I’d see that day,” he said of this more impersonal sales experience — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the late start has installers scrambling. “I’m paying my guys extra to work Saturdays. I’m running 60 people servicing pools.”

And 2020 could see some later-than-normal action — as families cancel vacations, they might be inspired to invest in a backyard experience. “Even if you get a pool at the end of July, you still get four to eight weeks out of it.”

As noted earlier, the traffic subsided a little when the state approved a 20-customer capacity, but lines still regularly stretch into the dozens, as BusinessWest discovered.

“I’ve never in my life seen anything like this,” Hebert said. “But I have very considerate customers. No one’s fighting. It amazed me. They’ve been very patient and understanding.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

Hotel Group Continues to Grow Through an Uncertain Time

Sarah Eustis

Sarah Eustis says the Berkshires has plenty to offer, even when arts and culture attractions are closed, and the Red Lion and other hotels await whatever uptick in business arrives this summer.

Sarah Eustis has some visions for the Courtyard, an outdoor dining area at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

“It will be a really active force — we’re thinking of new, creative ways to use it,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re ramping up menus, we’ll have music outside, maybe screen movies with a projector, ping-pong, cocktails … just some relaxation and fun for people in a world that isn’t very fun right now. That’s our goal.”

It’s an ambitious goal for Eustis, CEO of Main Street Hospitality, and her team as they navigate how to move forward with the group’s roster of Berkshire-area hotels while launching two more in Rhode Island, at a time when hotels are just starting to fully reopen, and no one knows how the traveling public will respond.

That’s especially true in the Berkshires, whose economy is so reliant on tourism. Several major players, including Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Shakespeare & Company, have canceled their summer season, and more might follow. Others are planning shortened seasons, like Barrington Stage Company, which will open on Aug. 5 with social-distancing practices in place.

Hence, Eustis’ emphasis on the other Berkshires draw: being outdoors, whether it’s hiking in nature or enjoying a breezy meal at the Courtyard.

“All the demand drivers, from a cultural standpoint, at least — with a few exceptions — have been moved to next year,” she said, adding, however, that some theaters are still looking for ways to accommodate performances, and museums are considering creative options like open, timed visitations.

But with vacation planning on hold for so many, Eustis knows she has to be realistic.

“The traditional reasons for coming to the Berkshires are massively impacted this summer, so that means we have to focus on other reasons people might come, and look at how we can provide a great experience,” she said. “We can play to the strengths of the Berkshires, which have a lot to do with being outdoors and natural beauty — we’ve got that in spades, and we will be well-served to promote that as a reason to come out and spend some time.”

Hotels weren’t forced to close by the mid-March mandate from Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, although business certainly dried up almost immediately across the country. Main Street Hospitality made decisions about its Berkshires properties on a case-by-case basis. For example, Hotel on North in Pittsfield, with its proximity to Berkshire Medical Center, has been used regularly by essential healthcare workers.

On the other hand, the Porches Inn in North Adams shut its doors completely. With little business expected there during the pandemic — it’s located across the street from the pandemic-shuttered MASS MoCA — the closure was an opportunity to tackle some needed construction and maintenance, and that site will reopen later this summer.

Meanwhile, the Red Lion Inn has maintained a robust, popular takeout program, as well as preparing meals for essential workers throughout Berkshire Health Systems and for Main Street employees who had been laid off.

“The traditional reasons for coming to the Berkshires are massively impacted this summer, so that means we have to focus on other reasons people might come, and look at how we can provide a great experience.”

Briarcliff Motel in Great Barrington and Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield were effectively closed, but have partnered with Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires to provide housing for essential workers and also people recovering from COVID-19.

“So, we’re trying to deploy each property within the mandated guidelines and leverage the characteristics of each property to the best of our ability,” Eustis said.

It wasn’t enough to keep about 300 employees working, however; layoffs reduced the company to about 25, with the discomfort spread throughout all properties and the administrative office.

“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever been through as a leader, to be sure,” she said. “However, we took it week by week, with a very thoughtful approach.”

The plan now is to begin ramping the team back up again. On June 12, Main Street plans to reopen the Red Lion and Briarcliff within the safety parameters mandated by the state, as well as expanding reservations and culinary service at Hotel on North. Porches will reopen, somewhat refreshed, on Aug. 1, while two new Rhode Island properties are set to open as well: Hammetts Wharf Hotel in Newport in June 26, and the Beatrice Hotel in Providence on Aug. 9.

