Food businesses endure difficult transitions during pandemic
When Governor Tom Wolf began implementing social restrictions in mid March to suppress the spread of COVID-19, it became a test of true grit for businesses and organizations in Allegheny County.
Nonessential businesses were forced to close and those deemed essential, including food and drink establishments, were pushed to provide takeout and curbside pickup meals to reduce human interaction.
Jen Saffron, owner of Sprezzatura in Millvale, said it’s been a difficult transition financially and culturally.
“The first thing I told my staff is that we cannot hug customers,” Saffron said. “People love us, and that’s the kind of business we’ve always wanted. They come for comfort.”
Founded on authentic Italian and Italian American cuisine, the cafe is built on community. Saffron said people who come in for dinner or a special occasion tend to sit and socialize for hours.
“That’s the kind of place we are, but now those things aren’t happening,” Saffron said. “The main thing for us is that the [neighborhood] still needs to be served.”
Since they opened in November 2019, Sprezzatura has partnered with The Northern Area Boys and Girls Club in Millvale to provide healthy meals for the kids and continue to do so while schools, which support food insecure students, are closed indefinitely.
Tupelo Honey Teas in Millvale made the decision to close the shop on March 21 to allow employees and owner Danielle Spinola to shelter-in-place. Sprinola has been in the store a few times since closing to mix tea blends for online orders, which have been higher than usual, and she is grateful for it.
“I told my employees that I would continue to pay them during this time,” Spinola said. “Nobody asked for this. It’s not like any of us threw up our hands and said we don’t want to work anymore.”
Spinola plans on opening the shop up soon and staggering employee shifts so they can continue to serve the community with takeout meals. Recently she has been thinking of ways to restructure her Pay It Forward program; how it has worked in the past is that customers would purchase a drink and meal card, like a gift card, to donate to the program and Tupelo would give those cards to a different nonprofit each month who would then distribute the cards to those in need of a free drink or meal. Spinola said it will work similarly, but will focus on benefitting borough residents specifically.
“I want to put these cards towards immediate needs in the community as we get back at it,” Spinola said.
Essential small businesses like these are central in maintaining community vibrancy during a crisis and providing access to food, but the unexpected financial hardships have taken a toll on how these businesses can respond. Event and ticket management companies have added another layer of stress, especially for Spinola. She received a check in the mail from Brown Paper Tickets as payment for an event she already held, but the check bounced. Spinola said BPT told her, and other customers, that they “had to refund future event tickets because of COVID” and reneged payment for previous events.
For Jackie Page-Heidelberg, owner of Love Rocks Cafe in McKees Rocks, she’s just trying to keep her “head above water.” She recently changed her operating hours in response to COVID-19 and will be reopening after the Easter holiday.
Located in the Father Ryan Arts Center, Page-Heidelberg said she had been working six days a week to keep the doors open and make enough money to pay the bills. She received a lot of information on loan options available for small businesses, but said she’s been very overwhelmed by it all.
“I can’t even think about borrowing anything right now,” Page-Heidelberg said. “I’m just trying to make it work with what I’ve got.”
She said her focus is on keeping herself, her family, and her community fed. Partnering with the Allegheny County Housing Authority, Page-Heidelberg said she’ll be providing 100 meals to Hays Manor residents and she’s been thinking about other ways to help food insecure McKees Rocks residents that may be struggling.
“Never in my life would I have expected something like this to happen,” Page-Heidelberg said.
All three women-owned food businesses were part of New Sun Rising’s Launch Incubator program. Having the experience of participating in a business development cohort provided them with a peer and community network, which can make a critical difference during challenging times.
Saffron said she has been activating that network recently, encouraging people to promote their local food establishments and support them in other ways if individuals are able to do so.
“It doesn’t take much. It could mean once a week you order a quart of soup from somebody and that’s helpful,” Saffron said.
“What happens during times like this is there is a rise in gun sales and the grip of fear and take hold. That’s when people forget the real power isn’t just protecting your own home, it’s thinking about your neighbors and looking out for others.”
During this shelter in place, individuals and organizations have sponsored Sprezzatura to prepare over 600 meals for those in need, helping the cafe stay open to serve Millvale and surrounding communities.
Sprezzatura gave thanks to: Connie & Ron Robinson, Mrs. Bova, Lisel Virkel, Kirsten Ervin, Peggy Outon, Joe Saffron, Merceda & Joe Saffron, Diana & Eddie Martucci, Bonnie DeMotte and Second Harvest, and New Sun Rising.
The meals were given to the Women’s Center and Shelter, the nurses at Western Psych, social workers at Resolve Crisis Network, staff and members of the Millvale Boys and Girls Club, Sharpsburg residents, and the Millvale Police.