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How small businesses in Brooklyn Heights learned to cope with Covid

January 20, 2022 Mary Frost
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Surviving Brooklyn Heights business owners have had to use every ounce of ingenuity and all their years of experience to hold on during the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When even an operation like JPMorgan Chase is forced to close its branch on Montague Street, how do small businesses manage to stay open? (Out of 67 Chase branches in Brooklyn, 22 are temporarily closed due to staff shortages in the wake of the vaccination mandate.)

The Brooklyn Eagle spoke to retail, restaurant and other business owners in Brooklyn Heights to gain insight into their strategies as the Omicron variant peaks.

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Estela Johannesen, owner of James Weir Florist, said it has been difficult, but she has been able to keep her business thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic by improvising. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Estela Johannesen, James Weir Florist: ‘Improvise’

“It’s a good thing to have been born and raised in a third-world country because you can improvise,” said Estela Johannesen, proprietor of James Weir Florist at 107 Montague St. since 1992. Johannesen grew up in the mountains and jungles of Costa Rica. Since Covid, she has been improvising like crazy.

The flower shop, founded in 1853, is currently experiencing a staff shortage. “It’s very problematic, and thank God we’ve been together many years as a team. So we totally understand each other and we have respect and consideration. If somebody gets sick, we all have to work extra hard,” she said. Until the shop hires a driver, she and her crew are making local deliveries themselves.

Johannesen realized early on that it might become difficult acquiring necessary materials. “So, I kept buying everything. Now there’s a big shortage of basic stuff like clay pots, like Oasis foam that designers use. And we don’t use it much, but a lot of designers use color sprays for flowers. Nobody has it.”

Shipments of flowers from countries like Holland have also dried up. “So, I said, so why don’t we use local flowers?” She contacted New Jersey greenhouses. “I said, ‘Bring me lilac, bring me this, bring me that,’ and I made the most beautiful arrangements with whatever wildflowers we had. My God, everybody just said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Everybody was so grateful.”

COVID has brought cancellations of parties and events, Johannesen said. Prices have also skyrocketed. “The freight, the trucking, everything’s going up. So, you just improvise.” 

Variety Mart owner Juan Rivera says order delays are a big problem. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Juan Rivera, Variety Mart: ‘Order delays’ 

The shelves are filled with household necessities at Variety Mart, 136 Montague Street, but there are a few gaps. “We’re a family business and we’ve been affected by COVID like everyone else,” said owner Juan Rivera. Most employees are family members and are completely vaccinated, including boosters, he said.

Rivera said when items he orders are out of stock, he has to reorder, often leading to an additional two- to three-week delay.

Expenses are going up as well, he said. “There’s an increase in prices across the board. I had to raise my prices on certain items. I’m trying to keep it reasonable but at times prices have to go up.”

With COVID, walk-in business is down, Rivera said. “My customers are not frequenting the store as much. 

“I’d like to see everyone vaccinated,” he said. “That’s what’s going to keep the community, the store owners and shopkeepers safe, and we will all get through this.”

Thomas Calfa, the owner of Lassen & Hennigs, said his business has been hurt by rising prices and difficulty obtaining necessary goods. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Thomas Calfa, Lassen & Hennigs: ‘Rising costs’

“We are not having a problem at this location with employees,” said Thomas Calfa, owner of Lassen & Hennigs deli, which has been on Montague Street since 1949. “For the most part, we are okay. It’s similar with our place in DUMBO.”

“The big thing is — and everybody knows it — is lack of ability to get goods and the rising costs of everything. All the plastic-ware, all the paper goods have increased, all of them. Everything costs more. So, of course, you have to raise prices,” he said. 

Calfa said heating prices have almost doubled since last year. “People who don’t have as much means, how do they pay their heating bills? People around here may not be so worried about that, but it exists.”

Dimitri Likourentzos, owner of Park Plaza Restaurant, says constantly changing information about COVID-19 is making the situation worse for small businesses. “There is so much uncertainty.” Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Dimitri Likourentzos, Park Plaza Restaurant: ‘Constantly changing information’

The family-owned Park Plaza Restaurant has been in operation since 1983 on Cadman Plaza West. Dimitri Likourentzos said he anticipated the effect of the pandemic early on. 

“I anticipated it and I brought on extra help for part time,” he said. “And they’re flexible, so we are able to have a lot of overlapping schedules.”

One problem is the large size of the restaurant, he said. “We are quadruple the size of everybody else. We are not doing that much more business right now, but I have all this crew. We have about 30 employees. That’s a huge staff for a restaurant.” 

On the plus side. almost every staff member vaccinated voluntarily. “I think we are at 99 percent vaccination rate.”

Likourentzos says constantly changing information is making the situation worse for small businesses. “There is so much uncertainty, especially now that the CDC made it official that it’s a 5-day rehab after getting it. Now some of the people are saying, ‘Really? Is it real? Or is it not? Do they even know what they are doing?’ So there it is. When you have such shaky, constantly changing information, how do you expect anybody to try to get their lives back together?

“We thank everybody who was able to support us and we understand people who might have been reluctant,” he added. “We hope to bounce back soon because it’s a matter of life and death when it comes to the business.”

Laurent Chavenet, owner of Le French Tart Deli on Henry Street, works from from 5 a.m. until 8 at night. “I work for my employees when they are sick,” he said. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Laurent Chavenet, Le French Tart Deli

One of the newest retail businesses in Brooklyn Heights is Le French Tart Deli, at 44 Henry St.  The shop has five employees. 