So, the company certainly sees a strong future.

“We are all trying to develop our strengths and skills without knowing what’s going to happen,” Eustis said. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I do believe it will make us stronger as business people and hospitality providers.”

Part of that is reopening in a safe manner, with attention paid to everything from the cleaning and sanitizing strategy to what kind of voice and body language to use with guests from behind those ubiquitous masks.

“We’ve got a 40-page COVID manual guiding our preparation,” she said. “We want to check all the boxes, so when guests visit with us, they don’t have to give it a second thought. We’ve got you covered.”

As summer approaches, this should be a time of happy anticipation at a hotel group synonymous with visiting the Berkshires — but this is totally uncharted territory, Eustis said, so optimism must be tempered by reality. But she’s still optimistic.

“We will come out on the other side, although there are days it doesn’t feel that way,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s such a massive tactonic shift. But we’ve got a really talented team that’s super committed, and we will be here to tell the tale.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

For This Photographer and Sock Maker, the Pandemic Is a Developing Story

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood says both his photo studio and sock business have been greatly impacted by the pandemic.

Lenny Underwood started off by talking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge dent in both his businesses — a photography studio and an intriguing venture called Upscale Socks, which has become one of the many intriguing stories of entrepreneurship being written in the region. But then he put those losses into their proper context by changing the subject to his grandmother.

“She died from this virus,” he said slowly and deliberately for additional emphasis, as if it were needed. “Her name was Queeie Brown, and she died late last month [April] — it was awful.”

So Underwood, a member of BusinessWest’s recently announced 40 Under Forty class of 2020 — honored for his entrepreneurial exploits as well as his work within the community, such as donations of socks to area groups — has seen the virus alter his life in probably every way imaginable. Right down to his socks.

His designer socks, a venture he started dreaming about in 2014, became a reality the following year. He now has several dozen styles, including a popular ‘Springfield Firsts’ sock that came out last year and continues to draw orders. The products are manufactured by a partner in China, said Underwood, adding that production had to be halted for a time earlier this year when the virus was spreading through that country.

“I don’t foresee people having the kind of birthday parties they want to have — the sweet-16 parties or graduation parties they want to have with large amounts of people. Maybe down the road, but I’m not sure when.”

But as this year has progressed, that setback has turned out to be just one of many ways the pandemic has changed the landscape for Underwood — and perhaps one of the more minor ones.

Indeed, like most all photographers, Underwood has seen the virus rob him of a number of jobs and reliable revenue streams — everything from proms to weddings to family gatherings.

“Most of my photography is event-based, but I do some head shots and senior portraits as well,” he told BusinessWest. “Mainly, though, I’m on the scene, on location for different celebrations.”

And there certainly haven’t been many of those over the past three months, and those that have been staged have been smaller and decidedly different, he went on; after searching his memory bank, he determined that the last event he worked was the second Saturday in March.

The following Tuesday, he recalls getting seven cancellations for jobs that day alone. “I was looking forward to four proms, a lot of graduations, and weddings,” he went on, adding that he has one wedding still scheduled for late in July — and he’s somewhat dubious about that — but everything else has been wiped off the calendar.

Overall, he estimates that business is off 65% to 70% from what it was a year ago, a precipitous decline that has forced to him to seek — and eventually receive — unemployment benefits. However, they are due to run out in 20 weeks. He has also applied for a number of grants through various agencies, and is awaiting word on whether he’ll receive any.

Underwood has managed to find some work — a few of those ‘parade birthdays,’ for example, a photo shoot for a newborn, a few ‘senior-announcement photos,’ as he called them — where soon-to-be high-school grads announce where they’ll be going to college — and some other scattered assignments.

Meanwhile, the virus has generated some needed, but somewhat macabre work. Indeed, there has been a noted increase in funerals across the area, and for some of them, Underwood has been hired by families to scan photos of the deceased for slideshows and memorial tributes.

Still, like most photographers, he has seen his business devastated by the virus and doesn’t have any real idea when things might start turning around.

As for his socks … he’s still getting orders — someone recently purchased 20 pairs of the ‘Springfield Firsts’ style, for example — and some specials he’s been running have helped to generate more of them. But overall sales volume is down because he’s not able to sell them at large events, which generated a good deal of sales prior to the pandemic. Overall, sock sales are down by roughly 50%.

