At Ocean View Brew Works in Albany, owner Vonnie Davidson was used to drawing in crowds with local music, trivia nights and birthday parties.
In mid-March, of course, that business evaporated almost overnight. Like many in the foodservice industry, Davidson was forced to reconfigure a business model built around face-to-face interaction and, in many cases, packing lots of people in small spaces. For now, the brewery’s sales are limited to takeout, delivery and farmers markets. Davidson and her husband were initially forced to furlough their small staff, with some employees volunteering for scattered part-time hours.
A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan — which Ocean View was approved for after being denied from the program’s first round — will allow them to bring more employees back, which Davidson is thankful for. Still, she’s worried about next fall and winter, when the brewery-taproom will be feeling the effects of a diminished summer season. And she’s concerned about other small businesses in Albany that are in more precarious positions — those that might shutter before it’s safe to pack restaurants or even wait in line for a coffee.
“Albany is almost completely made up of small, fairly locally owned businesses,” Davidson said. She grew up in Albany and Berkeley, and she wants to see them survive.
Other nearby cities, including Berkeley and Oakland, have created emergency relief funds for small business owners. But they are larger cities than Albany, with larger operating budgets and more staff to administer the programs, city spokeswoman Claire Griffing noted in an email to Nosh. The city has been focused on helping businesses in other ways, she said, such as through a Chamber of Commerce webinar series and encouraging business owners to apply for existing loans.
Seeking to help fill Albany’s aid vacuum, Davidson, who is also a first-grade teacher at Cornell Elementary, launched a relief fund for the city’s small businesses on crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
Davidson sought the help of Working Solutions — the organization which is administering Oakland’s small business relief fund — to figure out how to distribute the funds using an application process. Davidson is working on obtaining nonprofit status for the fund, too.
For now, those who make donations receive perks from local businesses, including sketches of Albany storefronts by local artist Hannah Hodge, tickets to a show at the Ivy Room and a lifetime beer membership at Ocean View. At time of publication, the campaign had reached $12,735 of its $250,000 goal; it will run for 17 more days.
In the meantime, local business owners are grappling with the side effects of the pandemic. Like Davidson, many have had to lay off or furlough significant numbers of their employees; those who are still working have often seen their hours reduced. And though Albany’s City Council passed a temporary moratorium on foreclosures, evictions and rent increases which lasts through the end of May, rent is still a major cause for concern: deferrals will only last for so long.
“Time keeps spinning,” said Allen Cain, the executive director of the Solano Avenue Association.
Albany diner owner Mike Daillak has been running an ad-hoc general store out of Sam’s Log Cabin by way of the social network Nextdoor. It all started on a grocery store run for grits — necessitated by the shutdown of his main food suppliers — when Daillak noticed that everyday items like flour and eggs were nowhere to be found. He saw an opportunity for a win-win: Working with new suppliers, he has plenty of access to staples for his diner that he can also share with nearby locals.
Now, when he’s done with his day at Sam’s, Daillak logs onto Nextdoor to help coordinate purchases of flour, sugar and other staples. Community members sometimes link up in comments to make group purchases of bulk items, like two-pound bags of yeast. It’s a lot of work — “I had a stress dream of myself last night making endless bags of flour,” Daillak said — and it doesn’t generate a huge proportion of Sam’s business. But he’s happy that he’s able to generate a bit of extra cash flow while helping out community members, especially those, like the elderly, who might want to avoid an extra trip to the grocery store.
The Ivy Room is a bar on San Pablo Avenue, but it’s better known as a music venue, and has seen a bevy of much-anticipated shows canceled and postponed in the coming months. “We had a ton of musical heroes that were going to be on that stage,” owner Summer Gerbing said. She and co-owner Lani Torres had initially considered selling takeout drinks during the shelter-in-place order, but realized they wouldn’t be able to create enough cash flow to make it worth it. And the Bevmo next door could offer the same product at a lower price. For now, they are booking artists for fall and winter, but they worry that even those shows are on shaky ground.
Some businesses have launched their own online fundraisers, either for their employees or for the business itself. All of the Albany businesses Berkeleyside spoke to had applied for federal aid under the Payment Protection Program. While Cain said that PPP approvals were initially rare, more had started rolling in as of last week. Now, Oaktown Spice Shop, Sam’s Log Cabin, Highwire Coffee (both which have other locations elsewhere in the East Bay) and Ocean View Brew Works have been approved for loans.
In the meantime, business owners are looking tentatively towards a hopefully less-restrictive future. But the last month-and-a-half has been a blur, and it’s hard to imagine that the months to come will be any clearer.
Daillak said that though the indoor space at Sam’s Log Cabin is small, its large back patio could prove to be a lifesaver when dine-in service returns. Myers said that if the shelter-in-place order continues for longer, Highwire Coffee might consider offering to-go coffee orders, rather than stay limited to bean sales.
Gerbing worries about how the Ivy Room will adapt to a social-distanced business model when they’re eventually able to open again, something she knows is far down the line.
“We don’t pack the room because it’s comfortable; we pack the room because we need to make that revenue seven nights a week,” she said.
Gerbing and Torres have not received a PPP loan, but aren’t sure they could use one if they did. The Ivy Room is part of a group called the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). It’s currently lobbying for changes to the requirement that 75% of a PPP loan is spent on payroll within eight weeks, which venues like the Ivy Room say isn’t feasible given their particular limitations. In the meantime, Gerbing and Torres have created a GoFundMe for the Ivy Room.
Cain noted that beyond the prospect of creating socially distanced restaurants and cafés, recession and unemployment itself will be additional challenges running a small business.
“There’s a difference between ordering groceries and ordering crème brûlée,” he said. “I think that when people start to feel the financial pressure, they’re going to give up on the crème brûlée.”