One doesn’t have to think too far back to remember the crowds you could practically surf off of during the annual season of Black Friday sales. Not so much this year, as more people stayed home to avoid potentially catching or spreading COVID-19.
Online sales, however, have jumped tremendously. Amazon’s Prime Day started early in October, and Forbes has reported that original projections for the weekend before Cyber Monday indicated increases of online purchases compared to 2019 from 36 to 50%. Amazon has already said this year’s holiday shopping season has been the biggest in its history, contending that medium to small businesses that sell on Amazon have seen record numbers.
Meanwhile, as much as small brick-and-mortar businesses have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, we will still have to wait and see how well they did on Small Business Saturday, a shopping holiday promoted by American Express.
Experts, from as close as the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University have expressed fear for these small shops, with expectations that close to half of businesses like restaurants could be closed by 2021.
Alignable, a Boston-based online business referral network, reported Dec. 1 based on a poll of 9,204 small business owners that 48% fear they will not earn enough revenue this month to keep their businesses afloat.
Main streets all over Long Island have experienced their share of woe, and while some retail owners say times remain tough, others expressed their thanks to customers who went out of their way to patronize their local mom-and-pop.
Feasts For Beasts
45 Route 25A, Mount Sinai
The pet store and groomer in the small outlet along Route 25A in Mount Sinai normally does not do too much for the Black Friday weekend and doesn’t have many extra sales on top of what they already do. Owner Alan Ghidaleson said things on Small Business Saturday were a bit slow.
“For brick-and-mortars, this is a tough time,” Ghidaleson said. As for the pandemic: “We’re surviving it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but we get by.”
The owner said sales start to lag after Thanksgiving, as they have for the past five years or so. However, he said his business will survive the year, and hopes for better next year.
604 Mount Sinai-Coram Road, Mount Sinai
As the last farm in Mount Sinai, the family owned Niegocki located at the southern corner of Heritage Park has a lot riding on its shoulders as the last holdout of the area’s agricultural charm.
It’s why co-owner Tricia Niegocki said they have been able to survive the past few months, because of the customers and locals who know and support them. For Thanksgiving, the farm sold turkeys and eggs, though on the whole more people were looking for smaller birds. The farm opened up for tree sales after Thanksgiving, and since then sales have been good.
“We have a lot of locals that love to shop local and support local,” Niegocki said. “Since we’re the last farm here in Mount Sinai, we’ve actually been blessed to have a good past couple of days.”
She said that because Christmas trees do not have a very large margin, they did not do any sales for Small Business Saturday. Still, things on the farm do not change very much, and while other businesses were forced to close early in the pandemic, Niegocki was considered essential. She said they will be able to maintain over the winter, adding they plan to use their space to host other small shops as a pop-up mall of sorts. They have already hosted two such events over the past year.
“Most of our customers are friends, people who have become friends over the years,” the farmer said. “We are very blessed we have animals that provide us meat and eggs, so that demand will always be there.”
Rose & Boom Boutique
176 N. Country Road #3, Mount Sinai
Cat Rosenboom, owner of Rose & Boom in Mount Sinai and St. James, said that supporting local business is more important than ever.
“I always say to shop small,” she said. “But it’s even more true this year.”
Rosenboom, who has owned the Mount Sinai location for four years this month, opened her second store in St. James nearly six months before the stay-at-home shutdown.
“We had just opened up and then had to close the door once we started to get our name out there,” she said.
But despite the coronavirus crisis, she said people were shopping and supporting her stores throughout the whole pandemic, by purchasing things online through her social media accounts and delivering them personally to customers close by.
“You get a personal experience here that you won’t get at a big box store,” she said. “We take pride in getting to know our customers and their families.”
She also will host local retailer pop-ups to support fellow small business owners.
“We like to help local retailers and get the word out about their business,” she said.
Leading up to Black Friday, the shops did daily surprise sales every day in hopes to bring people in – and it worked. “We allowed 10 people in the stores at a time, and they were busy the entire day,” she said.
— Julianne Mosher
340 Route 25A, Mount Sinai
Manager of the Mount Sinai formal wear shop, Krystle Weber Hughes, said times have been tough since the start of the pandemic, as so much of their business depends on formal occasions. Their stellar event, school prom, was largely canceled by every school district in the local area. They were closed during the pandemic’s height, and all their shipments were delayed. To this day they are receiving items they ordered all the way back in January.
The store doesn’t have too many discounts around the time of Black Friday, but Weber Hughes said COVID has meant they have had to clean dressing rooms every time one is used, and they have to manage their space to make sure people are socially distanced.
She said they have received some returning customers, while others are somewhat hesitant to buy anything too early before an event that may well be canceled.
“Everything really got turned upside down because of COVID,” she said. “I think people are so afraid of events being cancelled, they’re waiting until the last minute to purchase a dress.”
Weber Hughes said they are waiting for January to see how things are, as that is when their prom season starts. Once that comes around, she said they will likely know how good the year will be.
The Gift Corner
157 N. Country Road, Mount Sinai
Marion Bernholz, owner of The Gift Corner in Mount Sinai, has seen the impact a loyal customer base can have on a small shop for getting through a tough time.
TBR News Media has talked to Bernholz every Small Business Saturday for the past three years, and each time she has said it’s the customers who look at her as a friend and neighbor who help her survive in a time of booming online retail.