As he talked with BusinessWest near the tail end of May, Underwood said he had a few events on the books — an outdoor church service, for example. But the longer view is clouded by uncertainty and some doubts about whether the large events that have become his livelihood will be staged any time soon.

“I don’t foresee people having the kind of birthday parties they want to have — the sweet-16 parties or graduation parties they want to have with large amounts of people,” he said. “Maybe down the road, but I’m not sure when.”

For now, he’s maintaining his focus and looking for opportunities whenever and wherever he can find. For him, the pandemic is a developing story — in all kinds of ways. u

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Pandemic Poses Challenges, Opportunities for Flooring Company

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck, says that, while business is off because of the pandemic, the crisis has led to some opportunities on the commercial and residential sides of the ledger.

Doug Mercier was talking about how sales for March, April, and May are off probably 30% from what they were a year ago at the flooring company started by his parents a half-century ago.

And while that’s certainly not what he had in mind for quarters one and two, he quickly put those numbers in perspective.

“Look at restaurants,” said Mercier, president of the company that bears the family name. “Many of them are down … 100%; they’re not seeing any business. This has hit us hard, certainly, but it’s actually created a few opportunities as well.”

Indeed, some institutions and businesses — from area colleges to some of those aforementioned restaurants, most already in the portfolio of clients, but some others as recent additions — have taken advantage of unwanted time and a closed building to do some work on those properties, including new flooring.

“We’ve done work for a number of restaurants in this area,” said Mercier, listing projects in several area communities. “They were sitting idle; the business was empty. Then they started cleaning and painting, and realized that the flooring really needed to be replaced.”

Meanwhile, several medical facilities have been forced to renovate or repurpose space, creating other opportunities, and on the residential side, time at home has convinced people that they need to move ahead with some planned projects, said Mercier, adding that, at this time, there are a good number of projects (again, not as many as in a typical year, but a good number) in the proverbial pipeline.

“Residential clients are calling — they’re trying to see what we can do to enable them to see samples online,” he said, noting another change in how business is being done as fewer people are willing or able to visit the showroom on Riverdale Street. “With people spending more time at home, they’re paying more attention to those jobs that need to be done.”

“We’ve done work for a number of restaurants in this area. They were sitting idle; the business was empty. Then they started cleaning and painting, and realized that the flooring really needed to be replaced.”

But, as noted, there have been a number of challenges to contend with, including the matter of taking on these commercial and residential assignments while keeping crew members safe, Mercier told BusinessWest, adding that social-distancing requirements necessitated some adjustments when it comes to when and especially how work is done.

There is also the matter of keeping those trained installers — valued employees that were a challenge to find and retain before the pandemic hit — on the payroll.

“We don’t want to lose installers,” said Mercier, noting that, thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan secured early last month, the company has been able to rotate crews in and out — as a safety measure, but also because there is less work overall — but still manage to pay everyone. “We’ve been doing a ‘week on, week off’ kind of thing and have kept everyone on.”

Meanwhile, Mercier, like many service businesses of this kind that are sending crews into the field, started offering employees hazard pay, an additional expense largely covered by the PPP loan funds.

Mercier was quick to note that a number of projects planned by commercial clients were shut down as the pandemic hit, including some at colleges and prep schools in this area and just outside it — Assumption College in Worcester, for example, as well as a large job at a housing project. And they are being handled now, creating more work for crews.

Meanwhile, new projects are coming into the pipeline, many in response to the pandemic itself. Indeed, he cited the example of a cafeteria in one of the area hospitals.

“They’re trying to rework the space so it will be more conducive to halting the spread of disease and bacteria,” he explained. “So they’re taking out the carpeting and putting in a more resilient surface. The pandemic has created some business for us.”

Looking ahead, Mercier sounded an optimistic note when he said he expects a relatively steady supply of work in the pipeline. He said the company recently took a few residential orders, and some on the commercial side as well.

“Since these businesses have been sitting idle, a lot of plans and blueprints have been worked on, and, looking forward, it seems like there will be an uptick in projects,” he said, adding quickly that there are number of question marks concerning the longer term, especially when it comes to the colleges.

Perhaps the best sign that better times are ahead comes in the form of the delivery trucks pulling in almost daily at the company’s storefront and showroom.

