Merchants feel the pinch

Fewer visiting local businesses because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In the span of a few days, many otherwise bustling places have seen a dramatic drop in retail activity.

By

Local News

March 16, 2020 - 10:22 AM

Mike Larios of B&B Country Cafe stands amid his customers Sunday at the restaurant. Business has ebbed substantially since last week’s declaration that COVID-19 has become a global pandemic. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

What a difference a week makes. 

At 9:30 a.m. on March 8, B & B Country Cafe bustled. Tables were full. Wait staff rushed to take orders and fill coffee mugs. It might be a 45-minute wait for food, a waitress warned a couple who walked through the door.

At 9:30 a.m. this past Sunday, the cafe was quieter and slower paced. Plenty of tables were still open. 

Even so, staff were busy filling twice as many “to go” orders compared to normal. They’d run out of biscuit mix, a waitress warned a customer. She hoped they’d get more soon.

Even in rural America, it didn’t take long for life to change amid fears of a deadly new coronavirus. 

As healthcare professionals urge “social distancing” and self-quarantines for those who are ill, would-be customers are keeping their distance from restaurants and other crowded, enclosed places.

It was so quick how fast the panic set in. There was no time to prepare.

Daniel Giles, manager of G&W Foods

Local grocery stores, including G & W Grocery, saw an influx of panic buying that some compared to “Black Friday” sales as customers stocked up in preparation for potential quarantine. But instead of discounted televisions and electronics, customers loaded up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. 

“It was so quick how fast the panic set in. There was no time to prepare,” G & W manager Daniel Giles said.

MIKE LARIOS, owner of the B & B Cafe, said they can get creative to weather the economic impact caused by the coronavirus. It may not be enough.

The building was formerly a liquor store with a drive-up window. B & B has never used it, but if restrictive quarantine measures are instituted in the county, perhaps they could offer a limited menu available only at the window. 

That would keep the business running through the crisis and keep some employees on the clock, without the risk of social gatherings.

It may not be an option, though.

Already, their supply chain is disrupted. The store typically receives two shipments a week of bulk food items, paper goods and cleaning supplies.

“It’s already affected us. We’re trying to keep a level of quality with our food products plus the safety of our employees and customers,” he said. 

“But the bulk canned goods, the pancake mix, the biscuit mix, the cleaning supplies, all the things we buy… It’s gone. We’re trying to get restocked and reordered. But it’s just gone.”

If that continues, they’ll run out of food products. They won’t be able to keep up with sanitation practices, which would force them to close even if they have enough food on hand to continue. 

“When we run out of things, we go to Walmart,” Larios said. “But they don’t have it either.”

Larios watched his business change throughout the past week. Everything was normal the previous weekend through Tuesday, but tapered off as reports of illnesses increased in the U.S. and places like Italy, Spain and France announced sweeping shutdowns. 

As Larios drove to work at about 7 a.m. Sunday, he paid attention to the number of cars on the streets and at other local businesses. It looked like a ghost town, and he predicted it would be a slow morning at B & B. 

He was right.

“Last Sunday, we had pretty good business. And in a matter of days, it just went away,” he said.

He and wife, Kim, have discussed ways they might adapt to get through the crisis. They haven’t yet discussed the situation with employees.

Don’t underestimate this. Once the fear sets in … you’re going to see some serious stuff. I hope we don’t get there.

Mike Larios of B&B Cafe

“The staff have to be part of the decisions we make. We’re going to say, ‘What do you want to do?’” he said. 

Larios said he and his wife want to do everything they can to keep the business running as close to normal as possible, but they’re being cautious.

“Don’t underestimate this. Once the fear sets in, if it goes to another level, you’re going to see some serious stuff. I hope we don’t get there.”

G&W GROCERY ran out of toilet paper Saturday morning, joining the ranks of other local stores stripped of essential sanitation items. Shelves were bare at Walmart and Dollar General stores, too, with some stores posting a sign on the door: “No toilet paper.”

G&W will get a supply truck today, but Giles said he doesn’t know what to expect until it arrives. He’s heard from other stores that warehouses are allocating one case per store for things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wipes and cleaning products. 

“We’ll definitely know more about how much we have to restock when we get our truck,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what we get.”

On Thursday and Friday, the store saw a rush of buying non-food items like paper and cleaning products. On Friday and Saturday, customers were purchasing an increased amount of dry food goods and canned foods, as well as meat.

Walmart has announced shorter hours, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., at all its U.S. stores to give staff time to rest and restock shelves.

So far, G & W hasn’t changed its hours, but management will monitor the situation, Giles said.

Giles has organized meetings with staff members, even though it’s difficult to plan ahead with a rapidly evolving situation. He recommends employees stay home if they experience any flu-like symptoms, but said so far there doesn’t seem to be any increase in illness among the staff.

“Right now, we’re just playing it day by day and listening to newscasts about what’s in the best interest of the public,” he said.

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