A special Business section, published by the Express News Group, explored how local restaurateurs, managers, storeowners and more have adapted to a new normal, due to COVID-19.
My interviews spanned three industries. Doug Gulija, owner-chef of The Plaza Cafe, painted a grim picture for the future of the restaurant industry; Stuart Schoener of Storms Ford grappled with a no-touch approach to selling cars; and Shannon Willey of Sea Green Designs has capitalized on the sudden need to redecorate ASAP.
Plaza Cafe At A Crossroads Due To COVID-19
Doug Gulija has never had two consecutive days off in his 40-year career. He had never been home before 8 p.m. on a work night.
And now, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, he finally sees what he’s been missing.
“For me, personally, it’s been a time of reflection,” explained the chef and owner of The Plaza Café in Southampton Village, back in the kitchen after a day off spent relaxing in his backyard, reconnecting with his family. “It’s opened my eyes to even, if we do open up again, I may, for the first time in my career, say, ‘Nope, I’m closing two days a week.’
“I go seven days a week from the middle of April to the middle of September, and I’m here every single day, and I have been for 25 years — and I love it,” he continued. “It wasn’t mandated to me. I didn’t hate it. I just love what I do.
“But now I’m seeing, just hanging out in my yard with my dog and my kid, it’s, like, ‘Whoa. Let me reevaluate: Do I need to be doing what I’m doing?’”
Abiding by the state’s stay-at-home order, Mr. Gulija closed his dining room in March and transitioned the restaurant to takeout only, adding a food truck menu to the normal high-end fare.
“Everything in this is like nothing I’ve ever encountered in my 40 years in the industry, where you had some idea of where things might be six months to a year later. You have no idea where this is going,” he said. “Some people say it’s the end of the world — this is it. Other people are like, ‘It doesn’t exist.’
“We’re so divided on it. So how do you make a business plan on that? It’s crazy. It’s hard to plan for a future when we don’t even know what’s gonna happen tomorrow.”
To prepare for a potential reopening, Mr. Gulija and his two staff members — whom he pays through the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as his rent — have moved the restaurant’s tables 6 feet apart, a social distancing measure that slashed seating from 80 to 30.
“In all honesty, if that works and people are safe, because I’m a small chef-owned restaurant, I can survive doing that. But there’s definitely a chance we won’t get through it,” Mr. Gulija said. “When the PPP thing runs out, which for me will be in five weeks, and we’re still in just takeout, my gut feeling is that we’ll probably close, unless it’s safe and I can at least start doing some dining room business. Even if it’s 20 people a night, I can survive. But if I closed? Yeah, I would probably say that would be it.”
As part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to reopen New York State, restaurants are in “phase three,” behind construction and real estate services, though the actual date still remains unclear.
“There’s gonna be places that, once the okay is put up, they’re gonna open up and act like nothing’s out there, and I, unfortunately — because of my personal life and people that I’m taking care of — I see this in a different light,” he said. “So that’s gonna be the hard part for me, as to when I can actually say it’s safe to open and actually start trying to make a living.”
At home, Mr. Gulija cares for his son, who is diabetic, and his two elderly parents — three loved ones who would all be considered high-risk COVID-19 patients should they contract the virus. It is a reality the restaurateur grapples with every day, he said.
“I do the best I can, and I’ll take their health over my business, no question,” he said. “If somebody walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, your mom and dad and your son are gonna survive this, but you’re gonna lose The Plaza Café,” I’d say, ‘Tell me where to sign.’ I’d be cool with it.
“That’s the way I look at it. That’s how I get through this.”
Storms Ford Grapples With COVID-19 Impact On Car Sales
The automobile market was in the midst of a boom when COVID-19 arrived. Seemingly overnight, showrooms closed nationwide. North American and European vehicle production ground to a halt. And for traditional car dealerships across the United States, an old way of business was suddenly over.