“They’re coming in fuller, and we know that’s a good sign with what’s going on with the economy,” Mercier told BusinessWest, referring to vehicles that would make several stops on a route delivering product that’s been ordered. “When the trucks arrive and there’s very little in them, you know no one is ordering. But when you see the trucks stacked pretty full … that’s a good sign.”

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus

Salon Owner Says He Missed the Relationships the Most

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full, but he can’t see as many customers in one day as he used to because of strict sanitizing rules.

It may be a song lyric and a cliché, but for Bernie Gelinas, the waiting really was the hardest part.

“After we closed in March, it was hard because we really didn’t know what to expect — what the governor was going to say, and what we needed to do to reopen,” said Gelinas, owner of Cuts Plus, a small hair salon in South Hadley. “From that aspect, it was frustrating, so it was nice when he came out said they’re going to open us up.”

The nine-week closure was, in one sense, an opportunity to take on projects that had been back-burnered — a common story we’ve heard from other business owners deemed, fairly or unfairly, non-essential during the pandemic.

“While we were closed, we took advantage — we painted, we had some things done to the shop we wouldn’t have been able to do, kind of update it a little bit, because the shop is basically open six or seven days a week,” he explained. “We tried to use the time as effectively as we could.”

Gelinas wasn’t the only one affected, of course — three full-time stylists and two part-timers in his salon were out of work, too, and while he was able to access a tiny piece of the federal stimulus, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the lost weeks. So May 18 — the day Gov. Charlie Baker said salons could open the following Monday — was a good day.

“We got the news like everyone else,” he said. “We watched the governor’s press conference online. On our time off, I listened to his briefings every afternoon and tried to read into what he had to say. And when we learned we were going to reopen, we had a week to somewhat prepare.”

“The big test will be in three or four weeks, once we’re caught up, to see where business goes from there. We’ll see at that point how many clients we have back and how many are holding out. It’s a wait and see.”

And prepare he did. There’s no waiting area at Cuts Plus right now — the furniture is gone — because no one is allowed to wait; only one customer per stylist is allowed inside. The bathroom is closed off, too.

“We put reminders on the walls — that was part of the protocol, to post things to remind people to be aware of their surroundings; we complied with that,” he said. “And we took out the magazines and anything else that would encourage customers to touch things that other people touch. We realigned the shop as much as we could.”

Part of that realignment was moving one booth — typically used by one of the part-timers — to a different room, one normally used for nails, a service that salons can’t offer yet. “There’s more planning involved, more careful scheduling to have the minimum amount of people here,” he said — and keep as much distance between them as possible.

That doesn’t apply to the stylist and his or her customer, of course — no one’s cutting hair with six-foot-long scissors. That’s why everyone wears masks, and why Gelinas can’t trim facial hair, for the most part. He says working around the mask straps while trimming was an adjustment, especially since masks come in several different configurations, but he has adjusted.

When asked if he’s been busy, he offered a measured “yes, but no.”

Elaborating, he explained, “when we reopened, we had to spread people out — it takes longer in between customers to follow the protocol, which is fine because it’s for the safety of all. We’re always wiping down things, and every three to five haircuts, I’ve got to take everything out and sanitize the whole station. I sanitize the doorknobs throughout the day, wipe down any common areas, wipe down the tables.”

At the same time, a good deal of his customer base has been clamoring for haircuts after more than two months away, so his schedule has been packed.

“We’re trying to get people in and take care of them and get them back on track,” he told BusinessWest. “The big test will be in three or four weeks, once we’re caught up, to see where business goes from there. We’ll see at that point how many clients we have back and how many are holding out. It’s a wait and see.”

That’s because not everyone has called back, and older customers in particular may be hesitant to sit in the chair. “That’s perfectly sensible,” he noted.

That said, customers have been “phenomenal” when it comes to following the new guidelines. And they’ve made Gelinas consider what he was missing during the weeks when he couldn’t cut hair.

“The beauty of coming back to work is you realize all the relationships you build throughout the year. You miss those people, and when you finally see them and talk to them, you realize that’s what this business is all about — it’s not just giving haircuts, but more the one-on-one. It’s more than a professional relationship; it’s very personal. You kind of miss that.”

In fact, it made him realize that, when he eventually retires from his full schedule, he’ll still want to cut hair.

“So it was a learning experience for me also. Yes, we used those weeks as best as we could, to do different projects. But it was a mental project, too — to kind of answer the question of what the future will bring. It’s one of those things where you don’t miss it until it’s gone.”

