Florence businesses struggling to regain customers | Local News

FLORENCE, S.C. – With the number of coronavirus cases continuing to climb, businesses and restaurants in the Florence area are trying to stay on top of new guidelines for opening, proper procedures for social distancing and sanitizing their businesses while trying to grow their businesses.

Although most have been allowed to open at least partially within the past month or two, many are still struggling to keep afloat.

“The restaurants are struggling to keep the doors open in the hopes of a more normal environment in the not-too-distant future,” said Mike Miller, president of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce.

“Some have found ways to improve sales through expanded outdoor seating and maintaining newly discovered delivery and pickup services. Some cannot accommodate the new guidelines and have opted to just remain closed to cut losses, while others have just given up and closed.

“The one thing that restaurants are focused on right now is survival knowing that others will not make it. This leaves great potential for new customers now and down the road.”

Jazz on Dargan, at 137 N. Dargan St. in downtown Florence, opened back up in early June for limited indoor dining and private dinners.

Owner Thomas Mitchell said the establishment tried curbside for approximately one week, but that didn’t work well. Since opening back up, Mitchell said Jazz on Dargan is doing about 40 to 50% of its normal business.

“We are moving forward,” Mitchell said.

He said they are social distancing and spacing tables apart to keep everyone safe.

Mitchell said he hopes to bring back entertainment about the first of July. He said that will bring in more business.

Kyle Hardee is a member of the Downcountry Dining Group that owns Tubbs at 1500 Second Loop Road in Florence; King Jefe at 134 S. Irby St. in Florence; Sweet Bakery and is a partner in Pizza Mio. He said they have resumed inside dining, and business is approximately 50%, but that is with seating limited to 50% capacity.

Hardee said restaurants are having a difficult time during COVID-19 because most operate on a “razor-thin” profit margin at their best. He said it is difficult for restaurants to be profitable at this time.

“Every day is a tossup of whether or not we are going to make it,” he said. “Some days you feel like you are going to make it, and others you don’t.”

Hardee said the first round of the payroll protection program (PPP) was helpful.

“I don’t know if we would have made it through without it,” Hardee said, “but that is gone now.”

Hardee said he feels sorry for the restaurants that have not been able to be flexible or adapt to this situation. He said there will be restaurants that won’t survive. He said restaurants with drive-thru capability are a little more successful right now.

Hardee said while he has utilized call-in, curbside pickup, Tubbs is not really set up for that. He said before COVID-19, approximately 10% of its business was call-in, and now it accounts for roughly 40%. He said they only have one phone line, and people get upset when they can’t get through quickly.

Hardee has tried to think “outside the box” to keep his business going. He said he has gone on the road selling crab legs and Lowcountry boil to keep the lights on when the restaurant couldn’t open.

Hardee said he would like for people to keep supporting local businesses and to be patient with them as they navigate these unusual times.

“We are in a no-win situation, but I am going to keep on fighting,” Hardee said. “I love it; I am excited to come to work and take on each new challenge.”

Hardee said the work is fun, and he enjoys being a part of the community.

Hardee reiterated that he and his partners are doing everything they can to be safe.

“My employees are my No. 1 priority,” he said. “As are our customers.”

Flavors of India, at 137 E. Palmetto St. in Florence, has not resumed inside dining yet.

Owner Madhur Chodda said the restaurant has takeout, and everything is going OK for now. He said it depends on the day, but they are doing about 50% or less of their usual business.

“Maybe in a few weeks we will open back open (for inside dining),” he said.

The Drive-In Restaurant, at 135 E. Palmetto St. in Florence, remains open only for curbside and takeout, also.

Owner Pauline Kremydas said her restaurant is fortunately set up for this type of business. She said the safety of her employees and customers are her biggest concern, and she will not open up the dining room until they can safely do so at 100%.

“Thank God we have been blessed that we are set up for this type of (to-go) business,” Kremydas said.

She said they are doing well.

Victors’ dining room has been open for three weeks, and most guests are coming to eat on premise, said Maria Mitropoulos of the restaurant at 126 W. Evans St. in downtown Florence. “Our to-go business is still busier than it was before COIVD hit, but not as busy as when it was the only option. Rotary will return on July 6, and they are the first consistently large group to resume their meeting schedule.

“The hardest part about being open right now is that public perception is that everything should be ‘back to normal,’ but we are not able to get product(s) as normal. We are not able to staff as normal. We are adding many steps of sanitization to our process. Nothing is really normal.”

Bazens, at 704 S. Irby St. in Florence, is open for business. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch.

Owner Stacy Mims said the restaurant closed completely for three weeks and then opened for takeout only before reopening for inside dining.

Mims said the restaurant has been open inside for approximately five or six weeks, and business started off slowly at roughly 30% of normal.

“It increases day by day,” Mims said. “It is now about 70% of normal and seems to have leveled out.”

Even though they have marked off every other table to social distancing, Mims said he could still do a little more volume.

