Survey: Boulder businesses faring better, but long winter ahead

Photo via City of Boulder

Friday, Dec. 18, 2020

COVID is still impacting nearly every business in Boulder, but some have managed to adapt over the many months of shifting restrictions and public health orders. Still, most are struggling, and even the promise of a vaccine is not enough to ease the uncertainty of the next few months.

“We are 100% day by day, week by week,” said Marcy Miller, owner of Organic Sandwich Company. “We’re trying to batten down the hatches.”

The city recently released results of an updated survey of 542 area businesses, a followup to an April questionnaire. It was shared with city council as part of this week’s meeting materials.

It found that 94% of businesses’ operations are being affected by COVID; 68% rank the repercussions as significant. That’s down from 79% in the spring. Fewer respondents reported difficulty paying rent or employees, though 80% are still feeling the financial effects of reduced economic activity.

Helping hands

Assistance from the government and other entities seemed to play a role: 77% reported receiving aid of some kind, including grants, loans or other financial help (69%), resources from the city, county or Boulder Chamber (39%), paycheck protection loans (72%) and economic industry disaster loans (29%).

Colorado officials helped by allowing to-go alcohol sales. Take-home margaritas accounted for about half of T/aco’s revenue when the restaurant was restricted to takeout only, owner Peter Waters said.

Boulder’s own efforts included closing parking spots and parts of Pearl Street to cars, allowing outdoor dining, and modifying rules for temporary structures so that could continue in cold weather. Using CARES money, the city also subsidized restaurant delivery and sponsored a matching gift card campaign that sold out in days.

Miller didn’t take advantage of that last offering for her business, but used it to boost beleaguered employees.

In lieu of a holiday party this year, we polled some of our staff and bought everyone gift cards to local restaurants and coffee shops to help support our neighbors,” she said. “We all want to survive this together. We don’t want a handful of restaurants still standing.”

It was helpful having gratis compostable takeout containers and utensils provided by the city and county, Miller said. Costs to operate have stayed consistent while revenue has fallen, so “anything someone wants to put out there to help us, I will gladly accept and praise and be extremely thankful for.”

Governments helped in one other way, at least early on: 25% of businesses who responded to Boulder’s survey said COVID’s damage lessened after public health guidance became clearer.

That consistency has been tested of late as cases rise and legal restrictions shift to keep pace. Ever-changing conditions have been “frustrating,” Waters said.

“We’re looking at thousands of dollars in materials to invest and seat people outside,” he said. T/aco was this week building individual, heated “walk-in grain houses” for single-table outdoor dining. “And for all we know, next week they may say no outdoor dining whatsoever and you can only do takeout.”

Said Miller, “I keep my fingers crossed that there is an end in sight. Every time you think there is, that finish line keeps getting moved further back and back.”

‘Bleak’ outlook for winter

T/aco has managed to retain all its core employees, Waters said, though some university students left for home earlier this year. The restaurant closed for one day on March 16 and reopened with a plan.

We sat down and looked at a list of employees and said, ‘Who is responsible for paying for their bills, their own rent?'” he recalled. “We had a list of 25 people. That was kind of our motivation throughout this initial shutdown and through the pandemic.”

The establishment is in the minority. Half of surveyed businesses cut workers, and 42% believe staffing changes will be permanent.

Damage has not been equally felt by all industries. Nearly a third (31%) of businesses are experiencing “minimal disruption” in their day-to-day.

Pharmaceutical and aerospace sectors are doing well, said John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber. The bike industry saw so much demand that shops have struggled with inventory shortages.

But particularly for restaurants and retail, Tayer said, “there’s no question it’s bleak.”

Those businesses are entering the most difficult time of year — after the winter holidays but with a long, cold season still ahead. January and February are typically slow retail months anyway; if Christmas travel picks up, another post-holiday COVID spike could compound sluggish sales.

“There’s no question that the vaccines present a light at the end of the tunnel,” Tayer said. “At the same time, there’s a long way from here to there.”

Remote recovery

When full recovery will come — and what it will look like — is unknown, despite many predictions. The city is highly reliant on outside spending: a Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau survey found that 69% of restaurants and 46% of retailers said their businesses could not survive without tourists.

Commuting workers and university students are vital groups as well, whose absence has been felt keenly. Foot traffic downtown has been cut in half this year compared to 2019, according to reports provided by Downtown Boulder Partnership.

“Our lunch hours at both locations are nonexistent,” said Waters, who also owns grilled cheese joint Ruthie’s Boardwalk Social on the Pearl Street Mall. “Businesses aren’t housing potential customers for us. That’s the biggest impact; it’s not the spacing and the restrictions.”

“We’re a lunch spot,” Miller said. “We have that 11:30 to 1 to crush it, and if we don’t …”

The city’s survey indicates that remote work trends will likely continue post-pandemic — keeping nearly one-third of Bolder’s workforce at home.

“46% of employers in professional and technical services, information, finance, insurance, real estate, or advanced technology industries had increased the number of employees working from home and 41% expected to continue that change after the pandemic,” staff wrote in notes to council. “These industries employ about 30% of the individuals who work in Boulder.”

Business owners might be keeping their offices empty, but there is evidence that individual workers are ready to return to a formal workspace. Alexis Baile, a national account sales manager for Novel Coworking, said she sold multiple offices last month — Novel is only renting private work spaces, for health and safety, not open seating — even though local COVID cases were the highest on record.

Recent clients include a handful of startups and a “bigwig” from a multinational corporation who “can’t go back” to the company’s office “but they don’t want to work at home any more.”

People are so excited to get out of their house,” Baile said. “I have one guy, every Wednesday he comes, he’s going out to having something to eat for lunch. It’s only one day, but he’s here.”

Such arrangements might actually help restaurants, Baile and Waters believe. Waters said T/aco was never busier than when a co-working space was located across the street.

It was always a different appetite with a different wallet,” he said. “Twice as many people coming in half the time, they’re more inclined to go out to lunch.”

If companies reduce their footprint, new ones might move to fill in the gaps in smaller, more affordable spaces, he predicted. A mix of remote and in-person work could bring more bodies to Boulder — eventually.

Between now and then, though, stands perhaps the toughest part of the pandemic so far.

“We said since the beginning this is going to take about a year, and the hardest months will be the last three months,” Waters said. “Anybody who can make it to April 1 is going to benefit from warmer weather (and) four months of vaccine under our belt. That’s always been our goal: just get through the year.” 

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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