‘Nail in the coffin’: Pandemic forces struggling businesses to close, Fairfield official says
FAIRFIELD — In what has been a challenging time for many, small businesses have not been sparred from hardship, according to Mark Barnhart.
Barnhart, the town’s director of economic and community development, said businesses are getting by, but there have been closures as a result of the pandemic.
“Some of the more noticeable ones are corporate (stores) like Victoria’s Secret and Pier One,” Barnhart said. “Some of those businesses were struggling financially before the pandemic. Obviously, this has kind of been a nail in the coffin so to speak.”
In terms of small businesses, Barnhart said The Label Exchange, Saltwater and Swim n’ Surf have gone online in lieu of maintaining store fronts. He said Grace O’Malleys, B-Good and Marcello’s Grill & Deli were among food service establishments to have closed.
“A lot of our locally owned and operated businesses are getting by,” he said. “It’s not easy. It hasn’t been easy. There’s obviously some anxiety out there when you talk about restaurants.”
But, Barnhart said, Fairfield has developed a “very robust” outdoor dining scene. He said programs have allowed the creation or expansion of a restaurant’s outdoor footprint for 45 applicants, more than half of which did not previously have seating outside.
“We had very, very nice weather for the most part during the summer and early part of the fall. That’s been very helpful. Many of these businesses or restaurants that have outdoor dining — it’s been very helpful to have that,” Barnhart said, adding there is concern on how lower temperatures could impact that as fall progresses and leads to winter.
Barnhart said 54 out of 71 applications for town grants funded by the federal CARES Act have been approved, providing some supplemental money to small businesses that need it. He said the grants provide between $1,000 and $5,000, with the average applicant receiving $3,500.
“Businesses that have applied for help through that program — there’s a diverse array,” Barnhart said. “About a quarter are in retail; 15 percent are in food service; Another 10 percent are in beauty salons or barber shops. Those monies have been used to help defray rent or utility costs, business’ insurances, marketing expenses, equipment purchases and, obviously, the purchase of PPE and other modifications to keep their workers and patrons safe.”
According to Barnhart, about a couple dozen small businesses have closed their doors permanently. With 2,500 business establishments in town, he said that tracks with national trends.
“Some of this would happen in the best of times, but, obviously, we are not in the best of times,” Barnhart said. “We are anticipating that, unfortunately, there’s going to be some that aren’t going to make it.”
Conversely, Barnhart said there have been a few small businesses that have opened during the pandemic. He said the new businesses include eateries and retailers.
“That is a positive sign,” he said. “That even with the lockdown, socially distancing and things much different with the pandemic, people are still taking the opportunity to open up business enterprises.”
One such new business owner is Bridget Lesizza, who purchased the building that used to house the 7-Eleven on Reef Road with her husband, Jason. Their new business, she said, is called the Reef Shack.
Lesizza said it is a grill, specializing in hot sandwiches such as cheese steaks, and a small marketplace built with the novel coronavirus in mind.
“We’ve invested a lot of money in how we’ve designed it,” she said. “Even coming down to the refrigerators all being reach in, so nobody will have to touch a handle. Our point of sale software is touch-free and online ordering is available with a take-out window for anyone who is not comfortable coming into the building.”
Lesizza, who she has a background in marketing, said they took over the lease in late April, at the height of the pandemic. She said she and her husband, who grew up working in his father’s restaurant, always wanted to run a business together.
Designed like an off-the-beaten-path clam shack, Lesizza said they wanted to have a small place that would appeal to all types of people. She said the main challenge of building a business during a pandemic has been getting construction materials, noting that projects on the docket when suppliers closed took priority.
“It slowed down our opening,” she said. “Initially, we thought we were going to be able to open really fast. We did all our plans, and the town of Fairfield has been amazing in terms of supporting and getting our permits going. But, when it comes down to it, if we can’t get the wood, we can’t build the building.”
Things are starting to cruise along, Lesizza said, and the couple is aiming to open the Reef Shack on Nov. 1 if things continue going well.
Barnhart said a handful of other businesses have opened during the pandemic and a couple more are about to. He said things are going well so far.
“It’s not a bad challenge,” he said. “Running a business is all about managing those challenges anyway. I’m looking forward to working with these guys.”