In mid-March, New Deck Tavern on Sansom Street was ready for its biggest weekend of the year. The tents were up; the DJ was hired; nearly a hundred cases of green beer bottles had been ordered. The tavern’s freezers were full with ingredients for Shepherd’s pie, Reuben sandwiches, and other authentic Irish fare. New Deck Tavern Manager Erin Parson had been planning for the annual Saint Patrick’s Day block party since January.
Three days before Saint Patrick's Day, however, New Deck Tavern was forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All non-essential businesses in Philadelphia, excluding bars and restaurants solely offering takeout and delivery, were ordered to close on March 15 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the city. The three-month-long shutdown, coupled with Penn and other local universities asking students not to return to campus after spring break continues to pave a challenging road for many University City businesses.
Some of these businesses, such as Allegro Pizza and Grill, Copabanana, and Smokey Joe’s, quickly shifted to a takeout-only model in March and have since witnessed varying degrees of success. Many others have been closed since the announcement, such as New Deck Tavern, Avril 50, and Luxe Nail Bar.
While all of these businesses have suffered losses, the pandemic has hit each establishment with varying force.
Founded in 1987 by an Irish immigrant, New Deck Tavern’s busiest event of the year is the block party it hosts for the Saint Patrick’s day bar crawl — known as the Erin Express. When Philadelphia canceled its Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Parson said she began to realize the severity of the situation.
“I don’t think at that time we had any idea what was ahead of us, however, we canceled the Erin express which on Penn’s campus is a huge tradition,” Parson said.
Since its temporary closure, the tavern has received two small business loans, from the Philadelphia COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund and the University City District's emergency grant program, as well as a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
“The amount of loans and grants still are not even a month’s worth of regular sales at the Deck, and now we're three months past," Parson said. As the city moves into the yellow phase of reopening, New Deck Tavern plans to open for takeout and outdoor seating on June 17.
Adjacent to the tavern’s entrance on Sansom street, Avril 50 opened its yellow door to customers on June 5 for the first time since closing in March.
Avril 50 is an eclectic shop that sells coffee, international publications, cards, chocolates, and tobacco. Due to current travel restrictions, however, Avril 50 Owner and 1980 Wharton MBA graduate John Shahidi has not been able to obtain any new international magazines or newspapers to supply his store.
Although he has been awarded a small business loan from the University City District and a grant from the Philadelphia COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund, Shahidi has yet to receive his grant money. He signed for the grant on May 12.
“When [Penn] is closed, there is nobody around,” Shahidi said. “So it doesn’t matter if you’re opened or closed, there’s no business."
The hardest part of the pandemic for Shahidi has been considering the need to close Avril 50 after 36 years of operation, he said. Many of the store’s customers are Penn students, who Shahidi said he interacts with daily throughout their years at the University.
“They’re not there, so my life is almost empty,” he said.
For Copabanana co-owner Mitch Whitaker, he said it was when he found out that Penn students would not be returning to campus after spring break that he realized “this was really going to be something bad.”
Before the pandemic, Copabanana’s payroll consisted of 30 employees. After the announcement on March 15, the restaurant's payroll dropped to four to five people as the restaurant soon lost nearly 90% of its business.
Although Copabanana owners plan to rehire everyone once they can return to usual business operations, Whitaker said, they immediately advised all employees to apply for unemployment benefits. The restaurant was losing slightly more money by staying open than it would have if it had been closed, he said, adding that he considered shutting down for the summer.
On May 21, however, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed a temporary law that allows restaurants and bars to sell cocktails to go.
“The alcohol sales to go absolutely saved us,” Whitaker said. ”It basically allowed us to bring more people back to work.”
Copabanana has since increased its staff number from five to nearly twenty employees. “We can operate with a small staff and some margaritas to go and it actually can be pretty profitable,” Whitaker said.
The to-go alcohol sales, however, have not been such a turning point for all bars in the area.
Although Smokey Joe’s on 40th Street is offering cocktails, Smokey Joe’s Owner and 2009 College graduate Paul Ryan III said the bar has yet to sell a single cocktail to go.
Smokey Joe’s, a family-owned bar that is often referred to as the “Pennstitution," has lost 70-80% of business despite offering takeout food and cocktails.
For now, Smokey Joe’s will likely close for the summer, Ryan said, although they intend to reopen for the fall semester. The Ryan family has received a PPP loan which will be used to pay Smokey Joe’s staff throughout the summer months.
University City retailers are enduring grave losses as well. Luxe Nail Bar, located adjacent to Smokey Joe’s on 40th street, is perhaps at the breaking point of shutting down. Roughly 80% of revenue comes from students, Luxe Nail Bar owner Yen Le said.
“I highly doubt that we are going to survive without the students coming back,” Le said.
Luxe Nail Bar has been closed since March 16, and Le said he does not expect to open for at least another month or two.
Although Le has received a PPP loan and rent abatement from the University of Pennsylvania for April and May, keeping the business afloat has been challenging since the store has made zero revenue over the last three months. Penn’s rent relief policy no longer applies since the start of June, which Le said is his primary concern.
The salon is a young business that opened in May 2016, which has made it harder for Le to decide whether or not he should close permanently.
“I just spent tons of money and I still haven’t covered all of my costs yet,” Le said. “We’ve been around for three years basically, so if I leave now it’s everything pretty much gone — the savings, the loans I spent on the salon for renovations.”
Le hopes that the University will help its small business tenants survive.
“I would hope that Penn considers the environment because of the pandemic,” Le said. “Maybe they will do something to try to reduce the rent so we all can make it.”
Unlike most businesses in the area, Allegro Pizza and Grill, located at 40th and Spruce Streets, has remained open throughout the pandemic and has not needed any financial support from government or University City District grant programs. While the first week after Wolf's mandate was slow, business gradually increased until Allegro was earning just 10-15% less revenue than during normal operations, General Manager Elias Kosmatos said.
Allegro shifted to a pickup and takeout system in one night after the March 15 business shutdown announcement, by sending deliveries out from the restaurant's backdoor and placing a register by its side window where customers continue to place orders.
Although Allegro has been fortunate compared to its neighboring businesses, the lockdown hit during the restaurant's busiest time of the year, Kasmatos said, as he listed off the major Penn spring semester events that never happened: Hey Day, Penn Relays, Spring Fling, Graduation, and Alumni Weekend.
“The neighborhood lost its life,” Kasmatos said.
For Kasmatos, the biggest challenge during the pandemic was not deciding if Allegro should stay open for business. Instead, his most difficult struggle was deciding if Allegro should stay open after Philadelphia implemented multiple evening and night curfews in response to citywide protests in May and June.
Ultimately, he chose to close Allegro before curfew each time to ensure his staff could return home safely, he said.
In preparation for when restaurants can start serving dine-in customers again, Allegro staff is working on “contact-free everything,” Kasmatos said.
At the New Deck Tavern, Parson is also preparing for its reopening on June 17. This process entails rethinking all aspects of tavern interactions — from installing a five-by-four feet high plexiglass screen at the bar to upgrading the toilets with automatic flushers.
“Hopefully when we get a vaccine for all this we can go back to drinking shoulder to shoulder, you know," Parson said. "But for now, we’ll just cheer from a distance."