Edinboro business owners talk surviving COVID-19

Category:  News
Friday, September 18th, 2020 at 10:24 AM
Edinboro business owners talk surviving COVID-19 by Thomas Taylor
Graphic: Kimberly Firestine

From waiting in eager anticipation to have breakfast at Flip Café on a Saturday morning, to exploring the wears of Earthshine while Grateful Dead spins on vinyl in the background, there’s an undeniable dynamic between Edinboro students and the surrounding businesses. Proximity and curiosity helps the college town thrive.

However, this changed with COVID-19. With Edinboro shifting to online learning in March, the businesses, at least partially, have lost one of their main consumer bases. Once the initial shock wore off, Edinboro entrepreneurs had to find ways to survive.

“It was immediate, because all the businesses ended up closing,” said Gina Mussett, board member for the Edinboro Community and Economic Development (ECED) group, and owner of The Cottage Rose. “I think it impacted everybody very significantly … because without people being able to go out, and everyone being closed, our businesses came to a screeching halt.” 

During this time, ECED worked with the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership for collaboration and guidance. These meetings were usually once or twice a month, over Zoom, with business owners and anyone who was interested. 

Mussett described the meetings and how they changed when the Erie Chamber joined the conversation. “It was very enlightening because they were able to help whoever was on the call navigate the unchartered waters that we were in.” 

Advice that was given included talking about guidelines, re-openings, and sharing ideas on how to help their businesses. “It was valuable in that sense because we didn’t know what (reopening) would look like or what the requirements were going to be, so having a bigger entity help us navigate through that was very valuable.” 

Reopening was then a challenge due to the circumstances. “Once we found out we were opening again, every business was different. The restaurants were hit the hardest … because they could not have people dine-in, so they were required to have take-out only. And even now,” said Mussett.

She added these restaurants were struggling due to the 25% capacity rule. “It’s very hard to run a business on a quarter of your customers.” On Sept. 21, restaurants in Pennsylvania will be allowed to increase to 50% capacity. 

Even though there were struggles, Mussett explained that Edinboro came together to support them.  

“The community has been outstanding in its commitment to support local businesses. I’ve had people walk in and tell me they’ve made a commitment to themselves to buy local before they buy anywhere else,” she said. “I will tell you that everybody came together: business owners, restaurant owners, the ‘Boro leadership team. It was very inspiring to see all the support that we’ve had.” 

At the same time, Mussett was mindful of the reality facing Edinboro. For her and the community, seeing businesses across the country shut down was a wake-up call to how COVID-19 was affecting people’s lives, and how important these small businesses can be. She added, “Without these restaurants, there is no Edinboro.” 

No matter the business, there was worry. “We have businesses that have been here for 30 years. I’ve [got] one of the newest businesses, and a 30-year veteran in business was just as nervous as I was based on the uncertainty of the times.” 

Innovation and a commendation

Amid the chaos, one town staple found a way to stay busy, while also helping local families: the Edinboro Hotel Bar. 

“When this all started, I was just trying to find an easy way to help other people less fortunate and [who] are going through some tough times,” explained Pat Hargest, owner of the Hotel Bar. “We created a meal certificate program. For $20, someone could buy a certificate to go either to General McLane families in need, or the Edinboro Food Pantry. They could figure out who was in need of those certificates.” 

The certificate would be for a meal of pasta, salad, and bread for a family of four. “You can tell people’s hearts were in the right place … Someone would just write me a check for $100 and say, ‘Get five meals out to the food bank or for General McLane families.’ It was a very successful thing.” 

As of this interview, about 355 certificates have been distributed, which Hargest estimates is around $7,000 worth of meals. “It was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t say enough about the Edinboro community as a whole,” he said.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro gave Hargest a citation of commendation on Sept. 15 for his certificate program, thanking him for “fundamental compassion and dedication to our community, especially during the current pandemic.”   

Hargest, like Mussett, praised the response from the community and university. “Everybody pitched in … and some people who’ve never been in that situation in their lives, if they were living paycheck to paycheck, if they lost their job or got laid off, they’ve never got to worry where their next meal was coming from.”

Mussett said that this type of collaboration to help others was an everyday occurrence. “There was a lot of crossing different lines to extend help and support throughout a lot of different places and people in the community.”  

How can I help ‘Boro businesses?

Hargest believes there’s an easy way for students and their families to support local restaurants: the related gift certificate purchase.  

“A big thing that people did for me at the beginning of this was purchasing gift certificates. That’s something every restaurant in town offers. I know that’s an easy way to support them.” 

Gift certificates for all of the town businesses are also in the works, according to Mussett. “They would be purchased at the ‘Boro offices, and that gift certificate would be good at any businesses in Edinboro.”  

Kevin Opple, borough manager of Edinboro, said that when the certificate program launches, you’ll have the option to get them mailed to your doorstep, or you'll be able to purchase online. “Parents can give (Edinboro) students for Christmas, a $50 gift certificate to use in town. The nice thing about it is instead of giving them cash, you’re giving them a gift certificate, which gives them the opportunity to explore some of the restaurants or businesses they haven’t gone to before … It keeps the focus of commerce in town.” 

Looking ahead to the fall, Mussett knows there are challenges with a limited number of students on- and off-campus, and spoke about how students and their families can help. 

“We’re all open … I would say support us, go to the restaurants, or order out. It’s a big deal. Every sale, every customer counts, and the students at this time of year are critical.”  

One clear message stands out, as she finishes up. “It does matter. Our students are very important to us, so we’ll hope they’ll continue to support in these hard times.”

Thomas Taylor is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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