Many local food trucks and businesses are earning pre-pandemic revenues and business practices, as campus is back in full swing.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to management at several local restaurants, food trucks, and bookstores about adjusting to the return of a large portion of their clientele — the students, faculty, and staff members of the Penn community.
Smokey Joe’s owner Paul Ryan said the beloved “Pennstitution” has had sales comparable to its pre-pandemic sales in the last few weeks, with students filling the bar up again.
“Most of our business is students — the juniors and the seniors — so we lost a year of meeting students. It is nice now because we’re starting to get to know students again, which is really great,” Ryan said. “It’s almost like normal business pre-pandemic. I feel like I was the captain of the ship that went through a hurricane, and now, it’s smooth sailing."
He said that for the first three weeks of each school year from 2010 to 2021, Smokes' sales have all been within a few thousand dollars of each other, proving that sales are now fairly consistent.
Smokes' is back to full capacity now, but opens at 3 p.m. rather than noon, as it had in previous years. The bar is now requiring its patrons to show proof of vaccination prior to entering. This practice began just before the semester started, he said, to allow customers to be unmasked and refrain from social distancing while in the bar.
Last year, Ryan said that Smokes' was constantly adjusting its practices and capacity limitations in order to adhere to Philadelphia’s COVID-19 guidelines as they changed throughout the pandemic. Smokes had been operating at 50% capacity, or a maximum of about sixty customers seated in the restaurant during the pandemic.
Greek Lady, the family-owned Greek eatery that has served Penn students and members since 1985, said that its regular customers allowed the restaurant to remain open throughout the pandemic.
“We didn’t close at all, and that’s thanks to our regular customers who kept supporting us. We’ve been following all the city [COVID-19] guidelines, and our customers notice that, so I think they feel more safe coming into our store,” the restaurant's manager said.
He said that while the restaurant's sales have still not reached pre-pandemic levels, business has been increasing, and the restaurant has seen many new faces come in for a meal since previous regulars have graduated from Penn.
“Definitely sales have been picking up, but it’s not the same as before the pandemic,” he said. “To be honest, we’re just trying to survive right now. We’re just trying to take care of our regular customers and so that’s really our main goal.”
The New York Gyro Truck
The New York Gyro Truck, located at 41st and Walnut streets, was forced to close at the onset of the pandemic and only recently reopened, according to owner Amir Khan, and his daughter Nazish Khan, who spoke about what business has been like since reopening.
“Before 2015, we used to be on 38th Street and now, we’ve moved, so now we have more locals since it’s a bit farther from Penn students. It was about 90% students [before the truck moved],” Nazish Khan said. “Our business was closed for the pandemic, and now that it’s open, it’s a little better, but it was pretty tough times.”
Nazish Khan said that the truck is appreciative of the loyalty of their customers, who often bring friends and other students to eat with them, which she said helps get the word out about the truck’s return to business.
“We often get students from the football team — those are our regular customers — and others from all over campus. Once they try our food, they come, and even on special occasions like move-in and move-out days, they’ll bring their parents over to our truck, so it’s nice to meet and talk to them,” Nazish Khan said.
Looking towards the future, Nazish Khan said the truck may move a bit closer to campus in order to become more accessible to their student customers.
“Sometimes students will come all the way from 33rd Street, which can be difficult for them, so we’re working on moving closer to students to make it easier for them,” Nazish Khan said.
Magic Carpet Foods
Magic Carpet Foods, the popular vegetarian food truck that has served Penn's community for over three decades, said business has been steadily picking up after they reopened both trucks on Aug. 25 with full staff.
“We first closed back in March of 2020, when people went on spring break and didn’t come back, and that was so sad,” the truck’s manager, Debbie Varvoutis, said.
Magic Carpet opened briefly for the fall semester of last year before closing again at Thanksgiving, and reopened again last semester. In the spring, Varvoutis said the truck served about 40-50 people per truck a day, as compared to the truck's pre-pandemic average of roughly 300 customers a day. Sales for both trucks are now at about 70% to 75% compared to normal rates, she added.
The cart also had to make budget cuts, reduce staff, and shorten operating times to cope with the financial loss that the pandemic brought upon the business, Varvoutis said.
“We had an amazing GoFundMe page, and we got all the grants and loans that the government offered," Varvoutis said. "We were eligible and they approved all of our grants and so that was really a blessing for us. Without them, we wouldn't be in business today."
In light of celebrating its 37th year on campus this year, Varvoutis said one of her favorite parts of serving the customers is seeing how many familiar faces return for more.
“It’s so much fun now because a lot of parents are old customers, so they bring their kids and get excited to see the same menu that they remember from college or [graduate] school. It’s great to see that,” Varvoutis said.
Allegro Pizza & Grill
Elias Kosnatos, the general manager of Allegro Pizza & Grill, described his time leading the restaurant through the pandemic as “a crazy scene." His family acquired the beloved late-night food staple in 2005.
Following the city's previous indoor dining mandates, Allegro operated only in take-out form for the first six months of the pandemic. Kosnatos said they got rid of three of their four registers and had to put up a giant sign up front that said “OPEN,” as most people assumed the restaurant was closed.
