The Ripple: Adapting to the New Normal

Maya Reter, Assistant Audio Editor

As COVID-19 shakes our world, small businesses still find ways to continue on with closed storefronts. Local governments are doing what they can to help, but many businesses are looking to the federal level for aid. Meanwhile, Evanston businesses take creative approaches to help each other through this pandemic.

MAYA RETER: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Maya Reter. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast on the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community. On this week’s episode, we talk about the impacts of COVID-19 on local Evanston businesses, along with the local and federal responses to calls for aid.

Let’s start by looking at one of the oldest and arguably most nationally recognized Evanston businesses, Vintage Vinyl.

STEVE KAY: We specialize in top-quality rare and out-of-print records, as well as new imports and new domestic products from every corner of the world.

MAYA RETER: That was Steve Kay. He’s been the owner of Vintage Vinyl since the store opened in 1979. The record store has become well known over the years for its selection of hard-to-come-by records. Even before COVID-19, a large portion of Vintage Vinyl’s revenue came from online orders through its website. In just a few clicks of a keyboard later, patrons can digitally sift through Vintage Vinyl’s collection. The store’s warehouse has tens of thousands of records. So while their storefront may be closed, the online orders have not yet slowed down.

STEVE KAY: We have a very loyal following because we’ve been here so long and people know that we deal with very high-quality material here. So people have really stepped up their game. They want to make sure that we’re still around at the end of this, just the way we feel the same for them. So, you know, we’re all in this together. It’s a hand-in-hand situation.

MAYA RETER: While Steve appreciates the continued revenue from online orders, he feels he’s lost some of the personal connection that comes with helping a fellow record fan find the right record in the store.

STEVE KAY: That’s the most difficult part. And that’s the reason that we’ve been in business all this long is because that’s what we enjoy doing, and that’s what has kept us going all this time is the one-to-one relationship with people that come in on a regular basis. So, that part obviously is missing. But thankfully, we have developed over the many years that we’ve been doing online business, relationships with people that are also ongoing, so at least some of that is still there.

MAYA RETER: Even with the mail-order going strong, Steve is still concerned about the future of Vintage Vinyl. Normally, when you pass by Vintage Vinyl’s doors, you see a neon pink electric sign. And once you are inside, you can flip through rows and rows of records. But now —

STEVE KAY: There’s nobody walking in, that’s impacted our business tremendously because we have a huge walk-in clientele. And so a lot of that is just gone for the moment, and we haven’t been able to make that up through the mail order, because of the way this has affected people’s economic situations. People are probably less likely to be purchasing luxury items, which we would fall in that category until they can get a sense of financial stability, which is certainly somewhat down the road.

MAYA RETER: Vintage Vinyl isn’t alone. Businesses all over Evanston are feeling the impacts of COVID-19.

PAUL ZALMEZAK: People are in shock, and they’re worried about their staff. The staff of these businesses, it’s their family and they become families.

MAYA RETER: That was Paul Zalmezak, the economic development manager for Evanston. He oversees development within the city and provides support for Evanston businesses.

PAUL ZALMEZAK: These business owners are devastated that they have to lay off their staff. It is impacting everybody, the stay-at-home order. You can’t go to work if you’re a nonessential business. And even if you are an essential business, you’re operating with a skeleton crew. And these business owners pour their heart into this every day.

MAYA RETER: With the current economic downturn, local businesses are at higher risk than they have been in a long time. Zalmezak sees the struggles, but substantial aid from the local government is far off.

PAUL ZALMEZAK: Immediate financial support is non-existent from the city. We don’t have the resources to provide what’s going to be necessary to help businesses recover from this. Literally a pause button’s been pressed on the economy, and we have no resources flowing in to even turn back and provide to small businesses.

MAYA RETER: However, the city is still doing what it can to help in small ways. Usually, the city collects certain fees from businesses on a monthly basis, like sales taxes or liquor taxes. Right now, the city has paused all fee payments from February that had to be submitted in March. Zalmezak also believes a critical way the city can help local businesses is to spread awareness of the available resources.

