Front Porch, an Abilene coffee shop and eatery, opened its doors Dec. 3.
Less than three months later, COVID-19 forced changes on businesses en masse.
Inherent in its name, co-owner Zach Sheets said, is the idea of people coming together in a welcoming, safe place to share coffee and conversation.
Suddenly, however, the world was encouraged, for the health and safety reasons, to stay apart.
“I think our goal has always been to be a place where people feel comfortable and safe,” he said.
Now, in the first tentative days of the business world reopening, “we have people coming in, and we want to be sensitive to their needs,” Sheets said.
Cautiousness, he said, is still an important part of the picture, “on the part of our community and even broader, regionally as a whole and across the world.”
“As the government kind of opens things back up, I think more and more people will come out and that’s kind of what we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s been kind of a lot of people just kind of gradually coming out and saying, ‘You know, what, I need this communal interaction.'”
Weathering a storm
Doug Peters, president/CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, said most of his experiences working with businesses in crisis — whether it be natural disasters or national crises such as the aftermath of Sept. 11— are about events that “came and went.”
In those cases, response was about “leaving the business community to emerge, clean up and move forward.”
“The (COVID-19) pandemic has been entirely different,” he said. “It caught many businesses — and not just in Abilene — without a plan on how to best deal with a sudden, unknown reality.”
Like a tornado that refused to pass, Peters said.
Businesses have been creative making the best out of a bad situation, “most all of which has been beyond their control,” he said.
“They’ve been smart, they’ve been proactive and they’ve been creative,” Peters said. “Opening back up means that those business owners and managers can get back to doing what they’re driven to do, and they’re doing it in some creative ways.”
But they also know “we have but one chance to get the reopening right,” he said.
To help, the chamber created a COVID-19 Business Compliant Partner pledge to help businesses create and maintain a safe work environment — and instill in customers and others a sense of reassurance they’re doing all they can to minimize health risks.
“We all agree that if we don’t do it in accordance with the CDC and health district recommendations, we could suffer an unimaginable setback,” Peters said.
Finding a path
Front Porch, like many businesses of its type, offered take-out meals once closures began, including meals geared toward families. It focused, too, on other areas, such as getting coffee roasting and a website that would allow people to order online.
The business was determined to keep all its employees working, Sheets said, “even before the government offered additional help.”
“That’s been a blessing to be able to keep our team intact, and even add a couple of team members,” he said.
He has seen customers be generous, buying extra loaves of bread or family meals for those in need.
“For us to be able to be a part of that has been awesome,” he said.
Having to change things up has opened opportunities for expanding the business’ customer base.
It’s also been a chance for a sort of soft reset.
“It”s been a time to not necessarily slow down, but to reassess,” Sheets said. “What are some processes and systems that we can put in place in order to serve people well and be efficient in the way that we get them their food and coffee?”
‘Doing all we can’
Not all businesses right now have a clear path back, but they still hope for better days ahead.
James Bridwell, said Sockdolager, where he is head brewer, lies in a strange space right now — not quite a bar, not a restaurant, which has made its place in the scheme of reopening difficult.
“I think they’re considering us a bar, even though we’re a manufacturer,” he said. “We don’t really know what to expect anymore.”
The business relocated from its original China Street location in early April and had originally planned a grand opening April 8, Bridwell said.
An online video shows the first growler of beer at its new location more than a month ago.
Bars in Texas were allowed by Gov. Greg Abbott to reopen May 22.
Abilene has been generous, he said, and supported the business with to-go orders.
But with so many not working, “there comes a point where you have to prioritize,” he said, and alcohol “ends up taking a hit, because it’s not a necessity.”
The business, he said, saw an 80% drop in its cash flow from March to April.
“Distributors are slowly taking our stuff out now,” he said. “But we sell to bars. Restaurants can buy some of it, but most of our market that we sell to is in bars — and those bars aren’t even open.”
The business received money from the Payment Protection Program, keeping everyone employed, while take-out orders “keep the lights on.”
But the virus came at a time when Sockdolager was looking forward to expanding into new markets, a “big frustration,” Bridwell said.
“We just built (a) brand new building and we have all this new equipment and we’re ready to roll out, start cranking out a ton of beer,” he said. “But we can’t do anything with it right now.”
That said, the business plans to reopen in a way both timely and safely.
“We’re busting it and doing every thing we can over here,” he said. “We’re hopeful, and we know we could be in a lot worse position. We’re just taking it a week at a time and making things work.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
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