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus

Restaurant Owner Says Reopening Will Be Exciting, but Scary, Too

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

A new mural starts to take shape in Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area, as restaurants anticipate outdoor seating becoming much more prominent under state reopening guidelines.

There’s a little alleyway beside Eastside Grill in Northampton that used to hold a few dumpsters and parked cars, but not anymore — it’s been converted into an outdoor dining space. Last week, local artists painted a mural of the Big Easy there, to reflect the restaurant’s New Orleans influences.

Reopening the restaurant’s doors is certainly big. But nothing about it has been easy.

“When they shut us down, I’ve never been so anxious in my life,” owner Debra Flynn said. “This is my life. This is my employees’ life; they depend on this income to pay their bills. It was really scary at first, and it still is, actually, because we don’t know what’s going to happen once we open up. We won’t be making as much money as we once did, and there are so many restrictions. What’s going to happen when we open?”

For that outdoor seating area, Flynn has a bistro feel in mind, with eight high-top tables, spaced at least six feet apart, that seat two diners each; she doesn’t want more than two to a table at first. The space is adorned by large donated urns, and local landscaper Justin Pelis donated some plants.

“Everyone has really come together,” she said. “I have an incredible staff. The executive chef has refined the menu to keep costs down, yet it’s creative and inventive, and my general manager has been running back and forth to Restaurant Depot to get things we need.”

They’ve both been multi-tasking for some time; in fact, a team of only four, including Flynn, have been maintaining a robust curbside-pickup and delivery service five days a week since early in the shutdown.

“It was very popular,” she said, before drawing on some hyperbole. “We went from zero to a million in two seconds. We’ve never done anything like that, and that first week we opened, we were going very quickly.”

At first, the restaurant offered its fare through curbside pickup — the customer would pay over the phone, and the food would be handed through the passenger-side window — or delivery, to Northampton destinations initially, but that’s being expanded to Hatfield, Florence, Leeds, and Easthampton.

“I don’t know if delivery is ever going to go away,” she added. “For people who don’t want to sit at a table, they can take it home. Especially for the elderly, it’s been great.”

Flynn was able to access a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but even that was fraught with anxiety.

“No one was telling us how it worked; nobody knew anything,” she said, adding that she was thrilled when the PPP guidelines were changed last week, extending their use by an additional eight weeks — which is critical for restaurants that had little or no work available for their teams over the first eight weeks of the loan.

She had the aforementioned skeleton crew making and delivering takeout, but what about the bartenders? “The bar is closed right now — sure, you can take out beer and wine in bottles, but you don’t need a bartender to grab a bottle. The bar won’t be open until phase 3 — maybe phase 4. No one’s allowed to set up a bar.”

When the governor says restaurants can open, Eastside’s hours will shift again, to Wednesday through Sunday, with a longer day on Sunday: noon to 8 p.m., marking the first time Eastside Grill has effectively served lunch.

“I cannot wait to reopen, even if it’s going to be 16 seats on one side of a small patio. It just generates people being out and being happy and being able to have a drink again — come in, have a cocktail, have an appetizer and dinner, and relax.”

It’s all part of being creative at a difficult time, one she knows isn’t exclusive to restaurateurs.

“Retailers are having it bad, too,” Flynn said. “With curbside pickup, nobody can try anything on because they can’t go into the building. So retailers have it as bad as restaurants do.”

Still, she noted, the restaurant industry is in many ways unique in the challenges it will face when it can once again serve guests.

“I cannot wait to reopen, even if it’s going to be 16 seats on one side of a small patio,” she said. “It just generates people being out and being happy and being able to have a drink again — come in, have a cocktail, have an appetizer and dinner, and relax.”

After all, dining out is an experience, one that can’t be replicated by takeout food, no matter how tasty.

“It’s the feeling of being served — that’s what it’s all about,” she told BusinessWest. “We were never a takeout business, and it took a while to make the food look nice. We’re used to putting it on a plate and making it look appetizing. Takeout is a whole different ballgame; people eat with their eyes, and a lot of times takeout doesn’t look as pretty.”

Flynn was quick to add, however, that the takeout ‘plating,’ if one could call it that, did begin to look nicer as the weeks wore on. Not as good as reopening the doors will look, when she and her team can begin serving up that New Orleans culinary spirit in person once again.

—Joseph Bednar

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