LIZ MONROE, Special to The Denisonian — Last spring, the coronavirus pandemic inflicted hardship and confusion upon many small businesses in Granville, Ohio, a small college town located in the central east part of the state.
Denison University students rapidly fled from Granville as the coronavirus gained momentum across the country. As a result of students’ absence, some businesses survived, finding innovative tactics along the way, while others had no choice but to permanently close. Today, nearly six months after the initial spread of the virus, the businesses of Granville continue to pick up the pieces as students begin to wander, cautiously, into the village once again.
Given its status as a renowned Ohio “college town,” offering beautiful scenery and a tight-knit community, Granville relies heavily on tourism and the student population of Denison for business. As the pandemic swept across the country at an alarming rate, beginning last spring, both Denison students and Granville businesses were largely affected. Students were sent home abruptly and rapidly in hopes of preventing them from bringing the coronavirus back to Granville after spring break. One day, students were told that spring break would be extended for an extra two weeks and the next day students were told the rest of the semester would be remote and online; students were not to return to campus after all. No one saw the pandemic coming, which proved to be quite a challenging situation for small businesses who already operate on slim margins in normal times. Unfortunately, many Granville businesses were forced to close, temporarily or permanently, as the community wrestled with the stay-at-home orders in place and the absence of students.
JD Flournoy, 30, is the manager at Alfie’s Wholesome Food in Granville and resides in the Columbus area. He has been working at Alfie’s for about five years and in his role as the general manager, he handles everything from working with local partners to managing employees to the food preparation itself. “Operating during COVID has been really interesting and really stressful,” Flournoy recounted from across the outdoor table. The pandemic was a big moral hit to Alfie’s, as business was not as successful as it usually is. The cafe’s response, according to Flournoy, was to take care of the employees first and provide as many options as possible to keep everyone safe. Luckily, the small business had the capital to take the loss and had the privilege to continue business at a loss. Alfie’s offered delivery services for older customers unable to leave their homes and also donated to food pantries in Newark every other week. As Flournoy explained the great community outreach Alfie’s has done over the course of the pandemic, a Lucky Cat Bakery worker carrying many fresh loaves of bread stopped to say “hello” to the lively manager.
When asked about Alfie’s dependence on student business, Flournoy explained that for a long time, the cafe did depend on students, but with the virus, this year was strange for a number of reasons. After students left Granville, pretty much every business shut down due to state restrictions, so Alfie’s did not see the effect of students’ absence right away. Business was slow for everyone. Once restrictions loosened, summer became busy and Aflie’s even had some record sales days, without students. This was surprising given that record sales days, in the past, have been during student events, such as graduation weekend. As Alfie’s grappled with the pandemic, a number of changes occurred. This year, new ownership took over Alfie’s and the cafe’s social media marketing really took off. Alfie’s utilized social media strategically to remind regulars and Granville residents, in general, of their business. Although Alfie’s has done considerably well with business amid the pandemic, the cafe is seeing the effects of students not being there at full capacity, due to the university’s restrictions limiting where students can go off campus and what they can do. For example, eating at restaurants is prohibited so many students still remain wary and cautious about wandering into town for food. That being said, regulars have kindly supported Aflie’s, simply because they want to support the business and have seen many others struggling. “The community is great in Granville and people really care about who they support and why they support them,” reflected Flournoy with gratitude. Overall, Alfie’s was lucky enough to find some silver linings amid the pandemic, even with the absence of students.
Other small businesses in Granville had a slightly different response to the absence of students when the pandemic first hit. Anne Love, 61, is the owner of Whit’s Frozen Custard and she has lived in Granville since 2000. At a distance and outside, Love explained the effect of the pandemic on her business and the community as a whole. Her job has been very difficult since the pandemic started. According to Love, when everyone abruptly left in March, business really slowed down and inevitably sales plummeted. “May is typically the biggest month of the year for our business and so Whit’s took a really big hit,” Love noted as cars passed by. Whit’s stayed open during the pandemic, but Love was the only one working since business was extremely slow and mainly for the safety of the employees. “I would walk outside and it just looked like a ghost town,” Love recollected, shaking her head in dismay. According to Love, Whit’s also took a large hit in business when the local farmers market moved farther away from the main downtown area of Granville. The farmers market usually would bring business to downtown Granville because of its central location. Although Whit’s faced many challenges during the pandemic, especially when students left, Love emphasized how the community really pulled together for those in need. Throughout the conversation, it was clear that, all in all, Denison students have an immense impact on the small businesses of Granville. “Denison is Granville,” Love exclaimed with a smile. Recently, Whit’s has seen an increase in sales with students now allowed down the hill and summer wrapping up. The Whit’s owner is hopeful things will get better eventually and that the community will continue to persevere.