Whether it will revert back, or adopt a more 21st century, no-touch approach to selling cars — one made popular by used car dealer Carvana — remains to be seen, including at Storms Ford in Southampton, according to General Manager Stuart Schoener.
“I think we all look forward to getting back to the way things were, but I don’t think they’re going to go all the way back to the way things were. I think things will change,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind, this will leave a lasting impression on people, even after the inevitable vaccine. Some of what we’ve done over the past couple of months has been fairly easy to get accustomed to, and some of it has been really, really difficult.”
When the state locked down in March, business at the service center plummeted by 65 percent, and the dealership was forced to cease selling cars altogether. Now, with online and remote sales currently permitted, “that is now starting to claw its way back, but it’s still way off,” Mr. Schoener said, “probably off more than 50 percent.”
What used to be dozens of test drives per week have dropped to two or three, and the sanitization process for each road test, while necessary and doable, is cumbersome, Mr. Schoener said.
“You have to set up the appointment, and then I get the car ready outside with a plate on it, and cleaned up and sanitized, and keys in it, and then I get within 6 or 8 feet of you, I zoom in and snap a picture of your driver’s license, and off you go around the block,” he said. “And then we can’t discuss or negotiate terms at all in person.”
Through follow-up phone calls and text messages, Mr. Schoener said he has managed to close sales most easily for longstanding customers with car allegiances, though a few new faces have trickled in.
Once the deal is sealed, teaching them how to use a completely computerized vehicle is the final hurdle and “biggest change,” he said.
“It takes a little time to make it work and show people how to make it function — and I can’t really get in the car with you and show you, so that makes it a little tough,” he said. “The delivery that used to take an hour either takes four hours, because somebody is curious enough to want to know all that stuff before they drive away, or it takes five minutes, because they don’t want you anywhere near it and they’ll go figure it out on their own.”
He laughed, letting out a sigh. “It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s a new world.”
Sea Green Designs Adapts To COVID-19
As Shannon Willey has come to realize, there is no time like a quarantine to redecorate.
“People, now that they’re stuck at home, are deciding they need to make some changes — are desperate to make some changes — to their space,” she said, “and they’re, like, ‘We could use some help doing that.’”
Enter Sea Green Designs, an interior design business and home furnishings boutique inspired by the coastal lifestyle of the Hamptons, owned and operated by Ms. Willey for the last 20 years — and she isn’t letting the COVID-19 pandemic stop her now.
“As soon as this all started taking place, I just knew that I was gonna have to shift the way that we did things,” she said. “I think the one thing that really helps in this situation is you realize absolutely everybody is in the same boat. Everyone is affected somehow. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to make the shift and maybe see a bigger boost once things are open again.”
Halted construction on the East End has brought most of Ms. Willey’s projects to a standstill, she said, but remote consultations via Zoom meetings — the norm for her New York City-based clients — have continued.
For her local customers, she has even gone so far as to drop off samples at their homes, from a distance.
“When construction opens, hopefully,we’ll see that boost. When retail opens, hopefully, we’ll see that boost,” she said. “Probably the biggest challenge, when you’re a small business, it’s when everything happens at once. You need to be able to do as much business as you can. So we’ll have to make sure that we can stay on top of what needs to be done, so we can take advantage of that boost.”
In the meantime, Ms. Willey said she is keeping busy by consistently refreshing the store’s window, posting merchandise on social media and her website, and bringing shoppers into the shop — albeit virtually — through Facebook Live videos.
“Our figures are definitely down. Having the store closed is a big impact, for sure,” she said. “I’m hoping that the fact that many people are already out here, if things are able to open up safely for June, that maybe we can start to make up for that.
“June is a funny month, in terms of the retail side of things, anyway, because a lot of people are out for the big push for Memorial Day, and then it quiets off while everyone’s waiting for graduations and weddings and things like that, which, obviously, this year won’t be happening,” she continued.
“I’m hopeful! We’re managing. But there’s definitely been a financial impact, there’s no question.”