Highland stores are still hurting from drastic downturn in revenue
By Roger Barr
Highland Park area businesses are struggling to survive even as they work to implement new ways of doing business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Their strategies offer a preview of what promises to be a vastly different experience for customers once the government-ordered restrictions are fully lifted.
Governor Tim Walz ordered all non-essential businesses closed on March 27, instructing Minnesotans to stay at home in hopes of giving the state’s health care industry time to prepare for an expected peak in infections in early summer. Walz later extended that order until May 18, though he did allow some non-essential businesses to re-open, offering delivery and curbside service only.
That did not help Brad Schlaeger. Like barber shops, massage centers and other personal services, Schlaeger’s Accolades Salon & Spa at 2065 Randolph Ave. remains closed. All of his 33 employees have been furloughed. He has applied for a forgivable loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but has yet to be approved for one.
Kari Palmer of Schuler Shoes said she understands the reasoning behind the business closures, but she questions why some stores are allowed to have customers inside while others are not. Curbside pickup is “not a sustainable business model,” she said.
Restaurants, pubs and nonessential retail stores have been among the hardest hit by the governor’s order. Patina, 2098 Ford Pkwy., closed its doors on March 17. More than 100 of its full- and part-time staff have been furloughed, leaving only three full-time employees. On May 4, the company launched an e-commerce Internet platform where customers can order merchandise for pickup or delivery. Nearly a third of Patina’s inventory is now available online, and the goal is to have most of it online soon.
“All staff wear face masks when leaving the store to go curbside or to a parked car,” said Patina co-owner and CEO Christine Ward. “No customers are allowed in the store.”
Schuler Shoes, 2081 Ford Pkwy., is also implementing curbside pickup. The company has suffered an 80 to 85 percent loss in revenue at its nine stores over the past six weeks and has furloughed 95 percent of its employees, according to Kari Palmer, Schuler’s marketing and creative director.
Pearle Vision Center, 2024 Ford Pkwy., straddles the line between essential and non-essential business because it offers eye exams and sells eyeglasses. The store was closed for two weeks before reopening with new safety protocols, according to owner Becky Kerkow. “In March business was down 40 percent, and April was even worse,” she said. Most employees have been furloughed. One doctor has been furloughed, and the other doctor works two or three days a week.
At Pearle, patients are interviewed by phone before their visit. Their temperatures are taken upon arrival. If they arrive without a face mask, they are given one. Everyone uses hand sanitizer. Customers are not allowed to independently select frames.
“The impact on our office has been devastating,” said Dr. Kay Egan, owner of Dentists of Highland Park, 2096 Ford Pkwy. In dentistry, “you can’t GrubHub your dentist for delivery, do a contact-free curbside pickup or buy a gift card for later use,” she said. “I can’t do cleanings, fillings or cosmetic procedures right now, but I’m here if you’re having a dental emergency.” Egan applied for a PPP loan, but did not receive one in the first round.
At Langford & Karls Chiropractic, 730 S. Cleveland Ave., the pandemic has “touched all areas of our practice,” said Dr. Heather Karls. “We’ve needed to adapt very quickly to solve numerous challenges, from how to rethink all aspects of patient interaction to the financial implications.” Many patients are waiting in their cars until their appointments and wear masks and gloves when they enter the clinic. “Some of the changes happening now will be commonplace in health care,” Karls predicted.
An essential business, New Horizon Academy has remained open, but business has been drastically reduced. “In two weeks, we lost about 120 kids,” director Danielle Richards said. Hours at the child care center have been reduced to 7 a.m.-6 p.m., and 18 staff have been furloughed. All those who enter the building have their temperature taken, and anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is excluded from the building for seven days.
Children are walked to the classroom by their parents, but parents cannot enter the classroom. Hospital-grade cleaning processes are followed, and playground equipment is sanitized twice a day. “Teachers have been doing a magnificent job of keeping things as normal and positive as possible for the children,” Richards said.
While some restaurants have closed at least temporarily, others have remained open by switching from dining room to takeout or delivery service. Joan’s in the Park, 631 S. Snelling Ave., is offering evening takeout on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Meanwhile, it has lost about 70 percent of its revenue, according to co-owner Joan Schmitt.
A PPP loan has allowed Joan’s to retain all staff, though everyone is working reduced hours on staggered shifts. Employees maintain social distancing within the restaurant and follow strict hygiene practices. “Our plan is to reopen with a different menu as soon as we’re able to,” Schmitt said. “We miss being together with our customers and staff.”
Business is down 80 percent at Highland Cafe and Bakery, 2012 Ford Pkwy., according to co-owner Deb Narusiewicz. Half the staff has been furloughed, and four employees are probably gone for good. The restaurant secured a PPP loan, which is helping, Narusiewicz said, but such loans are difficult for restaurants to administer because of the tips employees receive. “It will probably end up being a loan” that the cafe will have to pay back, she said.
Highland Cafe and Bakery customers can come inside to pick up their takeout orders or be met at the curb. About half of the customers are wearing face masks. “Most want to come in,” Narusiewicz said. “People are incredibly supportive. I’ve never seen so much respectfulness for each other”—a trend she hopes will continue.
Despite the stress it has placed on their businesses, most owners are supportive of the strict measures imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. “I trust Governor Walz,” Schmitt said. “I trust the decisions being made by our city and state.”
Palmer of Schuler Shoes said she understands the reasoning behind the business closures, but she questions why some stores are allowed to have customers inside while others are not. Curbside pickup is “not a sustainable business model,” she said, insisting that Schuler employees can practice the same safety protocols that essential businesses are following to admit customers. “We want to stay positive about this,” Palmer said, “but it’s a challenge to understand the logic when we’re able to mirror the businesses that have put best practices in place.”
At Accolades, Schlaeger has completely redesigned his stations to make it safe for both customers and staff. Plexiglass barriers separate the stations from each other, and additional barriers prevent staff and customers from breathing on each other. “We spent thousands of dollars to install these stations,” Schaeger said. He has even forwarded a description of them to Governor Walz and the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology.
None of the owners who were interviewed for this story foresee a return to business as usual once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. “It’s a new normal,” Ward said. “The public will support those business that are operating in a safe manner and will not support those that aren’t.”
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