One organization that has had first hand experiences with Granville businesses facing the challenges of the pandemic is the Granville Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is a non-profit, member service organization in place to support and help member businesses succeed. There are 250 businesses that are a part of the Granville Chamber of Commerce, each with different and unique needs. Steve Matheny, 67, has been the executive director at the chamber for 6 years and he lives in Newark, Ohio. He explained, over a Zoom video call, that early in the spring, all of the businesses and the chamber were unsure how to proceed. “We are not experts and we do not have answers or solutions for all of their problems. But the role we adopted to help them was to serve as a filter, and a screen if you will, to gather and distribute the information businesses needed,” Matheny said, just as a client entered the office. After attending to the visiting client, Matheny addressed the fact that the absence of students from Granville was most definitely noticed. Many businesses really depend on Denison students, faculty and staff for business, so when these people were not in Granville and were not doing local shopping, this affected businesses, some more than others. Furthermore, Matheny noted that the lack of business continued into late August. “We know that in August, when students began to come back, they were restricted to remain on campus for the first two weeks. But our current understanding is that these rules are somewhat more relaxed now. This lack of business did hurt,” Matheny explained.
Jen Jacquot, 36, started working at the chamber in June as the operations director and “job shares” the lead role with Matheny. She shared her experience on entering a challenging new job in such unprecedented conditions, alongside Matheny on the Zoom call. “When you go into something so unprecedented, you’re working with people who are facing problems they’ve never faced before. So, to come up with solutions, you really have to listen to what they’re going through and think of unconventional ways to help,” Jacquot explained as she sat in front of her desk on the call. The overall role of these Chamber of Commerce is to listen to the different kinds of issues across all businesses, and help them figure out how to survive and stay “afloat” for a few months, especially without the business of students.
Matheny and Jacquot brought up the chamber’s connection to Denison’s Red Frame Lab, which was formed over the summer. Many students had internships fall through because of the pandemic, so the Red Frame Lab worked with the Chamber of Commerce to give students different opportunities. According to Matheny, Red Frame leadership asked the Chamber how it could engage students with local businesses on a consulting basis. Once restrictions were loosened, Granville businesses started to reopen again and it became clear that businesses needed an innovative way to let people know. “This was a chance to market Granville as open and learn tools from younger Denison students on how to get the word about in an innovative way,” recalled Jacquot. The pandemic really highlighted how businesses relied on a very traditional way of business, with some having an online presence and others with none. Red Frame Lab interns worked with the Chamber of Commerce to promote a “Granville is Open” video on social media platforms. Caroline Abboushi, 20, a global commerce and economics double major from Chicago, Illinois, was one of the Red Frame Lab interns who worked with the chamber as a team leader for the project. “The project was to create a social media campaign revolving around the idea that Granville was reopening. My team had a budget and we did a five-day countdown to the release of the video with Instagram story takeovers by businesses and videos of Denison students and what they missed about Granville,” Abboushi explained over a video call. The interns consulted businesses on the social media campaign and the chamber organized workshops for social media use and how to create Instagram stories. “Businesses are still doing Instagram takeovers even after the release of the video!” Abboushi exclaimed with a sense of accomplishment. Although Denison students left Granville, many were still engaging with the village in a way that was beneficial for both parties. There is no doubt that Granville needs the students and the students need Granville.
Both Matheny and Jacquot described the “Granville is Open” video and the social media campaign as very innovative strategies for the small businesses. The video contains beautiful aerial shots of all different aspects of Granville, from the farmer’s market to businesses like River Road Coffee House, as the narrator informs the viewer that Granville is open. It provides suggestions for how people of Granville can finally get out of their homes and be part of the community again. Ultimately, the goal of the video is to remind residents that Granville is opening safely. This was a strategy Granville has never utilized before to promote business and it has helped businesses to modernize and reach more people in an efficient way.
Unfortunately, some Granville businesses were not as lucky as Whit’s or Alfie’s and resorted to closing permanently or temporarily. Flournoy noted he had heard Moe’s Original BBQ was not doing well, financially, before the pandemic even hit and ultimately COVID laid the final hammer on them. He explained that in the industry, many businesses operate with slim margins and therefore there is not a lot of profit left over at the end of business intervals (weeks, months etc). This way of operating does not function well when business becomes practically nonexistent. Similarly, Love mentioned that quite a few businesses in Granville closed, listing SteamRoller Bagels (closed temporarily), Moe’s and Eat Up (permanently) among them. On a more positive note, Jacquot indicated that Granville reached a turning point once Denison students returned to campus. “Things are taking off in creative ways and it gives me hope. There is a sense of togetherness and people are smiling more,” Jacquot said smiling over the video call. Additionally, Matheny revealed business owners have been looking at Granville vacancies, but there are no official arrangements at this time. The executive director remains hopeful that someone will find the space attractive eventually.
Undoubtedly, the impact of Denison students’ absence on Granville businesses has been felt deeply and has been detrimental to some. As a college town, Granville really needs the support of students and the community to stay afloat. Students are finally allowed to venture into Granville, which will hopefully encourage them to support these small businesses in need. To preserve Granville and the tight knit community, it is important for Denisonians to support the small businesses who have worked innovatively, and have done so in a positive way, despite the hardships they have faced over the past six months. If the pandemic has done nothing else, it has revealed the strength of businesses and the importance of community.