With the order from Gov. Mark Gordon about a week ago prohibiting dine-in food service and closing “public places” for at least two weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Laramie restaurants have made a hard pivot to a new way of operating just to keep their doors open.
At Night Heron Books and Coffeehouse, owner Ken Koschnitzki implemented a new online ordering system and is now offering curbside takeout, both of which allow customers to avoid entering the store or even handing someone a credit card.
“That’s been slowly taking off,” he said.
The coffeehouse is open for customers who want to come in and order or even browse the bookstore, as long as there aren’t more than five at a time. Employees spend every spare moment wiping surfaces with bleach.
As anyone who’s entered a grocery store recently can attest, bread is a hot commodity in these clear-the-shelves days. Night Heron has upped its bakery output and is delivering loaves to Big Hollow Food Co-op for retail sale. Koschnitzki is also planning to offer meal kits for delivery.
Despite the changes, he estimated that sales were down about 50% last week and are still dropping.
“This week is going to be bad,” he said.
So bad, he’s advising employees to prepare to apply for unemployment benefits as he watches the news unfold.
“We’re going to stay open as long as we can,” he said.
Harrison Edwards, a barista at Coal Creek Coffee, said traffic has slowed as the coffee shop has transitioned to takeout and curbside delivery. But those who need their daily caffeine are still in luck.
“People seem to be pretty happy that we’re still open and they can get their coffee,” he said.
At Lovejoy’s Bar and Grill, manager Ben Nutt has cut a staff of about 20 down to himself and a couple cooks as he manages curbside takeout and deliveries via DoorDash. He also manages Altitude Chophouse and Brewery, where a staff of almost 30 has been trimmed to a handful.
“We’ve basically furloughed our entire staff,” he said.
Meanwhile, both operations are trying to hang on with no clear end in sight.
“We’re just trying to survive at this point,” he said.
Kyra Wulff, a server at C K Chuck Wagon, is still working her regular weekend hours at this point, but she’s making deliveries and serving takeout meals instead of working as a server. Before last week, the restaurant had never offered either option before.
“It’s been an adjustment,” she said.
Between tips and delivery fees, she estimated she made about 60% of her usual income last weekend. That was with just two servers on duty instead of the usual four or five.
Wulff, a student at the University of Wyoming, has some savings, but she also moved back in with her parents for a few weeks to save money on groceries and utilities.
Take the challenge
Trey Sherwood, executive director of Laramie Main Street Alliance, said Laramie residents can continue supporting their favorite restaurants and small businesses by purchasing gift cards, ordering takeout or sending a positive note through social media.
Through Laramie Main Street’s Gift Certificate Challenge, anyone who purchases a gift certificate from one of the 280 businesses in the downtown district and posts a photo on Facebook or Instagram, tagging the business and Downtown Laramie, will be entered into a weekly drawing. Each week, Main Street will be giving away two $25 gift certificates good for the downtown district.
The Laramie Chamber Business Alliance is also running a Curbside Challenge. To enter, order delivery or pickup from a local restaurant, take a photo and post it on social media using the hashtag #LCBAcurbsidechallenge. Each week, the chamber will draw a winner and award a $100 gift certificate to a local business.
“Between both of our organizations, we’re trying to push people to support businesses in various ways,” said marketing and membership director Melissa Ross.
Laramie resident Willow Belden ordered a meal from Jeffrey’s Bistro earlier this week. Initially, she wasn’t sure if ordering prepared food was safe.
“In the last couple weeks, I definitely cut back,” Belden said of eating out.
But then she saw others posting pictures of their take-out meals on social media and reconsidered. Going to the grocery store also carries an unknown degree of risk of disease transmission, and people are going to obtain food somehow.
“I started seeing more people posting on social media that they were getting takeout and really making the case for it, that it’s pretty safe,” she said.
Besides the fact that she was getting tired of cooking every meal at home, she was happy to boost the local economy.
“I had been wanting to do something to support all the restaurants locally that are closing or otherwise hurting financially from this,” she said.
Resources for businesses
Laramie business owners have several resources if they need support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laramie Main Street Alliance, Laramie Chamber Business Alliance and the Wyoming Small Business Development Center are all local organizations that exist to support business.
“There are a lot of people whose jobs are to help support everybody, especially in these tough times,” Ross said.
She advised local small businesses to stay positive, continue engaging with customers and seek help if needed.
“Some businesses will probably need additional resources to help them through this period,” she said.
Businesses with new hours should be sure to update Google listings to avoid customer confusion, she said.
“That customer will more likely be able to support them because they’re getting updated information,” she said.
One resource now available for business owners is a federal economic disaster loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The loans are designed to help small businesses weather challenging economic times, with low interest rates over long time periods.
Sherwood said businesses should be extra-communicative about new options and embrace creativity.
“For a long time the trend has been to move toward e-commerce, so COVID-19 is pushing us in that direction faster,” she said.
Boomerang offering free listing
The Boomerang is offering as a free service to the public space in our print edition and online to list whether businesses are open, closed or operating under modified hours.