Businesses in Downtown Storrs employed many strategies to adapt to COVID-19 and experienced support from both locals and later the University of Connecticut.
D.P. Dough Storrs owner Cory Hill said he remembers March 2020 like it was yesterday. He said he and other Storrs business owners became concerned when he heard UConn could have a three-week extended spring break. Once it became official, he said he immediately reached out to UConn and his insurance provider to see if he could file an insurance claim for lost business, but nothing was offered at the time.
“We were worried about losing out on that business that we rely on leading into the summer. Those weeks between spring break and summer break are really crucial for local UConn businesses such as mine,” Hill said over the phone.
Hill, a savvy and enthusiastic business owner, usually has a consistently busy operation, but students being sent home, mandates keeping customers on lockdown and the dangerous nature of the virus itself made him worry.
“I’ve owned D.P. Dough since 2008, and this was the first time that during the semester I was scared for sales, my staff, my customers, business. The first time I was ever actually concerned that we weren’t going to survive.”
Hill said it is normal for sales to go down dramatically during the summer as most students are back home, so he said he began planning in advance for a five-month summer. He received money from the Paycheck Protection Program to help cover his employees’ salaries. He said the government assistance helped him feel more comfortable with the situation.
“Besides what was happening with the pandemic, everything seemed to be back to normal for me, for my business, and for my staff. We were following guidelines, wearing masks. We had hand sanitizer stations all over the store. Sales and operations were practically back to normal in Fall of 2020,” Hill said.
Because campus remained at 50% capacity for much of the 2020-2021 school year, Hill scaled back staff. He said the local Storrs Mansfield community went above and beyond with pickup and delivery, surprising him with how much revenue D.P. Dough earned.
“The locals picked up the slack, and they carried us through spring of 2021. I also can’t believe the response we’ve had from the students. Sales are strong. People are being really nice to us. I think there’s kind of a new feeling towards food service where everyone is really thankful for what we did during quarantine,” Hill said. “It’s refreshing how everyone’s back and it’s great to see people. I could not be happier right now with how well things are going with the business.”
Aaron Paterson, the owner of Storrs Center Cycle since its opening in 2010, said he made it through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in a stable position. With more people wanting to be active and outdoors after various lockdowns and the shut-down of normal activities, there was a boom in the cycling industry, according to Paterson.
With a loyal following and regular customers spanning from Connecticut to Vermont who requested everything, from custom work on wheels and builds to bikes for children, Paterson said Storrs Center Cycle was able to uphold its reputation for high end work. He said he avoided shut-downs and COVID-19 scares by employing safety measures like curbside service.
“We were deemed essential from the very start. We locked the doors and worked curbside and worked the whole time,” Paterson said over the phone. “We used strict methods of protection and didn’t have one COVID breakout.”
His only issue has been supply chain shortages.
“We could have had more sales, but we don’t have the inventory. Those levels are historically low with lots of backlogs, so bikes aren’t in the shop like normal,” Paterson said.
Amahia Keaton manages the Storrs and Newington Mooyah locations. She said she entered her position around the time the pandemic hit, and at first, she found it hard to adapt to a new normal. She said there were numerous new rules and her roles now included ensuring customers were following mandates.
“One store I manage has different mandates than the other. Here, everyone has to wear a mask even if you’re vaccinated. At the other store [Newington], it doesn’t really matter. It’s hard to keep up with different mandates in different towns,” Keaton said over the phone.
To keep workers safe, staff was split into two units and neither group saw each other. Once shifts were done, workers had to leave, and they could not switch groups. Keaton said she didn’t see much of half her staff. She said Mooyah became busier during the pandemic, with options like curbside available, but having less staff made it hard to keep up.
Matt Tetreault, owner of Fresh Fork Cafe and a CLAS 08’ UConn alum, said his business is still adapting to pandemic times.
“Fresh Fork Cafe is finding its footing as we continuously adapt and pivot with a pandemic-friendly business model. We have found that consumer behavior has changed drastically and is nowhere near the way it was,” Tetreault said in an email. “We are still relying heavily on take out sales while making sure we provide a clean and quick service model for our dine-in customers.”
The cafe has been closing early because of low business traffic, and many areas, like staff shortages and customer habits, remain the biggest obstacles, according to Tetreault. However, he said there are elements to Fresh Fork Cafe which are well-suited for the current dining climate, such as options well equipped for to-go and leisure eating.
A common theme with businesses and their experience during the pandemic is the local support provided by the Storrs Mansfield community. Although Fresh Fork Cafe received no government support, Tetreault said the local community ensured the business was not forgotten.
“We are very fortunate that many local residents and workers continue to support our business and that groups are using us for catering services in addition to our normal restaurant operation. UConn students have been a great help with more people on-campus and kindly supporting our business,” Tetreault said. “We did not receive any government support and continue to bootstrap our way through the pandemic and focus on our customers.”