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As the stream of changes, restrictions, shutdowns, and economic chaos related to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic continues, Guilford’s close-knit community of businesses and merchants have been forced to adapt to circumstances that are often confusing and deeply challenging. Out of this adversity, however, has emerged a whole new spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, along with a bevy of new collaborative initiatives as local business owners work together to support each and their community through this crisis.
“Every day brings new challenges, both positive and negative,” said Alisha Rayner, owner of The Marketplace.
Over the last three weeks, executive orders by Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont have shuttered all non-essential businesses and limited restaurants to delivering or offering takeout, creating a mad scramble for business owners trying out what they can do to remain open and solvent. Some have closed indefinitely, while others continue to evaluate on a weekly basis what they can or want to do with their business, with no end in sight to the pandemic.
Jodi Burns, owner of Blazing Fresh Donuts, said she has moved to a weekend-only 10 a.m to 4 p.m. takeout schedule for her made-to-order donut shop. She said the most important practice any Guilford business owner can cultivate is staying connected digitally—with customers, with fellow business owners, and with state and local officials.
“People are definitely spending more time online, because they’re home and it’s a source of entertainment, and it’s a source of information,” Burns said. “For the companies that weren’t actively engaging on social media before, they’re really feeling that even more now. Because it’s really hard to build a social media presence from zero.”
Social media allows even retail business owners to reach out to customers, and potentially offer their products as curbside pickups or mail-delivery, Burns said. It also allows restaurants to continue to engage with a customer base as things like menus or hours change.
Rayner said The Marketplace has used its social media to let customers know when they get a certain product in stock—specifically high-demand supplies like toilet paper.
“We’ve done that, and then immediately people rush in, and your stock is gone,” she laughed.
One thing that almost all Guilford businesses have struggled with is getting the most basic information out there, whether or not they are still open, and if so, what services they are still offering.
Local web developer Adam Scott had been maintaining a spreadsheet with all of this information that had been shared with some people, but after hearing an “overwhelming” response from business owners, decided to offer his skills to make a website that can be accessed by anyone.
That website also allows proprietors to update things like hours or special offers at any time, and gives people the option to sort by category, narrowing their searches to things like restaurants or automotive services.
“It really just came out of seeing a lot of the activity on Facebook, people wanting to support businesses [and] myself wanting to support local businesses and service workers,” Scott said. “And I thought...how could I help?”
Scott said he has seen more potential through these kinds of online platforms, including retail businesses that are beginning to or thinking of offering virtual tours of their stores, showing off products that can be ordered online or over the phone.
Staying connected online has also allowed business owners to stay abreast of all the structural and policy changes at the state, local, and federal level, Guilford business owners said.
An email chain that includes a wide swath of Guilford businesses, along with Guilford Economic Development Coordinator Brian McGlone and the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce, has been vital for those trying to figure out what loans are available or what kind of regulation changes are coming down the pipeline, according to Burns. Rayner described this email chain as “kind of our lifeline.”
Things like sales and use tax payments being deferred from the end of March to the end of May, which was handed down somewhat abruptly on March 30, was something that many Guilford business owners shared through this email chain, according to Burns.
Both Burns and Rayner also praised state legislators State Representative Sean Scanlon (D-98) and State Senator Christine Cohen (D-12), who they said have stayed in touch remotely, holding conference calls to listen to concerns and providing updates on the status of relief efforts.
“Our legislators have been extremely generous with their time,” Burns said.
Rayner also lauded McGlone, who she said is “plugged in” to what business owners need, and that she felt like Cohen and Scanlon have definitely heard issues or questions raised by her and others in town.
“I think as much as you get inundated [on social media], and of course now it’s ten-fold, I think that some of those messages are getting through,” she said.
Business to Business
Another drive within the business community has been offering any kind of support they can, to each other, as well as to residents who are hardest hit by the current crisis.
Rayner said she has been acutely aware that there are elderly people who are less likely to connect on social media or through email, who might not be aware of things like grocery delivery services, which is something The Marketplace began right at the beginning of the announced closures almost three weeks ago.
“We’ve [had] sons and daughters who are calling for their elderly parents,” Rayner said. “Maybe they don’t even live in the community, but they’ve heard through social media that we deliver...I do fear that we’re not going far and wide.”
Rayner has been in touch with town officials in the recently launched senior shopping program under the Guilford CARES banner, which assigns volunteers to shop for elderly or immuno-compromised residents during the pandemic, hoping to get the word out that they can safely provide food for people.
Other businesses have tried to directly support each other, including offering discounts or supplies, according to Burns.
One particularly successful collaboration has been between Cilantro Specialty Foods, Village Chocolatier, and Flutterbys.
As a candy store and gift shop, respectively, Village Chocolatier and Flutterbys are shut down indefinitely by order of the governor as non-essential businesses. But Cilantros owner Cindy Wallace, seeing all the products that these two businesses were unable to sell, saw a simple solution.
After reaching out to Ingrid Collins, owner of Village Chocolatier, Wallace said she started moving candy into her store, and also began advertising it online.
“I cannot tell you how much candy we’re selling here—it’s unbelievable, actually,” Wallace said.
Flutterbys owner Beth O’Bymachow subsequently contacted her, Wallace said, resulting in Cilantros stocking a number of stuffed animals, which also flew off the shelves.
“We’re all in this together,” Wallace said. “We’re a community.”
Another collaborative effort that is still in the works with details still being finalized is a so-called “mystery bag” program, through which residents can purchase a collection of small items or gift cards contributed collectively by several Guilford businesses.
Businesses owners said this program would allow residents to directly support multiple shops, restaurants, and merchants, and would create another avenue for shops to distribute their goods.
The Marketplace would be an ideal place to sell these baskets, Rayner said, due to its large and prominent windows, though that has yet to be finalized.
Something else going on in the community that business owners don’t have a direct say in but are still appreciative of is residents who have put together somewhat impromptu little collaborative pick-up groups, where a single individual will volunteer to drive and collect take-out food or grocery orders for a handful of other families or households.
Burns said she has heard about this practice from several of her customers, which serves to limit the number of people who have to leave their houses and risk their health, and also encourages residents to support local eateries.
Looking to the Future
All these programs, adaptations, and connections have been born out of extremely difficult times. Nearly every small business in town is currently worrying about their future in ways many of them never had before, questioning whether they will make payroll, afford their rent, or stay solvent while the pandemic continues to disrupt lives and the worldwide economy.
But through these collaborative gestures and initiatives—large and small—Guilford’s business community hopes to hold each other up, keeping the faith in hopes of better times ahead.
Case in point: Having candy and stuffed animals in Cilantros actually had another important ancillary benefit, according to Wallace. It brought a little bit of extra cheer to her employees, and to her store, she said, giving the whole environment something of a celebratory,decorative feeling.
“Even though this is all so scary...there still has to be joy,” she said. “We have flowers all over the store. We just want people to feel good. We just want them to know that there’s hope.”
For a list of Guilford businesses with updated hours and services provided, visit www.supportguilford.business. For a regional list of restaurants offering take-out and delivery, visit Zip06.com. The Courier/Zip06.com is also offering free print and online advertising packages to businesses affected by the pandemic; for information on the Partner Support Program, visit Zip06.com.