Commitment, Perseverance and Unity
In The Bronx, the historically vibrant and robust Belmont Business Improvement District/Bronx Little Italy has weathered the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine storm and is now in the early stages of reopening. During my recent visit to Arthur Avenue, I caught up with a few of the local merchants and gained some insight into the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses and how they have adjusted to the challenges of the “new normal” in a pre-vaccine environment.
What I found was that in the face of this adversity many of the veteran businesses of Little Italy’s Arthur Avenue have persevered and were full of optimism about the future, This did not come as a surprise to me being well aware of the quintessential tenacious spirit among Bronxites and New Yorkers as a whole.
Beginning of the Pandemic
The challenges of the pandemic and mandated quarantine varied among the business owners with whom I spoke. For Anthony Angrisani, owner of Arthur Cantina Wine & Liquors, since 2004, whose upbeat spirit was only matched by his friendliness, conducting business during this period of time was very much a double edged sword. Negatively affected by the inability to proceed with business as usual in his small store was one of the issues with which he had to contend.“Due to limited spacing and limited square footage in our store, at the start of COVID-19, maintaining a safe distance was very tough.” He goes on to say, “we decided to move to curbside, delivery and shipping only for everyone’s safety.”
On the other hand, because of the pandemic, he was able to increase internet sales and substantially grow his overall online business ahead of his projected schedule.
I was struck by his and his long-time staff’s upbeat spirit, in light of the tough business climate during the past few months. The initial stages of the pandemic were hardest when it became difficult to get merchandise delivered due to sick truck drivers and this situation only worsened with the mandated three-month shut down, Angrisani said he was committed to push through the pandemic. “As a business owner, you have a duty to your workers. These are the folks who gave up holidays and weekends to help build your business and that is why we small businesses cannot give up and close.” Unfortunately, the result for Arthur Cantina was a 25% loss experienced in the month of April.
Third generation Little Italy business owner, Chris Borgatti, of Borgatti’s Ravioli & Egg Noodles, who also operates in a tight space, catering to a walk-in clientele from near and far, as well as online sales, shared his experience with the pandemic and ultimate quarantine. Realizing early on that there would be a financial impact, he was nonetheless focused on safety first. “COVID-19 has had an impact on businesses around the globe and people have had to make tough decisions, but our first priority during quarantine was the health and safety of our staff, customers and community.” He goes on to say, “We knew not being open would have a financial effect on the business, but at the end of the day it's always health before profit.”
Perhaps one of the more difficult businesses to be running during this pandemic and into the later stages of reopening, is a restaurant. According to Maria di Rende, owner of Enzo’s of Arthur Avenue, “COVID-19 has impacted all of us. At first, it was very difficult to keep our business open for only take-out during NY’s PAUSE, since many of our guests see Arthur Avenue as a destination and traditionally visit the neighborhood for the day or evening versus simply take out.” However, her strong commitment to her loyal staff and the business district as a whole never made her consider closing. She goes on to say, “Nevertheless, I continued to stay open to show support for the neighborhood and to stay strong for my staff. The impact of COVID will financially impact us for years to come, but I still feel confident that we will get back on our feet once again.”
Pivoting For Survival
According to Anthony Angrisani, “A business’s ability to succeed throughout and after this crisis is all about being able to adapt and pivot quickly,” and no truer words have been spoken when looking closely at which businesses survived and reinvented themselves and those that wound up having to tragically shut their doors forever.
For Angrisani, this attitude of perseverance, enabled this Bronx liquor store to increase its internet business. Their business model always included an online store and it was a segment they had targeted for slow and incremental growth over the next few years with pre-COVID-19 online sales accounting for 5% of their income. But, with his brick and mortar store closed to the public during quarantine, he and his staff ramped up their internet business, experiencing an incredible increase that now accounts for 25% of their total revenue.
Even more amazing is that a large percentage of Arthur Cantina’s online sales during this period came from out of state. Locally, this included New Jersey, but orders came in from as far as Florida, Colorado, Michigan and even California. “This ironic turn of events allowed for us to push up the timeline in the growth of our internet sales,” says Anthony. Many of these distant customers were former neighborhood residents and others who found the store’s site because of the specialty items we carry which are not available in other regions around the country.”
Social media also played an important role as Anthony and his staff became more creative and sensitive with regular postings. “We felt the need to post on our social media that we were open for business and taking measures to stay safe.”
He credits his fellow Belmont small businesses with their tenacity, ability to pivot and commitment to keep going.
The New Normal with Reopening
As small businesses, being forced to close was difficult and impacted these independent enterprises in a plethora of ways. However, based on the feedback I received from these Arthur Avenue merchants, reopening posed a host of new challenges in how they ran their day to day businesses. Faced with a whole new set of mandatory safety rules and requirements, they had to implement different procedures and make numerous changes to the way in which they were accustomed to interacting with their staff and customers.
After having their doors shut for several months, many of which continued to pay their valued employees, retail and restaurant businesses were now required to spend precious funds to invest in the proper safety shields, outdoor set-ups and furniture to be within the law to conduct business again. They also had to ensure that their staff was properly trained to adhere to state mandates, all while trying to get back on their feet.
