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One year into the pandemic, small businesses struggle but survive by adapting

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When restaurants, shops and other small businesses were forced to shut their doors last March, they had no idea what was in store. It was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, when the personal attitude was often, "Wow, isn't this crazy?" and the communal spirit was, "We're all in this together."

When the Groton-based Irish pub Forty Thieves had to shut down the day before St. Patrick's Day, owner Diarm Hanafin said, "If everybody has to shut down for a week or two or three weeks, it sucks, but it's better than the worst-case scenario."

It would be more than two months until Forty Thieves reopened with its new outdoor patio, but the spot remains in business.

This past week, The Day caught up with a few business owners interviewed last April and May, to talk about what's changed, how they're doing today and their future outlook.

Forty Thieves was only serving alcohol when it first opened in September 2019, and it was just in March that Hanafin got approval for pizza ovens. The food was an afterthought.

But after the pandemic hit, "We basically had to go back to our original business plan and go back to the drawing board and reinvent ourselves almost as a to-go restaurant, and we did that basically all summer, and those first few months were very tough," Hanafin said.

He hired a new chef, signed up on the food delivery service DoorDash, and went from two bartenders on a shift to one while adding staff in the kitchen. He used to have a DJ or band going on at 10 or 10:30 p.m. but is now wrapping up to close at that time. Gone are the days of enticing customers by posting pictures of crowds.

Next Wednesday will mark the first St. Patrick's Day that Forty Thieves is open, but Hanafin said he isn't trying to advertise to get a huge crowd. There will be corned beef sandwiches and some beer specials, though.

Less than two weeks after Forty Thieves opened outdoors, Heidi Duff reopened Details Hair Studio in Norwich. She said that between the closure, not opening a training center, and the cost of personal protective equipment, she lost $74,000. But she said the salon was able to match 2019 numbers by the third week of December, and she's bringing on new employees.

"It's a good story; it's just been a hard story, but we're still here, we're still kicking," Duff said.

She credited Dime Bank for helping her secure Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loans and said she'll be getting the second round of funding Tuesday, enabling her to bring on another person.

Duff had said last April the pandemic caused her to push back plans to add a training center from fall 2020 to this spring. She said Thursday the training center is still viable and she is just waiting on the go-ahead from Gov. Ned Lamont, given capacity restrictions. Within hours, the governor raised gathering limits and said hair salons were among the businesses that could open at full capacity come March 19.

Duff said her team can't wait for the day they don't have to wear masks, but she said even after the pandemic is over, sanitation protocols will stay the same.

At Mystic Pet Shop, co-owner John Creaturo said on March 10 of last year he was wiping down the cash register with Clorox wipes every hour, felt concerned about the supply chain and started offering free delivery of items people might need.

"It is what it is" until people can get vaccinated, Creaturo said last week. He said the supply chain held up and Mystic Pet Shop is still offering free deliveries for elderly customers.

Reopening, downsizing, closing and expanding

Gary McKeon, owner of Joshua's Limousine in Gales Ferry, said last April the company was averaging about 115 airport runs per week but had done two the previous week.

Now, he said, Joshua's might be doing around 20 on an off-week but 130 on other weeks, because the company is exclusively providing transportation for the Showtime Sports and Bellator MMA — mixed martial arts — residency at Mohegan Sun.

"Some days, depending on what's going on, we have 50 runs for them, getting everybody back to the airport or New York City," McKeon said, adding, "That's really been our lifeline; we're really blessed we were able to pick up that account."

He also said Joshua's picked up five private jet accounts. Still, McKeon said Joshua's finished the year doing about 40% of the business from 2019, though he's heard that's better than the industry average. He also got rid of about 20% of vehicles.

He said getting PPP, Connecticut Recovery Bridge Loan Program funding and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program loans wasn't a cure-all but "legitimately kept the doors open," allowing him to pay insurance premiums and other expenses.

"Right now, we're really optimistic," McKeon said. "We think with (Operation) Warp Speed coming to fruition, we've noticed in the last week or so that the phones have actually started ringing, and people are booking travel, they're going to start going to the airports, and lots of inquiries for brides this year."

Over the past year, the pandemic led Tara Wyatt to close one of her businesses but expand another: She closed the clothing store Indigo Niantic in July but added a second Niantic location of Tumbleweeds in recent months.

Wyatt said she closed Indigo because "there was nobody walking in the door," she didn't have staff and she saw a demand to be at Tumbleweeds full time.

"I feel like we've actually been busier than normal," Wyatt said of Tumbleweeds. "I think people are avoiding the malls and the outlets and the bigger places that are super populated, but I'm also in the business of vinyl, and vinyl records have made a huge uptick."

With people at home, a lot of customers have just bought a turntable over the past few months. She's also seen an uptick in decorating: "We've definitely sold more tapestries and wall decorations and chimes and all that stuff."

She said the second location, around the corner on Methodist Street, was needed for storage and enables Tumbleweeds to expand audio equipment.

When Tumbleweeds was closed in April, she was doing roadside pickup, some delivery and shipping. She still ships a lot, but nobody is asking for delivery or curbside pickup anymore.

"We're really that tangible space, like people want to come in and touch things, and that's the nerve-wracking part of running a business like this," Wyatt said. She's working on another website for Tumbleweeds, and she is thinking of rebranding and doing something online-only with Indigo.

e.moser@theday.com

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