On a typical spring night, 40th Street would be lined with students waiting to enter Smokey Joe's, ready for a night of drinking and socializing. But the coronavirus pandemic has left campus a ghost town and forced local favorites like Smokes' to shutter indefinitely.
Without student clientele and with coronavirus commerce restrictions in full swing, small businesses around Penn are struggling to make ends meet.
Food service businesses on and around campus have been hit particularly hard.
Co-owner of Hummus Grill Yaron Netz, whose restaurant on 39th and Walnut streets is usually full of Penn students, said the loss of both dine-in traffic and catering orders was immediate. He closed the restaurant on March 19 until city restrictions on businesses are lifted.
“Our business, in the first two to three days [after] the announcement went [out] that Penn was shutting down, went down probably like 70%,” Netz said. “And when the city of Philadelphia made the restriction for no sit-down, just take-out and delivery, it went down 80-85%.”
After attempting to stay open for take-out and delivery for the first few days of last week, it became clear to Netz that his business could not turn a profit under the current limitations. He worries about the financial security of his employees and his own family.
“It’s very, very tough,” Netz said. “I feel bad for our loyal employees. The majority of them have been with us for a lot of years, even since day one when we opened in 2008. It’s one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make — to shut the place down knowing that they are not going to have an income."
Smokes', a popular bar on 40th and Walnut streets, also closed Monday evening after the city restrictions went into effect. Smokes' owner Paul Ryan, however, is confident the Penn landmark has the resources to stay afloat without business until September.
Ryan said Smokes' salaried employees, such as the majority of bartenders, servers, and kitchen staff, will continue to be paid for the "foreseeable future." He encouraged other hourly employees, such as bouncers and bartender assistants, to apply for unemployment.
Despite the lull in traffic, some restaurants have continued to stay open, but with some lay offs and reduced hours.
Located at 40th and Spruce streets and popular for its Margaritas, Copabanana will continue to offer their full menu as takeout during shortened operating hours. Copa General Manager Nicole Sedwin said she feels the business has a “responsibility” to serve the community during this trying time.
While the lack of normal revenue worries Sedwin, she said the well-being of Copa’s employees as the restaurant’s most immediate concern. Although they have had to lay off some employees and reduce others' hours, Sedwin said Copa is offering free meals to current and former employees on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
According to Sedwin, Copa has also encouraged laid-off employees to file for unemployment until the restaurant is able to completely reopen, at which point all former staff will be guaranteed the position they previously held.
Members of the Penn community have also been working to help affected local businesses.
The student-run food magazine Penn Appétit recently started a "secret Santa" gift card exchange that allows participants to give and receive $10 gift cards to various local restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. The local businesses will receive the gift card money in advance, though participants will be able to use the cards when they return to campus in the fall.
College sophomore Brahm Wieseneck created a GoFundMe page to support Lyn, the owner of popular Spruce Street food truck Lyn’s, after learning that she had lost approximately 80% of her business once Penn depopulated campus.
The page earned $1,000 within the first three hours it was published on Tuesday, quickly exceeding Wieseneck’s initial goal of $500. At the time of this article's publication, over $2,700 had been donated.
Wieseneck believes that the success of Lyn’s GoFundMe speaks to the impact that Lyn and her business have had on Penn students.
Despite his successful fundraising campaign for Lyn, Wieseneck acknowledged there are many other businesses that are in need of help.
“Lyn is one of fifteen, twenty food carts on Spruce alone,” Wieseneck said. “This is a crazy situation, and all of them are struggling.”
Netz stressed that the best thing people can do to help businesses is to take precautions to limit the spread of the virus with social distancing and self-quarantining. He said combatting the pandemic is the only way to allow restaurants and other stores to return to normal operations, and called on the Penn community to make responsible choices.
“We’re all in this together,” Netz said. “Everyone’s gotta do their share.”
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