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A COVID Oral History: Businesses ask — what now?

COVID-19 FORCED BUSINESS owners to reinvent their operations and marketing practices Two Brothers Tavern co-owner Homes Jacobs said his restaurant decided to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining.

A group of Middlebury College students learned oral history skills and helped preserve our current perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic by interviewing 25 local residents. The students prepared this analysis for Addison Independent readers and will have the interviews stored at the Vermont Folklife Center.

MIDDLEBURY — The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a particular dilemma for Addison County’s small businesses. Stuck between wanting to keep their families, employees and communities safe and needing to earn a living and providing goods and services to the public, each business owner had to make difficult decisions about re-opening and COVID-19 protocols.

While the pandemic created strife in their lives, it also demonstrated the strength of the larger Addison County community in dealing with and working through adversity. Our conversations with small business owners not only illuminated their experiences through the pandemic, but also provided an opportunity — a dedicated space and time — for them to reflect on their successes and hardships.

All of our interviewees expressed similar sentiments regarding the beginning of the pandemic: March of 2020 was shocking, daunting and frightening.

“Those first couple weeks were especially scary,” recalled Kendra Lawton, an Addison County resident who worked at Wake Robin continuing care retirement community when the pandemic hit.

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, businesses were forced to shut down, and their owners and employees had to desperately search for new options to support themselves. While many of the interviewees’ businesses ultimately received funding from government pandemic aid, the process for getting that support was arduous and took place during an already stressful time.

Despite these uncertainties and the sacrifices made by each business owner early on, an unwavering sense of community also came through in our conversations with them. One of the silver linings of the COVID pandemic was that it provided the local community the opportunity to showcase its collective strength.

“There was an outpouring of support … when this first happened,” remembered Danielle Boyce, co-owner of American Flatbread. People offered support “at the restaurant, emails, messages, people getting takeout, even if they didn’t want it, just to support us.”

At the Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton, Assistant Manager Barney Hodges had a similar impression. He mentioned the “tremendous amount of appreciation” expressed by local residents last winter just “for Rikert being open, having an activity people could do outside.”

The ski community at Rikert and the nearby Snow Bowl downhill ski area rallied despite COVID protocols. Customers and employees alike adapted to mask mandates and to the lodges being closed.

There was “very little non-compliance … very little pushback” about following new safety rules among local patrons, according to Snow Bowl General Manager Mike Hussey. “We had mostly people just saying, ‘Oh my God, this is so great, thank you, you know we’re so appreciative that we can be here.’”

ALESS DELIA-LÔBO at Royal Oak Coffee switched to selling coffee through the shop’s take-out window to enhance social distancing while still keeping the business operating.
Photo by Kelly Hickey

Back in Middlebury, the owners of Royal Oak coffee shop on Seymour Street had to transition to a strictly online sales operation, with coffee pick-up at one window. That did not stop loyal customers from lining up outside to buy a cup and then lingering just to chat with other patrons and staff.

Sarah Kearns, a local small business advisor, relayed multiple stories of local companies adapting and also connecting to each other and to other members of the community who needed assistance. Such help came from far away and close to home and arrived in a variety of forms.

For example, through her network, Kearns learned of a local mom who needed essentials to care for her baby. So, every time Kearns did her own family grocery shopping, she would pick up diapers and formula and drop them off for contactless pickup on the mom’s front porch.

That was tangible, local support for a family in need, but the entire business community also got a different kind of pandemic boost from an overseas donor with local ties, who gave substantial financial grants to local businesses as a way to help their hometown survive this crisis. That person’s $50,000 gift was combined with grants from the town of Middlebury, the Middlebury Rotary and another anonymous donor, and the Table 21 grant program was formed.

MEETING BASIC NEEDS

From our oral history interviews, we were reminded that local business owners are people too, with families and household budgets to manage on top of their business concerns. One Middlebury restaurateur recalled that in the midst of the pandemic shutdown, his car needed fixing, and he was not sure he would have the cash to cover that necessary expense. To his surprise, his mechanic, with the help of other locals, pulled together some funds collectively to pay for this car repair. Such acts of kindness abound in the interviews we conducted and seem to define Middlebury’s COVID pandemic experience.

While each local business is different, there were core similarities among owners’ and employees’ reactions and adaptations after re-opening.

The business and consumer dynamic seems to have been forever changed by COVID-19. Business owners have had to reinvent their marketing strategies and rethink old ways of attracting and keeping customers.

For the owners of Two Brothers Tavern on Main Street, safety was the priority. As they considered how best to stay open, Two Brothers decided in January 2021 to require proof of vaccination for indoor dining.

“No one else had done it in this community, and so it took people by surprise,” according to Holmes Jacobs, one of the tavern owners. But “there was no more important thing that we could really do to help keep our team safe.”

Danielle Boyce from American Flatbread restaurant in the Marble Works followed suit and is now asking for proof of vaccination for indoor dining as well. She has received significant pushback on this issue from unvaccinated patrons, but Boyce hopes that the new outdoor pavilion area that Flatbread erected during the pandemic last summer will provide some accommodation for customers who are not fully vaccinated.

By taking these difficult steps, these and other small businesses are continuing to adapt to the ever-changing COVID environment as they strive to maximize their success but keep their employees and customers safe and healthy.

We are encouraged and enthused to report that many of the businesses with whom we connected are on the way to full recovery, with some reporting even better economic results than before the pandemic. There is hope for them and for those who enjoy their offerings. If the local community continues to contribute in the ways they have across this difficult time, many Middlebury-area small businesses are primed for further success.

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