“We have been doing OK,” Bernholz said. “People have come up to me in Stop & Shop and asked if I worked at the store. They asked me, ‘Are you doing OK?’”
But it seems word of mouth has worked for her. She said they have been receiving a host of new customers, adding that she estimates they had been ringing up 20 new customers a day from people coming to the North Shore during the summer and fall, many of whom were not able to take their usual vacations.
465 Route 25A, Miller Place
Tristan Whitworth, the owner of Game On, a used and refurbished video game and console retailer with locations in Miller Place and Smithtown, said he has been doing 200% to 300% better than last year, both in terms of sales and customers, which is something that to him was concerning considering just how hard it has been for so many other businesses out there.
When businesses were forced to close, Whitworth and his business partner each came to the separate stores on the North Shore and sold some of their product online, which kept things moving.
“We’re very blessed,” he said. “We were profitable during that phase, too, while other stores couldn’t. For example, you couldn’t do anything for a nail salon. … It’s a weird feeling to have so many places struggle and then us flourish. We didn’t do anything different, we just got lucky.”
Whitworth hosted two $1,500 giveaways to two local businesses this year.
While Whitworth did a host of sales during last year’s Small Business Saturday, this year he tried to make it more subdued to make sure there weren’t too many people crowded close together in his store. Still, there was a steady stream of people coming into the store all day Saturday.
“We’re lucky, we sell things people really, really want right now during a pandemic when they stay home, so we really didn’t push it this year,” he said. “I didn’t want people thinking they need to come support us, because there are a lot of stores that are really actually struggling.”
Grand Slam Tennis
816 Route 25A, Miller Place
Jim Donnelly, the owner of Grand Slam Tennis in Miller Place, with his main store in Commack, said his prospects for year to year are much different as a specialty shop. Small Business Saturday normally has no effect on him.
“People that enjoy specialty stores, and have all the information, they constantly come to us, we don’t have to advertise or anything,” Donnelly said. “They’re our advertisement.”
The biggest problem for him and his shop was when different municipalities closed tennis courts all over Long Island, despite the argument that tennis is one of the safer sports one could play during a pandemic, as by necessity players are well distanced. The tennis store owner said he and other tennis advocates got together to put a paper on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) desk arguing for tennis to be permitted, and was shortly thereafter allowed along with sports like golf.
“We had a good summer — I hate to brag — I’m just glad I was in the right business for a pandemic, because I would hate to be the rest of these guys,” he said.
Miller Place Bait and Tackle
834 Route 25A, Miller Place
The fishing business had some interesting ups and downs this year, according to Miller Place Bait and Tackle owners Jim and Sue Flora. Their store had to close along with many others for several months, but once they opened they found many people who had never tried fishing before were buying rods and bait. It was one of the few activities still available to people during the height of COVID.
“It’s been a good season for us because everybody went fishing,” Sue Flora said. “So many people come in saying, ‘I want to learn to fish.’ It was very good for us. They supported us through it.”
She said customers were coming into the shop on Saturday to buy products or even gift cards, specifically to support them.
“We have a nice bunch of loyal customers — we’re really fortunate,” she said.
Jim Flora said they were doing slightly better than last year, and should be in a relatively safe place going into next year.
Flowers on Broadway
43 Broadway, Rocky Point
April was supposed to be Rocky Point flower shop Flowers on Broadway’s 20-year anniversary celebration. Owner Stephanie Navas said they are still somewhat struggling as so many weddings are still on hold while big events, which usually means big sales for florists, are much more subdued.
They have had more to do with funeral work but, despite the morbid implication, even those sales are down compared to previous years, as more funerals have become much smaller events.
“Walk-in traffic isn’t anything like it used to be,” Navas said. “We are doing more home deliveries then we did in the past, but it doesn’t quite balance out.”
While she expected to see some more traffic for Thanksgiving, especially considering more people weren’t traveling, they didn’t see too big a jump in sales. Black Friday, on the other hand, is the “absolute worst” day to be open. This year she said they made little to nothing on the biggest shopping holiday of the year. Saturday did get slightly better, and now Flowers on Broadway is trying to start its big Christmas push.
Still, she said she’s not ready to throw in
“My hope is just to do as well as last year,” she said. “I’m not hoping for an increase, I’m just looking to maintain at this point.”
COVID-19 has impacted business globally, but for local mom-and-pop shops in villages across Long Island, they have been hit twice as hard.
Between the impact of online retailers, plus big box stores, the pandemic has made it even more difficult to make a sale.
When people shop small, the sales tax goes right back into the local economy. The community depends on these stores to make the village look great, while also supporting a neighbor.
That’s why on Thanksgiving weekend, Small Business Saturday immediately followed the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, with hopes to bring revenue into the smaller stores.
All weekend long in Port Jefferson village, local shop owners gleamed with hope that customers would continue their holiday shopping “small” and keeping these businesses afloat.
Here’s what some small business owners had to say:
Pattern Finders/Stacy’s Finds
128 E. Main St., Port Jefferson
Stacy Davidson, owner of Pattern Finders/Stacy’s Finds on East Main Street, said she was pleasantly surprised on Thanksgiving weekend with the amount of people shopping around.
Unique gifts can be found at the shop, including antiques, furs, evening wear and accessories.