“Everything is made fresh, everything is baked in-house and we have a lot of items imported from France,” owner Laurent Chavenet, a native of France, told the Eagle. The most popular item? “We sell a lot of croissants. And we sell baguettes, sandwiches, a little bit of everything. Cheese and charcuterie are also big in this neighborhood.”

“We opened in September and it was a hard time to open,” he said.  “At the beginning it was hard finding employees, and we still have trouble finding them.” So, Chavenet has been working extremely long hours. “You have no choice,” he shrugged. “I work all the hours. I’m here from 5 a.m. until 8 at night. I work for my employees when they are sick, that’s how I hold on.”

Ivan Arguello, owner of Montague Street’s Key Food, said every single employee is vaccinated. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Ivan Arguello, Key Food: ‘Everyone vaccinated’

Ivan Arguello’s family has operated Key Food on Montague Street since 1982. “Most of the people here, they’ve been with me for a long time — this is a family,” he said.

The store employs more than 60 people, and they can swap jobs if someone gets sick. “For example, this person in aisle four is replacing one of them that was with someone that contracted COVID, so we told him to stay home.”

“At the time of the mandate we had about five people that were not vaccinated. They had an ultimatum that if they didn’t, they were going to lose their jobs. Every single one got vaccinated, which is the right thing to do. 

“Key Food is a union workshop so they get sick days, and I have personal days. so they can take those days for their sick days,” he said. In addition, having self-scanning registers alleviates the need for so many cashiers. “Self-scanning registers never get sick.”

JPMorgan Chase on Montague Street is one of 22 Chase branches in Brooklyn to temporarily close due to sickness and vaccine mandates. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Cesar Rendon, Grand Canyon Restaurant: ‘Staff shortages’

“We are doing it ourselves because we have no help on the floor, and as far as the kitchen, it’s very hard,” said Cesar Rendon, owner of Grand Canyon Restaurant at 143 Montague St., with partner Gonzalo (Victor) Carreto. “The only good thing is that we have a few stores and we can combine the employees,” he said.

Many nearby office workers haven’t returned to the office yet, “And we don’t know exactly what is going to happen,” he said. “We don’t know what we are going to go through in the next three months, but it’s going to be rough.”

That said, neighborhood residents have been great. “They are very supportive, people order take-out, pickups and things like that,” Rendon said. 

Tony Bates, owner of Bentley’s Shoes on Montague Street, said he planned ahead for inventory shortages. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Tony Bates, Bentley’s Shoes: ‘ Thank God we are alive’

“COVID has transformed the way you do retail, simply because people are still afraid,” said Tony Bates, owner of Bentley’s Shoes at 144 Montague St. Bentley’s has been operating on Montague Street since 1982.

“The idea is to try to hold on to people who have been with you for years, and we’ve managed to do that,” he said. Bates dug into his own pocket to supplement employee pay while business was slow.

Bates said he had anticipated inventory shortages. “I kind of had an idea that it would maybe shut down and it would be difficult to get the merchandise. So, what I did was I bought merchandise at the beginning of the summer, early, so that I could have things for the winter. If I had waited until September and October to bring in fresh merchandise, I would not have had anything. Because at that time all the ships were stuck in the harbor out in the West Coast.”

“Thank God for the 85 to 90 percent of my customer base that are not from the community who came back to support us,” he said. “Also, people have now started back to the office, and we’re seeing an uptick in business. We are not back to 100 percent but we are at 60 to 70 percent.”

Bates thinks there’s politics behind all the negative talk about the economy. “The job market is booming. Cars are jumping out of the showrooms. People are shopping.” 

Bates said he was speaking from the perspective of a fourth-generation family member of slaves. “Thank God we are alive. Let’s not forget those that are lost. Let’s do things better. Let’s love. We have to stop this hatred because it’s the hatred which is driving COVID to levels we have never seen. It’s hate and divide, that’s what our former president has done. And we have to move on to be better.”

Lars Scofield, owner of Orangetheory Fitness on Montague Street (shown with team members: rear row, third from right), says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the importance of human interaction and community. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

Lars Scofield, Orangetheory Fitness

When you work out at Orangetheory Fitness, “There are TV monitors all over the gym so you see in real time which heart rate zone you are in,” said owner Lars Scofield. Orangetheory opened at 186 Montague Street in 2016 — its first location in Brooklyn and the second in New York City.

When COVID broke out, “Fitness was one of the hardest hit,” Scofield said. “Gyms were shut down for almost six months and indoor classes were banned until March of 2021. So, the restrictions had a big impact on our business. But we found a way. We offered virtual, we offered outdoors, we did a lot of different things to maintain member engagement.”

Most of the fitness center’s employees are in their twenties and thirties. “We did have to rebuild our teams after we reopened and there have been challenges with Omicron, but we have maintained our full operations and we are getting through this,” Scofield said. “We have multiple studios so we can switch employees from one to the other as needed.”

“Almost all of our members were vaccinated when the vaccination mandate was issued in August,” he said. Many members were thankful for the mandate.

“As COVID has dragged on, the importance of human interaction and community has become even more important,” Scofield said. “Working out and being part of a community has so many mental and emotional benefits on top of physical benefits.”

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