Sunday Focus: Area small businesses in crosshairs of virus pandemic

Published 8:36 pm Friday, April 17, 2020

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Life has changed for most of us who are staying home as much as possible in hopes the COVID-19 novel coronavirus will run its course quickly and spare as many lives as possible.

No one is harder hit by the virus battle than local small businesses. Many have had to close their businesses or extremely alter the way they do business and have seen their revenue and income dry up. Many simply hope to survive.

Darby Short, who along with her husband, Dennis, operates several businesses on Main Street downtown, including Darby’s and Darby’s Furniture, said she misses her customers.

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“We are doing anything we can,” Short said. “We are selling online through Darby’s Natchez website. We are doing curbside pickup. We are working on gifts people want to give to health care workers. And we sold our fudge for Easter. That’s a great surprise gift to give healthcare workers … We aren’t making big dollars, but we are getting some orders.”

Short said after the workday, she and Dennis “go home and crash.

“We are staying pretty busy. There’s plenty of stuff for us to do,” she said. “It’s so sad not to see everybody coming in and Easter was difficult. In 38 years we have had probably 150 kids work for us. When they all come home, they always come here and tell their children how they worked here, that they were part of the all-night crew. Not having that this year made the holiday a little tough. We didn’t get to see people we usually see. However, if shutting down saves one life, that’s all that matters. The rest of it is just something we have to deal with.

“We look forward to everyone coming back and it will all be OK. We all need to do now what they are telling us to do. Keep your physical distance. Stay at home and stay in,” Short said.

The owner of a Natchez staple — Sharon Brown at Natchez Coffee Company, 509 Franklin St. — said she is struggling to keep her business operating during the COVID-19 crisis because she loves her staff, the community and downtown Natchez.

“I am OK. I am very thankful to have the business that I have. I’m thankful to have my team here, who have always been with me,” Brown said. “I gave up seeing my mama to keep this place open for my regular customers and my staff.”

Staffers were given a choice of continuing to work or to begin drawing unemployment, she said.

“I told them I would have no hard feelings about whatever they chose. I wanted them to do what they felt they had to do. And they chose to continue to work,” Brown said. “You know, my team loves our loyal customers as much as I do.”

Natchez Coffee is offering curbside service, and allowing only one customer at a time in the store for pick up purposes. Brown said she and her staff are taking every precaution to keep themselves and their customers safe.

“We already take ServSafe classes and follow those guidelines, but we are taking every precaution there is now. It’s a lot to do, but it’s necessary. I want to protect my employees and my customers,” she said.

Brown began work at Natchez Coffee as its manager and then purchased the business with a partner. She has been its sole owner for the last nine years.

“I get a little discouraged. We need more curbside and pick up customers. But my regulars are still doing business with us and people in the community have come by to hand me money and asked me to do things for the hospital and different people,” she said. “It’s all about my staff and this community and our downtown area. We’ve got to do this to save it.”

John Grady Burns, owner of Nest and H. Hal Garner at Nest, 505 Franklin St., said he hopes the good that comes from the Covid-19 crisis will be a new perspective on life for many.

“I hope this will slow us down and show us what is important in life. I feel like people will be more appreciative of what we have,” he said. “I hope we will realize how important family and close friends are.”

Burns said he also thinks it will give many Natchezians a new appreciation for the small businesses in our community.

“As much of a struggle as it is for many to keep their doors open, I think when this is over, people will think twice about shopping locally and realize the importance of that,” he said. “Small businesses are the ones who pay taxes here. When someone orders online and has it delivered from Amazon, that’s not helping this city one bit.

“I hope people when we emerge from this will support local businesses, as well as support products made in America. This is a chance to support others in this community,” Burns said.

Just before the Covid-19 crisis began, Burns purchased H. Hal Garner Antiques. His plan was to eventually move the new business into Nest, but he had no immediate plans for doing that.

“On the flip side, it’s the perfect time to make that move. We have people who are distance working and packing up boxes and moving shelves. We are shooting to open in mid-May and we will have everything together and looking good. We will have new products and it’s going to be beautiful. And we will have an event to celebrate.”

In the meantime, Nest and H. Hal Garner at Nest are open for call-in business and will deliver those purchases to customers.

“We had great Easter business, and Mother’s Day is right around the corner. Of course, Easter business was not what it usually is, but we are grateful for the customers who have called us,” Burns said. “Just call us and we will deliver gifts to your home or to wherever you want them to go.”

John and Malan Parks, owners of Natchez restaurants Pearl Street Pasta, Magnolia Grill and 100 Main, decided when the Covid-19 crisis hit it was best to close their restaurants. John Parks said Friday he plans to re-open one of the restaurants to carry out orders and open the others as demand dictates.

“We are anxious just like everybody else is to return to some kind of normalcy,” he said. “We have been working on projects around the house and projects around the restaurants and are just waiting like everyone else. We are absolutely going to open back our restaurants.

“We are hanging tight. What we are thinking about doing is opening one of the places first with a limited menu and drawing menu items from all three places, but in one location and to-go orders at first so we can see the demand. When we open the others would all depend on demand,” Parks said.

He said a lesson to come out of this crisis is just how important tourism is for Natchez.

“I think maybe the City of Natchez and our surrounding area has learned how vital tourism is to the survival of this town. Without tourism, this town doesn’t exist.”

While optimistic for the future, Parks warned Natchez business owners to be prepared to wait a little longer.

“This won’t be over for us until the general public feels comfortable traveling again,” Parks said.