Davidson said while the store is most known for her vintage jewelry, they also have a large selection of new pieces as well. She said that shopping at her store gives the customer a one-of-a-kind experience.
“All of the items in a store like mine you won’t find anywhere else ¬— especially online,” she said.
At her store, Davidson said that all of her items are packaged nicely, “so all you have to do is hand them over with a smile — no gift wrap needed.”
Davidson added that when people shop small, they’re supporting the community.
“I’m very encouraged from the local community who came out to support us,” she said.
Max & Millie
142 E. Main St., Port Jefferson
Joann Maguire, owner of Max & Millie, a woman’s clothing boutique nestled alongside East Main Street, said that her store gives customers a personalized shopping experience that cannot compete with a big box retailer.
“You should always shop small, not just during the holidays,” she said.
The store is known for casual, chic and trendy clothes ranging in sizes 2 to 16, accessories and unique jewelry, including a small rack of pieces from former neighbor, Susan Rodgers Designs.
Throughout the holiday weekend, Max & Millie sponsored several discounts from Friday to Sunday, completing the deal with their famous gift wrap.
“We support our community,” she said. “We’ve always been there for you in terms of fundraisers, now it’s time for you to support us.”
Fame and Rebel
415 E. Main St., Port Jefferson
Alana Miletti owns two locations of her store Fame and Rebel — one on Main Street in Patchogue, and the other on East Main in Port Jefferson village — so this past weekend was double the work as shoppers flocked in.
“Small businesses give back to the community more than a big box store does,” she said. “We employ so many community members and offer one-on-one personalization for each and every shopper.”
Throughout the holiday weekend, she offered a “shop more, save more” sale, which got dozens of people into her doors.
Known for her on-trend clothing for women, the boutiques are constantly bringing in new arrivals that will fit any style every day.
“When you support a local business, you’re also supporting your town, city and neighborhood,” she said. “Small businesses pay sales taxes to the city and county the businesses are located in, and that tax money is used to support public schools, parks, roads and sidewalks, as well as fund public service workers. Imagine your town without any small businesses — pretty scary.”
The Soap Box
18 Chandler Square, Port Jefferson
Marianna Cucchi’s store, The Soap Box, has been in the village for 13 years.
The shop, located in Chandler Square, houses hundreds of different gifts fit for everyone’s list. From homemade designer soaps, to bath and body products, to personal care, pajamas and other unique gifts, Cucchi said the last nine months have been hard and it’s going to take a while to recover.
“Shopping small is important because it supports our community and keeps our businesses open — especially after being closed over 70 days during the pandemic,” she said.
Throughout the big shopping weekend, The Soap Box offered sales to shoppers stopping by. While browsing, they’d stop to admire the collection of rubber ducks in hats sitting politely by the front window. Cucchi also offers custom gift wrapping for all orders, a complete one-stop shop.
“We need to keep small town America,” she said. “This is your community and we want to see it thrive.”
The Amazing Olive
213 Main St., Port Jefferson
For the foodie on your shopping list, Kandy Muñoz said she can provide them with a unique and tasty gift this year. The Amazing Olive has two locations,a newer location in Patchogue run by Muñoz’s son Steven, and her original Port Jefferson spot that she’s owned since 2012.
Known for their vast collection of olive oils, balsamic vinegars, wine vinegars, salts and rubs, the store can accommodate any taste.
But for this holiday season, Kandy Muñoz said personalized bottle labels and gift baskets are extremely popular this year.
“When you shop small, you’re supporting a neighborhood family,” she said.
Amazon says it can save people money on their medications, but local pharmacy owners say there’s a big problem with that: There won’t be that human element customers get from a pharmacist behind the counter if they order from behind a computer screen.
This week the online retailer announced new pharmacy offerings to help customers purchase their prescription medications through Amazon Pharmacy — a new store on the website that provides an entire pharmacy transaction through an Amazon account.
“People like their community pharmacy,” said Mike Nastro, owner of Fairview Pharmacy & Homecare Supply in Port Jefferson Station. “I take care of the specialty patient populations that require intimate service — hopefully that will sustain me.”
Amazon Pharmacy states that by using a secure pharmacy profile, customers can add their insurance information, manage prescriptions and choose payment options before checking out. Amazon Prime members will receive unlimited, free two-day delivery on orders through the online shop.
But this announcement isn’t new, according to Nastro.
“They’ve been talking about this for a while,” he said. “It’s going to hurt the industry a lot. It may hurt the chains more initially, but it’ll hurt the entire brick-and-mortar industry.”
Two years ago, Amazon purchased PillPack, an online pharmacy startup, in a $753 million acquisition.
“As more and more people look to complete everyday errands from home, pharmacy is an important and needed addition to the Amazon online store,” Doug Herrington, senior vice president of North America Consumer at Amazon, said in a statement. “PillPack has provided exceptional pharmacy service for individuals with chronic health conditions for over six years. Now, we’re expanding our pharmacy offering to Amazon.com, which will help more customers save time, save money, simplify their lives and feel healthier.”
Nastro said that there are many benefits with personal pharmacy service like privacy and face-to-face communication.
“We keep people out of the hospital by intervening, and by knowing the person and seeing what medications they’re on,” he said. “It’s an important role, and if that’s obliterated it will have an adverse effect on the medical industry.”
