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Downtown businesses in NYC and across the U.S. cope with new reality

In Nashville, tourists have come back faster than

In Nashville, tourists have come back faster than office workers, and Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant stays open for dinner to cater to them. Credit: AP/Mark Humphrey

Downtown businesses across the United States once took for granted that nearby offices would provide a steady clientele looking for breakfast, lunch and last-minute gifts. No more.

As the resilient coronavirus keeps many offices closed and workers at home, some are adapting while others are just trying to hang on, but some have closed.

The survivors are staying nimble.

Many business owners had looked forward to more normalcy this month as offices reopened. But now that many companies have postponed plans to bring workers back due to surging COVID-19 cases, downtown businesses are reckoning with the fact that adjustments made on the fly may become permanent.

Making room for toothpaste

In downtown Detroit, Mike Frank’s cleaning business was running out of money.

Frank started Clifford Street Cleaners eight years ago. Pre-pandemic, monthly revenue was about $11,000, but by last December it had dropped to $1,800. He had to borrow moneyto pay the bills.

Instead of shutting down, Frank adapted. He converted part of his store into a small market with toothpaste, laundry detergent, shampoo, bottled water, soft drinks and other essentials. He also delivered clean laundry and goods from the store.

Eventually, some foot traffic returned. With the combination of retail sales and dry cleaning, revenue is back up to about $4,100 per month, he said. That’s enough to keep him afloat.

Relying on community

In lower Manhattan, 224 businesses closed their doors in 2020 and 2021, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York. About 100 have opened.

"There’s no question, it’s hard for business districts like ours, we miss our workers," said Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. "Nobody misses them more than local businesses."

A block from Wall Street, Blue Park Kitchen used to have lines out the door each weekday as workers waited to buy one of the grain bowls Kelly Fitzpatrick served as a healthy lunch option.

Now, online orders now account for 65% of the business — though they are less profitable because the online apps take a cut. Blue Park has reduced its staff by nine.

Nearby, Aankit Malhotra took over Indian restaurant Benares with his brother in 2019. When the pandemic hit, overnight, their core banking clientele vanished.

Benares now has about 10 lunch orders a day, down from 100. But locals, grateful that the restaurant has stayed open every day, are keeping the brothers afloat.

"It’s nice to see not just corporate people downtown. It’s becoming more of a family-oriented place."

Jorge Guzman, assistant professor of business management at Columbia University, said the shift of economic activity away from downtowns is likely to last. There has been a boom in entrepreneurship in non-downtown New York areas like Jamaica, Queens, and the South Bronx.

"Downtowns are not going to die, exactly. It’s not like Midtown’s going anywhere. But it’s going to be a little bit more of a mix, more residential and mixed-use concepts."

Boost from tourism

In Nashville, Lyle Richardson, chief operating officer for restaurant operator A. Marshall Hospitality, said he has seen the city’s restaurant industry ravaged by the pandemic. He estimates that hundreds of restaurants have closed.

Those still open have made adjustments. Richardson stopped serving lunch at one restaurant, Deacon’s New South, to focus on dinner after office workers went remote. But he kept his other restaurant, Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, open from 7 a.m to 11 p.m. to attract the tourists.

"The normalcy we called pre-COVID, that no longer exists," he said. "We have to be prepared, on our toes, to adapt. "

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