Westfield Small Businesses Continue to be Impacted by COVID-19

December 20, 2021

The past year and a half has presented an overwhelming plethora of challenges. Our schools, our extracurriculars and especially our downtown small businesses have been drastically altered. Many businesses have fought to stay afloat in a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. ‘Help Wanted’ signs are posted all over town in front windows, restaurants and shops. Nearly every business has struggled and continues to struggle through the pandemic recovery process, whether that means struggles with staffing or struggles with paying their rent.

When the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020, everything changed for small businesses. Everyone had to adapt to a new way of life and adopt new strategies to help their business grow and recover after the pandemic hit. Over the course of just a few days, businesses were forced to begin curbside pickups of their products, build websites, expand online ordering options and delivery services, enforce store capacity limits and adopt safety protocols in order to keep their businesses open. 

Unfortunately, some Westfield businesses succumbed to the hardships of COVID-19: Brummer’s Homemade Chocolates closed in July 2020 after 116 years in business, Westfield Creamery closed its doors in September 2021 and Woof Gang Bakery left Westfield for Cranford in September 2020. 

Although many small businesses have been recovering from setbacks during the initial lockdown and some are slowly transitioning back to their pre-pandemic procedures, there are many new issues that small business owners in Westfield are now confronting. 

Amanda Vargas, owner of Fettle and Fare, a gluten and dairy-free kitchen in Westfield, said that currently, her biggest issue is keeping her restaurant fully-staffed. “I actually ended up closing a second store that I had because I was having a hard time finding staff and finding people who wanted to stay in the food industry,” said Vargas. 

Francesco Colbertaldo, the owner of Farinolio, a Tuscan bakery-cafe in downtown Westfield, expressed similar struggles and concerns over the labor shortage. “In 2021, the biggest challenge, not just for us, but for everybody was finding staff. Not just in Westfield, but everywhere in the United States and everywhere you go, it’s the same issue. And it’s a shame, because obviously there are opportunities to do well, if you find the right place,” said Colbertaldo.

The worker shortage isn’t an issue that only affects Westfield. According to Reuters, job openings nationally increased from 749,000 to 10.9 million in July 2021, which was the fifth month in a row where job openings, which have been increasing since January 2021, hit a record high.

Owners of The French Martini, Brandi Wotanowski and Angela Kurze, are in the minority when it comes to worker shortages as they have not experienced this difficulty following lockdown. Kurze explained that “we have the luxury of being able to do more boutique hours.” This luxury often lends itself to hiring high school girls who can work due to the businesses’ more flexible schedule compared to restaurants in town that are open every day of the week and have longer hours. 

Some think that many people are less likely to return to low-paying, minimum wage jobs if they are receiving a larger amount from government stimulus checks (which ended Sept. 6). Others believe that companies should raise wages if they really want workers to return to work while we are still in a pandemic. Regardless of the cause of the labor shortage, it is evident that this is a major issue for businesses in our community and across the nation.

Optic met with the Chief Government Affairs Officer for New Jersey Business & Industry Association Chrissy Buteas to talk about small businesses and their struggles during the pandemic. Buteas said, “We are now embarking on a workforce crisis where our employers are reporting to us as they can’t find enough workers to fill open jobs. And that’s despite the fact that we still have the highest unemployment rate in the nation currently. So it’s a bit of a snapshot of the world of business right now.” 

Many small businesses have also been struggling with obtaining the ingredients and materials necessary to run their business.  “Almost 90 percent of our ingredients come from Italy. So, shipping has been impacted, and our cost went up dramatically. Every month, I get an email from the shipping company that our costs are going up,” said Colbertaldo. 

Vargas said that there have been many shortages on imported products that Fettle and Fare uses, but other important materials have also dramatically increased in price. “The biggest thing was just the basics that we carry, like bowls, straws, napkins and especially gloves. Gloves went from [about] $3 a box to $10 a box. It’s a pretty big expense for a restaurant. As you can imagine, we’re changing our gloves all the time,” said Vargas.

In addition, Anne Laird, the owner of the Town Bookstore in downtown Westfield, said that shipment timings have also gotten worse and are still not improving. “The problem is, that it’s been a little bit nerve-wracking trying to figure out what to bring in for the holidays. What I really need right now is a crystal ball to know what everybody’s going to want for the holidays because I don’t want to just bring in tons of stuff that won’t sell,” said Laird.

Similarly, The French Martini has faced increases in pricing due to shipping supply and demand chain issues following COVID-19. However, the owners explained that, “We have been very lucky that we work with a lot of small businesses, as opposed to huge manufacturers.”

In addition to the obvious struggles COVID-19 has placed upon small businesses, the pandemic has also altered the types of customers that businesses typically receive. Vargas noticed that Fettle and Fare began to attract new types of customers during the pandemic. “When we first opened, the first few years we definitely attracted a lot of people who were over 30-years-old. When COVID-19 happened, everyone started to have all their meals with their families at home, so we started to see a lot more demand for kid-friendly items, so that’s why we changed our menu last July,” said Vargas.

Despite the troubles, the past year and a half has also brought some positive aspects for many businesses in downtown Westfield. Colberato explained that there are added opportunities for new customers to visit the store because many people have been working from home. “Before, [people] were gone all day, and we would be closed by the time they came back. Now, if they’re working from home, if they want to have coffee or a meal or take a break during the day, we’re here for them.”

Laird agreed, saying, “People in the beginning saw Amazon deprioritizing hard copies of books, so people were coming to us. People were also realizing that small businesses were struggling and wanted to support us.”

With the positive experiences post-COVID, Westfield’s small businesses have also noticed a change in the attitudes of their customers. Laird shared that customers have become more patient and understanding about shipping times for books and the amount of product in the store since the pandemic. 

Vargas wants everyone to remember how hard this has been. “Businesses are still really struggling, and I think patience, understanding and kindness is really needed.” Vargas also encourages customers to always go directly to a restaurant’s website or call them if they have any questions rather than looking for information on Google or Yelp. 

Although COVID-19 has left some positive impacts on small businesses, the current state of the nation has been challenged and continues to threaten the survival of small businesses. People must be more understanding if businesses are going to be able to persist through this difficult time. “[The New Jersey Business & Industry Association] is the voice for business in New Jersey and we’ve asked our policy makers to please keep in mind that the business community is trying to get back up on its feet and is trying to get our workforce back to work as quickly and as safely as possible,” said Buteas.

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