Peter Goldstein, a staff pharmacist at Jones Drug Store in Northport, said in the 30-plus years he’s been in the industry, Amazon will not be able to help patients like he and his colleagues do.
“I will put my service against any mail order or Amazon any day,” he said. “We know the patients, especially in the community. We know their family history and there’s so much that goes into it, that quite frankly people will miss. What will you do if your insulin gets sent to the wrong site?”
Goldstein noted something like storing medications at the required room temperature is an issue if it ends up sitting in a mailbox.
“It’s personal touches that we take for granted,” he said.
And one of those personal touches is quick delivery that Nastro’s store has been doing all along.
“We’re not there in two days,” he said. “We’re there in two hours.”
Michael DeAngelis, owner of Village Chemists of Setauket, said his family has owned their store since 1960. DeAngelis and his father saw the changes in pharmaceutical care throughout the years although this is a whole new level.
“We managed to survive Genovese, Eckerd, Rite Aid and now Walgreens,” he said. “[Those stores] even sent people here to solve a problem or order something they couldn’t get.”
While COVID-19 has conditioned people to stay indoors more, DeAngelis said contacting a pharmacy store is a different experience.
“If you call the Village Chemists, you will not get a machine that makes you listen to an endless menu,” he said. “You will get a human being who will be more than happy to answer any of your questions.”
These local pharmacists want people to know they are here for them and will be, despite the larger competition coming their way.
“Community pharmacists are really your advocate,” Nastro said. “With Amazon, what you’re not going to have is that personal service. It’s not just buying goods — we both have medication — there’s a service that comes with that medication and that service keeps people out of the hospital. It keeps people alive.”
After a fire devasted The Meadow Club more than two years ago, the family behind Setauket’s The Curry Club and Port Jefferson’s SāGhar felt like their world was falling apart.
Known for its weddings in Port Jefferson Station, and being a structure on Route 112 for more than five decades, the building has been fixed and revamped. It’s a whole new sight.
“Our logo has always been a closed lotus, but the closed lotus represented the fire,” said Kiran Wadhwa, owner, creative director and event planner at the Meadow Club. “The lotus needs to open up and blossom — it represents rebirth, freshness and a peaceful, new environment.”
Wadhwa and her sister, Indu Kaur, took over the club in 2014.
“We’re looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kaur said. “Two years ago, we thought we were done, but now we’re excited to bring our gem back to Suffolk County.”
The rebirth of The Meadow Club began after Kaur got the call her venue was a blaze in the early morning of July of 2018. Since then, she and her team had been working hard to get the property back in shape. “This is our legacy,’ Wadhwa said. “We want to leave this behind to our kids.”
But because the venue was so old and outdated, the process took longer than they initially thought. Kaur and Wadhwa had to redo the roof as well as add new air conditioners, sprinkler systems, floors and bathrooms. The permits prior to renovation were also outdated.
“We thought of everything,” Wadhwa said. “Everything we had issues with inside the old building, we fixed.”
Which worked in their favor. Although they didn’t disclose when the grand opening date is, construction is almost done and they’re starting to book weddings for 2021 and 2022.
“Everything is literally brand new,” Wadhwa said. “We build the new COVID guidelines into our construction.”
When one walks through the front door of the new Meadow Club, they are greeted with white walls and marble floors. Several crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings in each room and the staircase, which was formerly to the right-hand side, now expands on the left. A waterfall is located at the bottom of the stairs, and a live-moss wall sits above it. They added handicap accessible restrooms to the space, redoing everything.
There are other changes, as well, including COVID-friendly additions the family made to their venue. Each of the three ballrooms now has their own exits and there is a new outdoor patio full of flowers and evergreens. Owners also installed sanitation stations throughout the property and have planned for sanitizing after each and every event.
“We don’t want anyone to get sick,” Kaur said. “And we don’t want them to feel unsafe.”
As for the food, they are changing up the menu. They are adding a new chef who specializes in fine Italian cuisine, but also offer Pakistani and Indian food. They also made their kitchen completely Kosher.
“We’re the only catering hall that offers Halal, Pakistani, Italian and Indian,” Wadhwa said.
Although for now weddings must be at the 50-person limit, with no mingling, dancing or cocktail hour, the family said they are excited to bring this whole new space to couples walking down the aisle next year and beyond.
A family-owned business, they want their brides to feel special.
“We’re accommodating and flexible,” Kaur said. “We personalize to each brides’ different needs.”
“I wait for the gasp,” Wadhwa added about the current tours they’re offering. “And I love seeing the look on their faces. The venue is brand new, clean and safe. It’ll be every brides’ dream come true.”
Completely redone by Ronkonkoma-based BELFOR Property Restoration, Project Manager Scott Sommerville said redoing the venue has been a journey.
“It’s been the most wonderful transition from old to new,” he said. “We resurrected it.”
Though he may have passed on, a local shop owner, one who helped pioneer the health foods market on Long Island, is still appearing to thank people passing by his small corner store.
Back to Basics, a natural food store in Rocky Point, has been vacant for months. In its window a sign is posted: “Thanks for 43 Years.” The longtime owner of the shop, Drew Henry Tyler, 67, passed away June 8 after a battle with adrenal cancer.
His wife of little under 28 years, Lee Frei, is a longtime resident of Shoreham village. She and her future husband originally met at the store.