“We were pretty fortunate to be in a good location, where we could still operate. But it's tough, you know, paying the rent and paying the bills was tough,” Kosnatos said, adding that they lost 75% of their employees in the first few months of the pandemic.
Kosnatos said Allegro has still not been able to make up for the lost income from its initial six-month closure due to the pandemic, when he said University City became a "ghost town."
“There were some government funding programs available, but we weren’t able to take advantage of them because all the big corporations were the ones that got all the money,” Kosnatos said. “We were just trying to stay afloat; our main concern was trying to [help] our employees [in] feeding their families.”
There were people that donated to help keep Allegro afloat for the first couple of months, Kosnatos said, but that money was redirected when Allegro decided to match donations to help hospitals and health care workers.
During this time, Kosnatos added that he and employees were all concerned for their and their families’ health during the pandemic. After the city mandate was lifted, the restaurant instated plexiglass separators, signs and other social distancing measures to allow in-person dining, which Kosnatos said added extra costs.
“When I went home after my shift, I had to get literally naked before I went into my house and went straight to the shower, so it was a crazy time.” Kosnatos said.
But Kosnatos is hopeful for business now that students are back on campus, saying that "you can see the livelihood and it makes you feel good" around campus.
“This [New Student Orientation] was one of the craziest,” Kosnatos said. “I have been in this area for 20 years, and every year, it’s pretty much the same but this year it was crazy. Everybody was glad to be back.”
While staying hopeful about Allegro, Kosnatos did not seem as hopeful for another University City pizza joint his family owns: Axis Pizza. "It’s not back to what it was and it may never be,” he said, adding that Axis Pizza has a high rent and lost a lot of business due to COVID-19.
As Allegro is still understaffed, Kosnatos said he feels a sense of pressure about providing good service to customers.
“We want people to understand what we’re going through and how difficult it is right now to keep this business operating and to try to be profitable. With all this going on, we want people to be patient with us and to understand that we are trying to do our jobs as best as we can,” Kosnatos said. “We want you to know that we are here, and we follow all the guidelines, and we will try to serve the community as much as we can.”
House of Our Own
Tucked in between fraternity houses on the 39th block of Spruce Street, House of Our Own, a bookstore that sells used books, is slowly returning to business. The store's primary customers are a mix of students and Philadelphia residents, with some from New York and Washington, D.C., who visit on the weekends, according to co-owner Debbie Sanford.
Sanford said House of Our Own closed for three months after the onset of the pandemic in March, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a directive for all nonessential businesses to shut down. After reopening in June 2020, Sanford said they made sure to be very careful with COVID-19.
“We kept a contact tracing notebook; it was something that I'd read that some businesses were doing in Berlin,” Sanford said. “So, everyone who came in, we took their name and phone and email, and the time they came and they left, so we could see who was here at the same time, and we kept it religiously. And we never got a call, which I think is significant.”
Sanford said the bookstore saw sales climb slowly after reopening. Business seemed to return to normal rates by October 2020, but then slowed sharply soon after, which Sanford guessed happened as people became more concerned about getting sick before meeting their families for Thanksgiving and Christmas. To accommodate hesitant customers, Sanford said they kept the windows open at all times, even well into the winter.
Now, Sanford said that business is operating similar to pre-pandemic levels, except for the past two weeks.
“We've noticed a decline in the last two weeks,” Sanford said. “I think there's a lot of concern about breakthrough infections and I think people are concerned, especially with students coming back to campus.”
Despite experiencing some pandemic-induced drawbacks, Sanford said customers who continued visiting were especially appreciative of the store.
“They would constantly tell us how happy they were that we were open and that they felt so good being here,” Sanford said. “They would come in looking very glassy eyed, and they would walk around and then gradually you could see them sort of reemerge as people.”
She also noted that customers began to explore books other than well-known texts.
“People developed a sense of reading, and they were exploring on their own, not just coming in with a list and saying, ‘I want this book, or somebody said to read this book.' They were exploring," Sanford said.
The Last Word Bookshop
The Last Word Bookshop, located across Penn’s campus on 40th Street, has been operating for almost 20 years.
The owner Larry, who prefers to go by his first name, as he likes “to stay under the radar," said the shop closed for three months due to Wolf's city-wide mandate to shut down all nonessential businesses. Larry said the shop has still not been able to financially make up for that period, but added that the store's financial situation is “not as bad as it could have been” due to grants from the city and from the Local Businesses Association in University City.
Customer visits have resumed back to normal levels after a slow reopening process, Larry said, especially in the last two to three months. Before the pandemic, he said the number of customers would vary each day.
“We got over the hump,” Larry said. “I’m glad we stuck it out.”
He thinks a rise of interest in reading during the pandemic contributed to his business staying afloat.
“More people are reading [books] now than before, because of lack of other things to do,” Larry said.
Despite a positive recovery, Larry said it's still stressful to run the store while worrying about contracting the virus from customers even after widespread vaccination.
“I hate to tell you this, but it was all very boring,” Larry said. “I am glad it’s not newsworthy though, because it could have been a lot worse.”
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