“I can survive at this, keep my employees and bills paid,” he said.

Mims is hoping business will get back to what it once was. He has been able to keep all of his employees although not for as many hours. He said he took out the PPP loan to be able to pay his employees some during the time he was closed.

The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday through Friday and from 6 to 11 a.m. Saturday for breakfast only.

Joy and Craig Walker are owners of The Loft Downtown, at 163 N. Dargan St. in Florence.

Joy Walker said the bar and grill, which opened two years ago this Labor Day, is open at half capacity.

She said they are taking every precaution to keep employees and guests safe, including social distancing, sanitizing, taking temperatures, having guests sign in with their name and phone number so they can be called should someone come down with the coronavirus.

“Still a lot of people are afraid to come out,” she said.

Walker said June 20 was a good Saturday night for them, but they still have less than half of the business as before the shutdown. She said they are working with approximately half of their staff and purchasing only what they need to cut cost wherever possible.

For now, Walker said they are only open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Geoff Roberts, manager of The Birds Nest and Apple Annie’s, said they have been very blessed since opening back up. He said people seem eager to get back out eating.

Roberts said they are at a little more than half capacity with limited seating inside and outside to comply with social distancing. He said available tables are full. He said new regulations will be in place on Monday that requires staff to wear masks and gloves not only in the kitchen at all times but also in the dining area.

Roberts said staff members are worried about being exposed to the coronavirus, and they are trying to do everything possible to keep everyone safe, employees and customers.

Birds Nest is located at 166 S. Dargan St., and Apple Annie’s is located at 1720 W. Palmetto St. in Florence.

Retail shops have their own set of challenges during this unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mainstream Boutique on West Evans Street in downtown Florence reopened on June 2 with limited hours.

Manager Agathoula Gioldasis said the shop is social distancing. She said they try to have less than five people in at a time. They encourage the use of hand sanitizer and wipes and recommend masks but do not require them.

Gioldasis said people are allowed to try on clothes.

“We have local people come in who support us,” she said. “Some days are good, but I can tell you it is not what it was.”

Gioldasis said business is approximately half of what it was before COVID-19.

She said hours were Monday through Saturday. The hours are now limited to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. She said they have also cut the staff and hours for them as well.

“We closed at the end of March,” Gioldasis said. “The owner tried some online.”

Gioldasis said she hopes business will return to more normal hours by August.

“People seem anxious to be back out shopping,” she said.

Ella’s Boutique on West Evans Street in downtown Florence is back open by appointment from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Walk-ins are welcome, but everyone must wear a mask.

Owner Ella Frazier said she closed on March 21 and business has not been good since she reopened.

“People are afraid to get out,” Frazier said.

She said before the coronavirus, she had a high level of foot traffic, and now she seldom has someone come to her door off the street. Frazier said roughly 70% to 80% of her business before coronavirus was from outside of Florence. She sells women’s clothing, hats, jewelry and shoes.

Frazier said she is really struggling right now.

“You are not open until you have a customer,” Frazier said.

She said minority businesses have been hit hard. Frazier said just the other day she had a call from a teacher at Francis Marion University who called and said she wanted to come by to shop.

“That she wanted to support me,” Frazier said.

She said that made her feel good.

“I’ve been here 11 years,” Frazier said. “I may lose my business. It is a sad situation. I am not alone, though. I don’t want to close. I was here before downtown revitalization began. I love what I do.”

Frazier said she isn’t optimistic that her situation will turn around soon, but she is hoping that business will return.

Frazier said she also owns the first African American-owned bed and breakfast in Florence on Kuker Street, called Ambrias Garden Manor. She said it opened 17 years ago. At the beginning of the coronavirus, all reservations were canceled between April and now, she said. Frazier said she has had calls from people wanting to make reservations, but she is hesitant to reopen at this time.

“I am just afraid to open up yet,” she said.

During the NASCAR races in Darlington, Frazier said she is always full and hopes that she will able to open before then.

Charlene Lowery, one of three partners in MiLadies 182 in downtown Florence, said MiLadies opened back up on May 5 by appointment only. Everyone entering the shop must wear a mask.

“We are doing fairly well,” Lowery said. “It is not as good as we would like.”

Lowery said she has been calling customers to let them know the shop is open.

The dress shop has been located in downtown Florence for approximately five years. Lowery said it has roughly 30% of the business it had before the coronavirus hit.

“I don’t think there is the (foot) traffic downtown, walking and shopping like we had,” Lowery said. “In these COVID times, not a lot of people are shopping. Where are they going to wear it if they buy it?”

She said they are sanitizing and practicing social distancing. If a garment is tried on, Lowery said it is sprayed with fabric sanitizer and steamed.

“We have a mask available for shoppers who forget theirs,” she said.

Lowery said they can’t survive if totally closed. She said people are buying by special order from a new designer, and that has helped their business.

“We hope to launch our website by July 1,” she said.

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