She got to know him as an honest and quiet man, but the kind of quiet that hides a unique intelligence. She said if he hadn’t passed, he would have likely still been there, manning the counter and talking to customers about anything from politics to music to yoga.
“There was so much to Drew,” she said. “He was calm and wise. I often thanked him for that.”
Tyler grew up with his brother Rick on a chicken farm in Lake Ronkonkoma, back when the area was still mostly rural, and some of the main roads still remained dirt paths. Rick Tyler called that just your average life of “barefoot boys growing up in the woods.”
The two were introduced to Provisions, a health food shop in Port Jefferson back in the1970s, the brother said. Working there, the two formed a side business called Journey Foods, where the two would go into New York City, bringing back “tubs” of tofu, sprouts and other such items to sell to the still-small market of health food stores on the eastern side of Long Island, back when many wholesale distributors didn’t come out past Route 110. The brothers even got into the business of growing sprouts, which Rick said were “temperamental.”
The two made connections with many of the health food retailers on the Island, but the brothers had a unique opportunity when the original owners of Back to Basics in Rocky Point were looking to sell.
Jane Alcorn, who now helps lead the effort to transform the Shoreham Tesla property into a museum and science incubator, started the store in 1976 with her husband and two friends. When a few years after opening, her business partners moved away, she and her husband decided to sell to the Tyler brothers, who had expressed interest in the place for a while. She thought of Drew as a “kind man — he was quiet and hardworking.”
“It was always a pleasure to go there and see how they had made some changes, but still kept the essence of the store — natural foods, and healthy and specialty products for the people of the surrounding area,” Alcorn said. “He obviously did a good job to have been in business so long. Back to Basics was one of the oldest stores in Rocky Point and, even now, I’m sure many people, like me, miss running in to pick up some special items that aren’t available anywhere nearby.”
The store was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Frei said and, after Drew passed, family came to help sell the remaining merchandise at cost.
Rick Tyler, who now lives in Pennsylvania, worked at the store for a little over a decade before moving on. As the health food market boomed, he said it got harder to compete, and they were “always fighting against the mass market and Trader Joe’s.”
Still, despite any difficulty. Rick said his brother was the kind of man who would leave the counter to help a woman bring her purchases to the car. He was the kind of man who engendered trust, and when Rick came back to Long Island to help with closing down the shop, he and those manning the shop were greeted with a bevy of longtime customers who fondly remembered the store owner, some young enough to say they had been coming there for practically their entire lives.
“He was a very gentle, kind, smart, funny guy — he was very well liked,” Rick Tyler said of his brother.
Jan Tyler, the brothers’ mother, said the people who came to the store in those final days were coming in with both sympathy and expressions of sorrow.
“I think you couldn’t help but love Drew,” the mother said. “He tried to help everybody he could, he would drop everything and help a woman with bundles in the rain. On the whole everybody cared a great deal for him.”
Linda Stever, who worked for Drew at Back to Basics for several years, said the owner was inherently trusting of his customers and community. She wrote in a post to Tyler’s obituary that from the first day she worked for him, the man simply trusted people.
“I lived in Rocky Point for years, but I never felt such a sense of community until I worked with Drew at Back to Basics,” Stever wrote. “He was my boss, but I considered him and his wife Lee to be my friends as well. I’m thankful for knowing him.”
Tyler was well known in Shoreham village, especially as a man who was competitive on the tennis courts. Frei said he loved the “mechanics of moving,” of having motions done with expert grace. Family friend Laura Baisch wrote in a tribute to Drew that he was known for his “quiet laugh and look of complete satisfaction when he hit the perfect shot.”
Frei said he was in the village doubles finals one year, and residents would come to watch because he was so much fun on the courts.
“His perspiration would make a heart-like mark on his shirt, and the crowd would chant, ‘I heart Drew,’” she said.
Many stores, shops and restaurants had to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic nationwide. Sustaining a business was just too hard, especially during the unprecedented times of the virus spread then government-mandated shutdowns of most venues and shops.
Despite these massive hardships, several so-called COVIDpreneurs, or people who opened up shop during the pandemic, decided to take a risk during a rather bleak time, some putting their livelihoods on the line for the sake of their passions as well as for the community.
While it’s hard to know the future of these new businesses, most owners said not even a pandemic could stop them from realizing their dreams.
SāGhar: 111 W. Broadway, Port Jefferson
The family behind SāGhar officially took over the former Harbor Grill in January. With plans to open up a brand-new fine dining experience with Indian cuisine on the water in March, their first day open was also the day they closed, with no real way to prepare for what was going to happen on the horizon.
“Our main attention was, ‘How are we going to survive’?” co-owner Indu Kaur said. Since their concept was more upscale, they didn’t initially incorporate takeout or delivery options.
“We had to sit and brainstorm: ‘How are we going to handle not having any of those things and still be functioning and operating?’” co-owner Kiran Wadhwa said.
They decided to spend their time helping essential workers while they waited for state restaurant guidelines to change. During the height of the pandemic, they donated over $30,000 worth of food and more than
“Instead of thinking about our own business and menu and takeout, we came up with the idea to donate food to hospitals from Riverhead to New York City.”
During the summer, indoor dining was finally allowed and in just one week the family moved quickly to set up SāGhar, but it was tough. Since their original plans of opening were halted months before, they had to complete their menu, renovate the kitchen to accommodate Indian cooking and train their new staff under social-distancing rules.