These challenges were further enhanced by the fact that as New York was still in flux and officials were trying to figure out next steps. As a result, there were often mixed messages that impacted these businesses’ ability to move forward in a steadfast manner. Maria di Rende experienced this inconsistency first-hand as a restauranteur, “As much as we were anxious and excited to open during Phase 2 and 3, the main challenge is that there were oftentimes conflicting guidelines to reopen and it seems that this is a “learn as you go” process.”
For a restaurant business, the need to prepare with fresh food on hand and the ability to provide good service, New York’s reopening was and continues to be quite difficult. “While the health and safety of our staff, guests and community at large has always been our top priority, I wish there could be a bit more leniency and understanding that small businesses like us are trying to get back on our feet. We are doing our best to make reopening work as our customers have been very understanding through this process of social distancing and reduced seating as well. The inclement weather is an obstacle, but as a whole and with the recent launch of Arthur Avenue’s ‘Piazza di Belmont’ which we’re really excited for, we will work together as a neighborhood to bring back businesses and to help rebuild our community.”
For traditional retail stores like Borgatti’s and Arthur Cantina, in store changes were implemented for managing store traffic, providing greater safety to staff and patrons, and enabling easier access to products for customers.
“As COVID-19 numbers in NY State started to decline and New Yorkers started wearing masks, we eased restrictions and now allow one customer in at a time (all with masks),” says Anthony Angrisani, who goes on to say, “We are also working on removing more items off the floor to free up space and allow two customers in at a time with masks. However, in-store wine tastings are suspended until we feel it’s safe to resume. Customers loved wine tastings and we loved the extra business, but our priority is health and safety until the pandemic is over.”
Angrisani also added that at present, customers miss the experience of browsing and looking through his products, but overall, they have and continue to be cooperative.
Chris Borgatti was full of enthusiasm about the reopening phase. “We are thrilled to be able to reopen Borgatti's but there are still many challenges that we face and will continue to face. Our main priority is that we want our customers and employees to feel like they are in a safe and healthy environment. We have taken the necessary steps to install plexiglass shields around all counters for protection and require face masks be worn by all as well. We have also limited our store to only two customers at a time to ensure social distancing is being practiced.”
He expressed his desire to keep the store as welcoming and open as possible by opting for custom, plexiglass shields that would not detract from the intimacy of his 85 year old neighborhood store. In terms of marketing strategies and keeping Borgatti’s top of mind, Borgatti shared that “After being closed for about 50 days, we’ve been promoting the reopening of both our physical store and our online store to increase business as much as possible. We’ve been posting on social media to help showcase our custom made t-shirts and products that are available for shipping.” He added that being able to offer both types of merchandise has been very beneficial in helping them get back on their feet and their customers are very pleased that the store is open and once again shipping their products.
With so much change and readjustment in such a short period of time, what do these resilient business owners envision for the foreseeable future? Arthur Cantina’s Angrisani is doubtful about the restrictions being lifted. “I don’t think all restrictions will be lifted in the near future, as much as I and everyone else wants for them to be.” He also believes that the colder weather will pose a whole new set of challenges. “Winter may be tough, since our customers love to frequent the neighborhood but likely won’t want to wait outside in the cold.” Once again, he believes that being able to pivot and adapt will be key to staying in business. “Scheduling deliveries, processing online payments and curbside service will continue for the foreseeable future, as well as the prospect of increasing hours of operation to reduce crowding and accommodating our customers and do whatever keeps us and our customers safe.”
According to Chris Borgatti “COVID-19 has been a challenging time for everyone, but we can only be optimistic facing these challenges moving forward. The neighborhood has done its best to provide a safe and clean area allowing our customers to shop here with confidence. We want to reassure them and let them know we have taken the proper steps and will continue to follow recommended guidelines from officials. I am hopeful this will continue and we’ll be able to navigate the Fall with a plan.”
Perhaps one of the most important marketing strategies implemented by the Belmont BID for the restaurants of Little Italy was Piazza di Belmont. Closing the street off to vehicular traffic in the evenings from Thursday to Sunday for al fresco dining is something that Maria di Rende was particularly excited about. “I absolutely love it and our customers have been thrilled. We welcomed customers that have never been on Arthur Avenue before just to experience the Piazza to transport them to ‘Italy’!”
All three business owners unanimously expressed their commitment to instilling a sense of safety to their customers. According to Maria di Rende, “We’ve been posting on our social media accounts to promote the ‘Piazza di Belmont’ and to show that we are following all the NYC recommended guidelines. Our goal is to make our customers feel comfortable and safe in every way, while providing the best hospitality and authentic Italian meals in The Bronx.”
In spite of hardships endured, these three businesses are among many others in Little Italy that weathered a terrible storm by creatively pivoting their business strategies and staying the course with optimism. Most heartwarming to me was to hear just how tight knit this neighborhood is and how they are all support one another and root for each other’s success. “Arthur Ave is a very special place with many independent merchants and mom-and-pop shops striving for one thing – keeping Arthur Avenue strong! I feel all businesses appreciate and value what Arthur Ave has to offer, and we see that in our customers who have been very supportive during this pandemic and I believe that the customers will continue to be supportive once restrictions are lifted.”
Till next time,