St. Petersburg’s economy and unique ambiance could take a hit as small, locally owned businesses close their doors amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the companies that are adapting by developing new ways of doing business are a hopeful sign, said Olga Bof, founder of Keep Saint Petersburg Local, a nonprofit business advocacy organization.
Among those companies is URBAN Brew and BBQ, which opened a market to diversify its revenue and ditched third-party delivery apps to cut costs.
“These were things we always identified and had a desire to change but we didn’t know how to go about it,” said Andy Salyards, owner and founder of URBAN Brew and BBQ. “COVID allowed us to make the big changes that would have been hard to do in the peak of season. So in a weird way there’s been a lot of silver-lining blessings with this whole thing. We were able to pivot to things more aligned to our value system.”
In late May, Bof compiled a list of several small businesses that have shuttered their brick and mortar locations since the COVID-19 outbreak began and posted it on Facebook.
Many of the closings were not directly caused by the pandemic, Bof said, but COVID-19 had an indirect impact.
“I think what this great pause or whatever we’re calling this period has done for people is they have re-evaluated things,” Bof said.
One store that closed was Salt-Light Art, a studio at 649 Central Ave. that sold handcrafted jewelry. The store was deemed “non-essential” and had to close temporarily in March when emergency orders were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. But once the store was allowed to reopen in early May, owner Mary McAlpine Long made a life-changing decision that also aligned with her values. She decided to close her store permanently to spend more time with her family.
“When I realized many of my employees were uncomfortable coming back to work immediately and customers were also uncertain of how things would be, I knew this was a battle I wasn’t interested in fighting,” Long wrote on Salt-Light Art’s Facebook page.
Like some of the other stores on Keep Saint Petersburg Local’s list, Salt-Light Art transitioned to online sales. But the brick and mortar closings will leave an impact, Bof said.
“More money remains in our economy when local businesses make up the majority of the business. They employ the most people. They circulate those dollars and keep other local businesses afloat too,” Bof said. “What has propelled a lot of St. Pete’s renaissance has been this local vibe that isn’t found elsewhere … These are businesses that are propelled by entrepreneurs who inspire other people to wade into entrepreneurial waters. They live here and are not absentee owners who are elsewhere. They respond to the needs in the community. If we wake up and several months from now a lot of these businesses are gone, not only will we look like a very different St. Pete but our economy will look like 2008 before we had this renaissance.”
For Salyards, the business shift at URBAN Brew and BBQ, at 2601 Central Ave., was something he wanted to do for a while, but he didn’t know how to go about it until the pandemic occurred.
“We started a market because my wife and I didn’t want to go to the grocery store. It just grew and grew and grew, to the point where we took half of our dining space and we converted that to a market,” Salyards said. “We’re finding our niche in specializing in locally grown and locally made foods. I go to different farms and ranches and bring back produce or meat or fish. We cut the steaks ourselves. We sell whole fish to people. We didn’t have a wine selection before, so we created a wine section because we can be very competitive on prices. It’s a bolt-on business with no overhead because the rent and utilities are paid for by the restaurant.”
The restaurant continues to operate, but the full menu has gone online. URBAN Brew and BBQ also ended its third-party delivery services and now does all deliveries with its own staff, a move that let it keep workers on the payroll.
Another change ended disparities in compensation. Previously, servers made about twice as much as cooks. But after the restaurant transitioned to pub style dining and servers no longer wait on tables, Salyards eliminated the “tip wage” paid to servers in favor of a higher minimum wage. Now, everyone on staff is paid about $20 an hour. Tips are pooled and shared between all the staff, and the restaurant is working to get health benefits for its full staff.
Salyards said he expects the local market to be tough for at least a couple of years, and he worries about business that aren’t making changes or trying new things. He also said it’s inevitable that some local restaurants will close for good.
“I see it like a forest fire. It’s really bad at the moment but required for new growth. The leases people signed, the dollar amounts, to me never made sense because they are so high. We are fortunate. We signed leases for the properties we’re in years ago and we’re not stuck with these $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 a month leases,” Salyard said. “But it got to a point in our industry where so many restaurants were opening that there was a labor shortage. You could not find good, reliable help. In a way, this whole thing is resetting that and the strong good brands will make it out of this. Our food industry will be strong after this.”
Even as the business scene shifts, Bof hopes St. Petersburg consumers will continue to support local companies, getting take-out meals or ordering items online if the buyer isn’t comfortable going into a store.
At the same time, local business should speak up about the steps they are taking to operate safely during the pandemic.
“They have our community at the heart of everything they do, so for them to be a bit more vocal about how they are doing that – to say, this is what we are doing for you to be safe,” Bof said. “Some of them are doing it because that’s just their nature, but they’re not vocalizing it. I think they need to be more active in terms of how they communicate that.”