It was hard on the family financially as well. On top of typical expenses that would be spent during a new opening, they had to add masks, shields and signs on top of a budget that was already depleted.
Kaur said her family began using personal savings and personal savings just to pay bills and make their dream restaurant a reality. Although customers were flocking to SāGhar during the summer and since their grand opening, now that the cooler weather is here, they’re getting worried again.
“We were able to recoup a little bit during the summer, but now it’s that same feeling of stress, because people aren’t walking in and going out as much,” Wadhwa said. “We’re just hoping that things normalize … I think now I’m feeling it more, because now that we’re settled from the summer, it’s just so draining. … You feel so down from it.”
Although it has been tough, the family is still fighting to keep their restaurant afloat because they believe in their brand and want to share good food with the community. “Breaking even would be ideal for the next year,” Wadhwa said.
Taco Island Tex-Mex: 5507 Nesconset Highway, Mount Sinai
Aman Bhola has been in the food truck industry for a few years, owning a popular North Shore Tex-Mex vehicle. But he said in early March, he decided to leave that business endeavor and start anew with a brick-and-mortar location in Mount Sinai in April, even though the COVID-19 virus was spreading fast.
“My customer base was already a strong motivation for me to come back,” he said. “But nothing in the world would stop me from following my dream.”
Taco Island officially opened up in July after a quick, but hefty, renovation of the space’s former occupant. Bhola, a 27-year-old Indian American knew his customers could use some good, affordable food while riding the pandemic out.
“I believed in myself and I believe in my brand,” he said.
Taco Island offers an extensive menu of Mexican options, all made fresh and from scratch with every order.
“At Taco Island, our main focus is authentic flavor,” he said.
But it wasn’t the easiest task to open during the crisis.
“It’s been a huge challenge,” he said. “My team has been working above and beyond.”
But to get through the rest of COVID-19, he’s come up with a plan to stabilize his business and “deal with the next wave.”
“We’re not increasing our staff or inventory,” he said. “We’re taking the right precautions.”
The young COVIDpreneur said that although it’s a worrisome time, he still feels motivated and excited to be doing what he loves.
“For the last three Friday’s we’ve been opened, we’ve had to close early because we sold out,” he said.
He didn’t fully remove himself from the food truck business, either, which helped out for catering outdoor events.
Long Island Beer and Burger Experience: South Setauket
When COVID-19 hit New York, Thomas Francis, of South Setauket, was worried because March is usually the start of his industry’s season. “My season starts St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “From that time until the end of June it was bad.”
Four years ago, he started a small wedding business, the Long Island Cuban Cigar and Bourbon Experience. His mobile cigar and bourbon lounge sits inside a 32-foot vintage Airstream trailer that can be brought to any type of outside event.
“It’s the only experience like this in the world,” he said, noting that he has brought his services across the country.
Since the cigar and bourbon mobile was such a hit, two years ago he began the Long Island Wine and Cheese Experience, featuring wines from local vineyards and cheeses to pair with them.
With his businesses going so well, he began thinking of his next venture featuring burgers and beers. Accordingly, the Long Island Beer and Burger Experience was planned to roll out in April. Using the same model, it would feature craft beers from local breweries and a burger to go with them.
“In April I had plans to begin the Beer and Burger Experience, but I thought I wasn’t going to open because of COVID,” he said.
Despite the pandemic, he decided to start up his third vehicle anyway.
When everything shut down and events were canceled, it was hard, he said. But then as outdoor weddings, parties and gatherings became more common, it worked out in his favor.
“Things really shifted,” he said. “It was the right time and place. … This is where the market is going.”
His experiences are ideal right now for families planning small, intimate events.
“It’s a safe, responsible, fully fledged experience,” he said, especially with vineyards and breweries closing during the summer, or not hosting a full capacity of visitors.
“The Wine and Cheese Experience was the most popular because the vineyards were closed,” he said. “It literally saved me.”
While the pandemic was hard on him and his businesses right at the start of his busy season, he said it worked out and now he’s booked solid for the near future. “During this climate, we can easily have the party of your dreams in your backyard,” he said.
Druthers Coffee: 1113 North Country Road, Stony Brook
Kathryne Piazzola, Zachary Russell and Michael Buchholz had their plans to open a local coffee shop set for some time. Their goal was to open Druthers right across from Stony Brook University in a new center being built, Stony Brook Square.
“We signed the lease three years ago,” Piazzola said. “And we were hoping to open actually in January.”
But there were some construction delays and then the virus hit Long Island. After a few hurdles, they finally opened officially on Aug. 14. With their opening, they had to change their plans a little to fit into the new state health guidelines, like not allowing guests to bring their own glassware while still trying to be sustainable without many paper cups.
“Nevertheless, we’ve really developed an incredible following of regulars,” Buchholz said. “Everybody who comes by is truly so understanding about the circumstances that makes it so much easier.”
While continuously changing their opening date, and finishing the painting, decorating and preparing, they also had to go through the Paycheck Protection Program. “We knew we were going into it with a limited budget, we had to operate as intelligently as we possibly could,” Buchholz said. “So, navigating federal loan programs was not at all easy, while finding our footing and feeling confident about everything that we had spent three years planning.”
