Sunday, June 4, 2023

Guest contributor: How downtown Wilmington businesses are coping with Covid-19 [Free read]

Editor’s note: This is a guest article.

WILMINGTON — Wilmington is normally flooded with tourists in the Spring, with people streaming in and out of local shops and boutiques, dining on the waterfront, and socializing in the breweries. However, this season, the streets of Downtown Wilmington are barren, and the shops are empty.

With restaurants and shops only able to provide their services through take-out and curbside pick-up, local businesses have either found creative ways to adapt or have closed, some maybe for good.

While downtown Wilmington feels mostly lifeless, it is not entirely a ghost town.

The eight-week-old gelato shop right on the boardwalk, known as Gelarto, remains open, preserving some of Wilmington’s charm and energy. In order to comply with regulations, Gelarto sells gelato right at the door.

“I have received so many compliments and comments that we are still open,” Dylan Pierce, the only remaining employee at Gelarto, said. “We are giving people happiness.”

Gelarto is currently making about 50 transactions a day. Before the pandemic, it was closer to 200 transactions. Although the shop is making significantly less, customers have been “pretty generous” when it comes to tipping.

“I am receiving more tips than what I would normally be making,” Pierce said.

Restaurant owners also noted the support that they are receiving from their customers. Cem Atkas, owner of the Black Sea Grill, a Mediterranean restaurant located in downtown Wilmington, said, “We are so humbled that customers are really doing their best to support us. It makes you feel really good to have human beings that are doing [compassionate things] in times like these.”

Atkas added, “We are in this thing together. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s a fact.” Although revenue is down 90 percent, the support customers are providing have allowed this family-owned restaurant to remain open, Atkas said.

James Smith, the owner of the restaurants Smoke on the Water, Bone & Bean, and Fork n Cork described the Facebook messages and emails he has been receiving from some of his most loyal customers.

“I’ve gotten quite a few messages, with mostly people saying things like ‘I miss my burger. I miss my spot at the bar,” Smith said

Currently, all three of Smith’s restaurants are closed.

“We tried to do takeout for a week or so and it was weak. I was losing money just doing the takeout, so we decided to shut it down,” Smith explained. While open, Smith reported making 12-15 percent of what they typically make.

“It was brutal,” Smith said.

Smith hopes to re-open Bone & Bean in the coming week and offer a more limited menu and a family-takeout meal of the day.

“You are talking about totally reworking the business plan, which is just weird,” Smith said, adding that he believes his Bone & Bean menu can best translate into to-go.

His other two restaurants, he explains, aren’t the same without the atmosphere that comes along with it.

“The dine-in. That’s the experience,” Smith said. 

Smith is not alone in this notion. Both the owner of an art gallery and the owner of a spice and tea store in downtown Wilmington also expressed anxiety over losing the atmosphere of their store due to the pandemic.

Mike Bryand, who owns the Bryand Gallery, commented on no longer having customers in his store.

“It’s the joy that people get, that’s what I miss,” Brand said.

Bryand relocated his gallery from the Old Wilmington City Market to a larger space at 20 S. Front St. just recently, in February.

“I know we will survive it, but I don’t know how long of a struggle it’s going to be. All of a sudden, I feel like Charlie Brown with Lucy where you go to kick the ball, but she pulls it away from you,” Bryand said.

Gary Coleman, owner of Cape Fear Spice Merchants, commented on the benefits customers are losing now that the physical store is closed.

“We don’t have a way for people to see or smell [the products],” Coleman said, adding that the experience of enjoying the aromas of the teas and spices,(and tasting the wide selection of oils and vinegar, is a critical component to the success of the store. 

While surviving the shutdown is most of these local business owners’ primary concern, many are also beginning to consider what life might look like once their stores are able to re-open.

Atkas wondered, “How are we going to get the customers to come into [our restaurant] and convince them they are safe, to not worry?”

While some owners were most concerned about customers choosing to avoid restaurants and shops post-shutdown, others feared the transition period.

Smith said, “That’s what I’m concerned about, when we reopen, if we do have a table restriction. If I can only sit 30 percent, that throws the whole financial plan out the window.”

Bryand concluded, “It’s the great unknown.” 

Ariana Howard is a senior studying journalism at Davidson College in North Carolina. She has written for the Davidsonian and the Charlotte Ledger.

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