By Kalli Colacino
Gary Gulak has worked in the restaurant industry for over 16 years. As the owner of Mama Flora’s Trattoria in Ewing, NJ, he’s had his fair share of challenges. But as COVID-19 spreads across the country, he’s facing his toughest challenge yet — keeping business up while society is stuck in quarantine.
“We’re struggling just to keep things open,” Gulak said. “We’ve been finding ourselves closing early.”
On March 16, Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 104, which states that “All restaurants…are permitted to operate their normal business hours, but are limited to offering only food delivery/take out services.”
The impact of COVID-19 has put unprecedented stress on small business owners, many of whom are doing everything they can to stay afloat. A National Small Business Association survey found that three quarters of small business owners are very concerned about the economic impact of the coronavirus. They are left wondering if the local community and the government are going to step up and help.
“We are still able to maintain some sales through take-out and delivery, but we are losing a lot of profit,” Gulak said.
But not all restaurants can rely on take out and delivery. Lion Dog in Campus Town is one of the many businesses that have closed their doors completely. With little or no income, it’s difficult for business owners to pay their rent and bills — let alone make a profit.
“The coronavirus knocked the shit out of us,” said Owner Scott Yellin, who opened the business in April 2018.
Gulak hopes to keep Mama Flora’s open for as long as possible. After laying off a lot of the restaurant employees, he’s working with a skeleton crew.
“We’re not looking for profitability,” he said. “But paying our bills and keeping what employees we have active might make it possible (to stay open).”
In the meantime, local business owners are doing as much as they can to cater to their customers.
Yellin owns two Campus Town businesses: Lion Dog and PostNet, a chain retailer that offers printing and shipping services. Since PostNet is considered an essential business, Yellin is walking a fine line between following the governor’s stay-at-home order and maintaining the responsibilities he has to clients.
“I go (to PostNet) for a couple of hours a couple days a week,” Yellin said. “I’m not open for retail sales per se, but if someone happens to tap on the window and I’m there, I do what I can within reason.”
According to Gulak, the decline in competition as more restaurants in the area close may give him the opportunity to keep his restaurant afloat. Every morning, he evaluates Mama Flora’s finances and decides if keeping the store open is worthwhile.
With the future unknown, local small businesses — like everybody else — are just taking things day by day.
“Hopefully things get back to normal soon, and we can start rebuilding,” Gulak said.