Piazzola said three months later things are running smooth.
“You start talking to people and meeting our guests when they were first coming in,” Buchholz added. “And it just turned out that it’s exactly what people needed. They wanted an experience that felt welcoming and warm, and a bit of hospitality from the heart of a small business that had the human story behind it.”
Even with support from the community, they’re beginning to get a little anxious about the upcoming winter. “Rather than planning for growth in the way that we wanted to do initially, we’re planning for winter that might be a little bit more challenging,” Buchholz said. “There’s still things that we’re wrapping our heads around, but it’s been surprisingly gratifying.”
Osteria Umbra: 197 Terry Road, Smithtown
It’s always been chef Marco Pellegrini’s dream to open a fine dining restaurant, and when he found the space in Smithtown over a year ago, he knew it was where he belonged.
A chef from the age of 14, Pellegrini comes from the ancient Italian town of Foligno in Umbria. He and his family moved to the United States seven years ago to partner with another restaurant out on the North Fork. The partners decided to go their separate ways and Pellegrini moved west.
“Everywhere I stopped from Mineola to the south, I was not impressed,” he said.
Then he found Smithtown. He said he visited the area when he first came to the U.S. and was impressed by the family oriented community.
“It’s more what I’m looking for,” he said.
Together with his wife, Sabrina Vallorini, and partners — Stephen, Diane and Daniel Bragoli — they signed the contract in September 2019. From that point on, they renovated the whole space, decorated it with marble, chandeliers, wine racks and an open-oven BBQ imported from Italy. Their goal was to open in March.
Although it was an uncertain and scary time, they made the most of it. Pellegrini, his wife and their partners took on the renovations themselves, painting the space and completing it at their own pace. The restaurant officially opened Sept. 9, more than six months past its planned date.
But the uncertainty of another virus wave is stressful. “I really want to try and stay open,” he said. “We just have to cross the bridge until the end of COVID right now, and run the restaurant without losing money.”
He’s still hopeful, because he stands behind his brand. Pellegrini said that the food at Osteria Umbra is different than typical Italian — everything is made on-site, from the pasta to the gelato and the authentic Italian cuisine.
“The way we do the food in Italy is little bit different than what we’re doing here in the USA,” he said. “Usually you find more authentication in the city, Long Island there are not too much.”
ENDO Ethos: 289 Main St., Huntington
Clark and Christine Ruggeri opened their first hemp and CBD storefront in Northport last year. When space in Huntington became available, they knew to jump on it, signing their second lease in November. With the intention of opening their new location in March, COVID hit and halted their plans.
“Who would have ever imagined,” she said. “We almost backed out of it. When it came time to decide what we were going to do, we decided to go through with it anyway.”
While struggling to keep their other store afloat through e-commerce and local delivery from March until June, the Ruggeris opened their Huntington “dream location” on Aug. 1.
“I think that’s why we were able to survive the first round of quarantine, because people that we didn’t even know were ordering from our website,” she said. “This might be the opportunity for people who don’t want to buy online but feel really stressed or anxious or can’t sleep … there are people who needed this space, and that’s why we decided to do it.”
She added that as they had the space since November 2019, they already had so much invested.
“Then you have to find a way to pay that back without making an income from the space,” she said. “We kind of felt like we had no choice.”
But since they opened, although it’s been tough, the couple said they have been able to sustain their business.
“We’re hoping that post-pandemic, it will pick up again. So, for now, as long as we can stay afloat, meet new people and introduce them to our products, I think that’s the goal,” Christine Ruggeri said.
But right now, the village isn’t as crowded as it normally would be in the pre-pandemic world.
“Huntington depends very much on the bar and restaurant scene,” she said. “With the bar and restaurant scene being so minimal right now, you can definitely feel the impact of that on the street.”
Although the couple are concerned about the upcoming winter, they said it might work out in their favor since CBD, which stands for Cannabidiol, was an explosive market before COVID.
“Hemp or CBD might be the thing that people need right now,” she said. “Maybe we’ll actually end up doing better than we thought because this is something that’s so needed.”
Susan Rodgers had her storefront on East Main Street in Port Jefferson for seven years. But because of the COVID-19 crisis, she decided it was time to change shape and focus on online sales for her Susan Rodgers Designs business.
“The numbers were going continuously down,” she said. “So, I decided to react and be proactive.”
Rodgers, a jewelry artisan known for her delicate and beautiful designs first opened her original store in Sayville 10 years ago. Three years later, she moved to the North Shore, settling in the village of Port Jefferson.
The Stony Brook resident said that while the village helped her grow her clientele, the pandemic made it harder to stay afloat because of high rent prices and less customers shopping. She made the hard decision to close her shop and focus on e-commerce at the end of August. She officially closed her door in mid-September.
“It killed me because I was there for seven years but, as the years went on, I saw my site doing better than my store,” she said. “It made me realize I don’t need 800 square feet to show my work.”
Bernie Ryba, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University, said that Rodgers isn’t the only small business owner to focus on online sales during the pandemic.
“Businesses that were reluctant to be more accepting of social media marketing and making sales over the internet are now much more willing to do so,” he said. “We’ve really had a bump in internet retail and also the use of social media marketing.”
Ryba added that business owners during COVID-19 realized that taking on more debt wasn’t the best option, opting to check out of their leases. “Banks are working with more industries,” he said, “But more small businesses are trying not to take on more debt.”
