For businesses that opened in 2019 right before the pandemic hit, what does normal look like?
That seems to be the biggest question on many Marion business owners’ minds right now as COVID-19 restrictions continue to be reduced. Last year at this time, mask requirements were being posted on store doors. And in some ways, that’s still the case right now, but in a different fashion.
Instead of signs asking customers to wear their face masks, it’s signs telling those who have been vaccinated they can finally remove their face mask. Though the caution tape on the floor for social distancing can still be found and hand sanitizer seems to be never going out of style after the pandemic, lines and wait lists have actually returned to businesses and restaurants.
If someone were to take a quick walk in downtown on the weekend, they’d find families waiting for a table at Taste of Memphis Barbeque. Just across the street, a group of friends is having an afternoon snack at Topped Ice Cream. And with downtown Marion’s Third Thursdays rising in popularity, bars are seeing more people and event spaces are hosting more events.
While it seems customers are starting to return to their normal habits, business owners in Marion are approaching this time with cautionary optimism.
For brewer Joe VanBuskirk and business partner Tim Chambers, both co-owners of Marion Brewing Company, this is the position they find themselves in. The brewery opened in late 2019 and quickly became a popular spot offering craft beer made in house.
Chambers said within a few months of opening, they added more brewing tanks. These tanks were purchased in February of last year and just a month later the country was placed in lockdown.
“I feel like we are about a year behind from where we expected to be,” Chambers said.
“We expected summer of 2020 to be our boom,” VanBuskirk added. “And then it was like, ‘Well, okay. I guess we are putting everything off.'”
Luckily, Chambers and VanBuskirk were able to get creative with keeping the newly open business afloat. With Gov. Mike DeWine allowing take-out alcohol orders, the two quickly added crowlers, large cans that can hold about two pints of beer before being sealed, to the menu. This became a primary source of revenue for the brewery and now it’s here to stay as a staple offering.
These are the parts the two business owners are excited about; the increased revenue from to-go orders are now icing on the cake to compliment foot traffic into the brewery. But with the brewery still designed for COVID-19 protocols, the two are making changes inside while learning what a normal summer rush looks like.
Chambers said the brewery is doing well right now in terms of sales; weekends are busy and with more businesses re-opening around them, foot traffic seems to be at an all time high. And this is where the question remains; is this increase a boom from people feeling stuck inside for too long, or is this a consistent trend that’s here to stay?
The two brewery owners are hopeful they can start growing their staff as they originally planned. As more time goes on, they both said they’d have a better gauge on how many additional employees are needed.
Luke Henry, an entrepreneur with many businesses in downtown, said he finds himself asking the same question. For him, it’s his newer businesses like Topped Ice Cream that opened in July 2019. Similarly to Marion Brewing, 2021 feels like year one in many ways as he navigates staffing needs with trying to pinpoint what a normal busy season looks like.
Staffing also seems to be a challenge for businesses right now. Henry said due to lay-offs at the start of the pandemic, many service industry employees have either found jobs elsewhere, or are hesitant to return due to concerns about fair pay and hours. Henry said these conversation for employers and employees are a must as the pandemic has highlighted the importance of these jobs, but it has presented labor shortages.
“We are having to be very mindful of what we’re paying, how we’re structuring hours, how we’re being flexible around people’s schedules and just having to get extra creative on some fronts to make sure we are taking good care of our people and that we’re creating a work environment that people want to come and be a part of,” Henry said.
However, Henry is optimistic about the future. He cited Third Thursdays in downtown driving foot traffic to local businesses, and his event space The Brickyard continues to book events and weddings. Through a combination of events returning and businesses reopening, he is already starting to see people stop into Topped for ice cream after finishing dinner at a nearby restaurant.
There’s also relief on Henry’s end when it comes to changes with mask mandates. He said the previous year was exceptionally challenging for enforcing mask wearing as it had became such a politically charged topic. With restaurants also wanting to be accommodating to guests, having requirements and mask mandates lifted just means one less variable to account for moving forward.
“It’s been very challenging for hospitality type businesses to kind of walk that line like, we want to keep people safe [and] we want to follow the rules, but we also want to take good care of our guests and some of our guests have different feelings about these things,” Henry said.
Plus, he said, it’s just nice to see people’s faces again.
Henry, and Marion Brewing for that matter, have also seen an uptick in out-of-town visitors at their establishments. For these business owners, this is a sign people are becoming more comfortable with venturing back out into the world. And with Marion continuing to add entertainment options, shops and restaurants, they are all hopeful these will attract more people to visit the area.
Story by Mitch Hooper | (740)-244-9935 | [email protected] | @_MH16