PAUL ZALMEZAK: We’ve tried to create a single COVID-19 resource guide because there is just so much information flowing. There’s a paralysis of information. It’s changing on a daily basis, so we update our resource guide on a daily basis. We’re doing what we can to centralize information and communicate as soon as information comes out.

MAYA RETER: Many of these resources are funded by the new CARES Act. The CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was signed into effect by President Trump on March 27. It contains $376 billion in funding supporting both existing and new federal programs to help small businesses. These programs include debt relief, emergency loans, and a paycheck protection program to help businesses keep their employees on the payroll.

But even with federal resources, Zalmezak is still uncertain about the future of Evanston businesses.

PAUL ZALMEZAK: This virus will pass at some point. We don’t know how long it’s going to be, but we need to start thinking, what can we do to help when the recovery starts to happen? The little amounts that we’ve done, it helps a little bit. It’s not going to move the needle at the end of the day. The devastation from laying off people, not being able to do the craft that they love, it’s depressing in some ways. There’s this, this desperate call for help about revenues: How are we going to survive this? How are we going to pay the rent? How are we going to pay our loans? Hopefully the resources from the state and federal level will calm things down a bit.

MAYA RETER: Rachel Angulo and her husband own La Cocinita, a local Venezuelen-inspired restaurant not far from Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Following Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker’s order to close all restaurants on March 17, La Cocinita has seen a significant impact on business.

RACHEL ANGULO: Obviously, we are not serving anyone in the restaurant any longer, and so we have been doing more carry-out and deliveries than usual. We’ve almost entirely eliminated our catering service, just because people can’t congregate in groups anymore. It’s been kind of an interesting shift for us to really focus so heavily on carry-out and delivery, but we have been relying on those third-party deliveries. Some of those partners, they’ve been waiving the fees for pickup orders. So, some of the partners have been working with us on that.

MAYA RETER: As the crisis continues, some local businesses are reaching out to each other to help in whatever way they can. NeigerDesign partnered with La Cocinita to help promote the restaurant in a unique way.

RACHEL ANGULO: I’ve heard that in New York right now, it’s no longer possible to foster a dog because so many people have opted to do that right now. It’s just been such a difficult time, and a lot of people want that companionship right now. So, they had this really wonderful idea of fostering a local restaurant. They created a template and a poster for our restaurant that Downtown Evanston is then going to use to create posters for other local restaurants as well.

MAYA RETER: Rachel also has gotten creative with giving back to the community. Along with running the restaurant, she has a background in social work. In the midst of this pandemic, she put her social work experience and her restaurant to good use.

RACHEL ANGULO: I was early on looking for a way to support people working on the front lines in hospitals and police departments, fire departments, you know, like first responders. So, I’ve been working on gathering donations to send meals to those first responders and ICU and ER teams.

MAYA RETER: Initially, Rachel called the stations and ERs herself to get the correct number of orders. Not long after she started sending meals, the trend spread. Enough Chicago-area restaurants were sending meals to hospitals and first responders that large spreadsheets started going around so no one accidentally doubled up. La Cocinita recently started donating 10 percent of sales from orders placed directly to the restaurant toward their effort to feed people on the frontlines of the pandemic.

RACHEL ANGULO: We’re nearing the $5,000 mark, so we’ve sent almost 500 meals to those groups, which has been amazing. We’ve heard so much positive feedback from them. People have said that their teams are speechless, that it brightens up people’s days. There was one woman who remarked that it was the first time she’d seen smiles in a while, so that’s been really powerful. It’s also been a great morale boost for our team, because during a time when we’re struggling to give them enough hours and operate as much as we can, to be able to do a good deed while getting paid to work has really been a nice silver lining for them too.

MAYA RETER: Thanks for listening. You can support Vintage Vinyl at vvmo.com and La Cocinita at lacocinitarestaurant.com. This episode was reported and produced by me, Maya Reter, and Clare Proctor. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @MayaReter

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