And that’s why Rodgers decided to leave. “Every month was $4,000 just to keep everything afloat,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I could have hired more people to help out. … It was a tough decision, but I know I made the right choice.”
Now she’s working out of her home in Stony Brook with one assistant. By saving money on rent and by being home, she’s able to focus on her online sales, which have started booming.
“Working on social media, contacting buyers …these are the things I never had the time to do before,” she said. “During all of this, I was able to fine-tune everything that I already had.”
Although it’s working out now, it was a heartbreaking experience to close her store, nonetheless. “I had to make a decision with my head and not my heart,” she said. “The sales aren’t there, it’s hard — and for my small business owner friends, too.”
Rodgers said that even with Phase 4 reopening, she still had customers who wouldn’t come out and shop because they were still too nervous. Now her customers can shop in the comfort of their own homes.
“I’m still here,” she said. “I’m just different for now.”
Long Island’s second DJ’s Clam Shack is open and ready to serve.
“Bringing the seafood joint to East Northport was an easy decision,” said co-owner Paul Riggio. “We wanted to go to the North Shore, further east, and get more exposure.”
Originally founded 14 years ago in Key West, Florida, Riggio and his childhood friend, Jeff Gagnon, decided to expand the restaurant’s name to Wantagh three years ago.
The original location is a hotspot down South, and has been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Both men hail from Setauket and are graduates of Ward Melville High School. Riggio said the success of the Nassau County restaurant made them want to open up another, to get the name out to people who may not frequent the South Shore.
“What’s different about the East Northport location is that we have a full liquor license, perfect for summer cocktails,” he said. In Wantagh, they only serve beer and wine.
So, a few months before its opening, the duo took over the space at 1972 E. Jericho Turnpike and began planning.
“We wanted to give it a Key West kind of flair,” Riggio said. “And we’re going to keep growing it little by little.”
Known for their lobster rolls, tacos, fried ship, clams, DJ’s is a causal seafood restaurant with “a laid-back kind of feel” that combines favorite seafood dishes from the north and south. On their menu, they feature New England clam chowder and Maine lobster rolls, also mahi-mahi, shrimp and roast pork tacos.
The space is larger than its counterpart and features more room for socially distanced dining. Eventually the owners plan on adding outdoor dining.
“The community has come out to support us and they’ve been great,” Riggio said. “It’s a casual, fun place, with homemade food that’s always fresh.”
As the temperature drops in the fall and into winter, fire departments on Long Island and elsewhere are trying to help restaurants and other businesses remain open outside while ensuring a safe environment for customers.
“The town has gone above and beyond and continues to try to accommodate those businesses to keep them open or get them open, to increase their occupancy load,” said Brookhaven Town Chief Fire Marshal Chris Mehrman. “We have to balance between safety and allowing businesses to operate.”
The fire marshals have been busy, as they try to educate business owners about the safest way to run heaters, as well as to prepare for the coming winter.
Some business owners who don’t typically have outdoor seating or who aren’t aware of the rules regarding heaters and tents have found the rules difficult, particularly amid the strains caused by the pandemic.
As examples, portable heaters are prohibited within five feet of any building and within five feet of any exit or exit discharges. They are also not allowed on any exterior balconies or within any tent, canopy or other membrane structure.
Some business owners “thought they could just do what they needed to do,” Mehrman said. “People don’t realize there are codes and standards that we need to enforce.”
Although there’s no cost, business owners need to understand the process.
“The town has gone to great lengths to make sure they get these COVID-19 accommodations for outdoor dining,” Mehrman said.
The fire department has been working with business owners to help them meet code and permit requirements.
Fire marshals are sometimes taking steps out of order. Merhman said they have arrived at sites and conducted inspections. Even though the business may not have permits, the fire marshals conduct inspections to see if a tent can remain where it is legally.
The marshals have told business owners to submit their application immediately and to obtain an engineer’s certification, so the marshals can legalize the installation.
The town department has streamlined the process. At the same time, fire marshals have focused on the next step in the march towards winter: snow.
While tents offer opportunities to expand restaurants and bars into outdoor space, they need to be able to handle the additional weight.
“We have to ensure that the tents are going to withstand the snow loads,” Mehrman said.
On a small number of occasions, fire marshals have had to order tents down, either because they were improperly installed or because they were not going to be able to meet the state code.
Putting tents up on decks against buildings is a violation of the state code. Businesses have to have a permit for an addition to a building.
Businesses have also improperly used heaters and were ordered to remove them.
“Thankfully, everybody is complying,” Mehrman said. In some cases, the fire marshals need to convince the managers or owners, but marshals are reluctant to issue court appearance tickets.
“We want to achieve compliance, but we want to do it in an appropriate manner,” Mehrman said.
The fire marshals have been checking and rechecking on sites, to ensure safety and compliance.
To accommodate and streamline the process for outdoor dining, the town has created a COVID-19 Dining Accommodation permitting process. The town is offering a one-stop location to submit paperwork for the accommodations, which includes putting up tents.
Residents who have questions about tents, heaters or fire codes can reach out to the marshals at (631) 451-6262 or by email at [email protected].
Mehrman said residents who read the documentation on the web site, fill out the application appropriately and submit it electronically could probably complete the process within a couple of days.