COVID-19 Versus Small Business

Grace Woznicki, Reporter

According to Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research organization, as of December 2020, over one-third of small businesses had permanently closed. Revenue was 39% lower than in January 2020.

Many small business owners in Connecticut have experienced devastating effects of the pandemic, while some workers said they have felt overwhelmed.

Ranked the sixth highest state in the country for business shutdowns, Connecticut businesses that are usually bustling with crowds are still struggling to find employees to fill positions, Opportunity Insights reported.

“The biggest difficulty has been finding employees. There are much less people looking for jobs it seems. Not only us, but it seems nationwide, across different industries,” Art Ververis, the manager of Capitol Lunch in New Britain, said. “Our staff has been cut in half, from 10 plus employees to five. Price increases on food and supplies have also been difficult to navigate.”

Ververis, whose father, Gus, started the business in 1929, said that offering the option of takeout food during the pandemic was crucial for the business and a steady income. “We offer quality fast food so even during the pandemic, with takeout only, we were able to survive,” he said.

Some managers of small businesses said they have had to scramble in recent months to find employees that are willing to devote hours out of their day to contribute to the success of the business.

“I’ve literally never had so many potential employees not show up to interviews, not show up to working interviews, not show up for their first day of work, or work a few weeks and quit/just stop showing up,” Josh Virkler, owner of Luann’s Bakery and Café in Ellington, said.

“Our team has been ‘running on a treadmill’ for the last 20 months and we so badly want to help them stop running. The key to that is that we need more people.”

Rehan Aziz, the owner of Main Street’s Pizza Works in New Britain, said that finding quality labor after the pandemic has been like finding a unicorn.

“I even struggle to pay the unskilled labor wages in today’s market,” he said. “I don’t see too many small businesses staying open with the current economic conditions.”

Aziz said that the biggest difficulty that his business has faced is the ability to keep up with the cost of doing business. He said that with the increased price of food, labor, and packaging materials, there has also been an increased need for profit, which has not been fulfilled with the limited number of customers.

Christina Caccioppoli, the marketing and sales coordinator of New Britain’s Five Churches Brewing, said that having a supportive team has helped make a stressful situation more manageable for the entire business.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a solid crew that has stuck with us through the past few years,” Caccioppoli said. “Things have fluctuated, but most have been ready and willing to help where they can.”

Brick Oven Pizza in New Britain was hit particularly hard after opening just months before the start of the pandemic. “Prior to the pandemic, I was fully staffed,” owner Tony Rapi said. “It was also a new business that just opened, so the pandemic really affected me.”

Rapi said that he often found himself with too many tasks because he did not have enough employees for the amount of work that needed to be completed.

“For quite a while, I was working short-staffed, and anytime any restaurant or business is short-staffed, it’s never good for customer service,” Rapi said. “I found it very hard to find a delivery man, which meant I was making food, then someone was driving it, and it would take longer than expected.”

After closing for a month, Rapi said that he knew he had to reopen regardless of the fears he had about his own health.

“I had no choice as the numbers were still really high,” he said. “I was afraid for my family, but I just knew that if I was safe, the food was safe, and my customers would keep coming.”

Rapi said that he had been used to the amount of work it took to run a restaurant, but added that he was overwhelmed by the toll the pandemic took on his business.

“I’ll be honest, the pandemic was pretty life-changing,” Rapi said. “I’ve owned restaurants my whole life and have worked in them. As a worker, this has been rough, but as an owner, it’s been even worse.”

New Britain’s downtown district has experienced significant losses in the realm of businesses according to its executive director, Gerry Amodio.

“Business will never be the same. As the world pivoted, we learned that home delivery can in many ways replace in-person shopping and get it to us in one day,” Amodio said. “Virtual meetings make it easier to attend and save travel expenses. But in either case, nothing replaces the hands-on in-person experience.”

Although there was a significant amount of financial aid provided to struggling small businesses, there was simply too much for the city to take on at once, Amodio said.

“For many of them [small businesses], the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money helped them to survive, but many downtown businesses are very small, and qualifying was troublesome,” he said. “It’s ironic. We are a small, poor town, and many of the downtown businesses reflect the town itself.”

Amodio said that many of the employees within the city’s businesses are being overworked.

“Staffing is a problem, but again, since many businesses are hands-on business owners, they are just working even more and harder,” he said. “Don’t know how you can work more than they do now.”

Despite the city’s help, Amodio said it may take years to rebuild the economy in New Britain.

“I sometimes say that ‘our lack of wealth is our strongest asset.’ Now, though, this inflation will kill any successful recovery, as they won’t be able to pass on higher costs to poor buyers,” he said.

“Stimulus dollars were good, but never should have been more than their regular earnings. Bad national policies that trickle down to cities.”