‘No idea what the future holds’: Berkeley businesses struggle to stay afloat

Celine Bellegarda/File

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Small businesses throughout Berkeley are relying on donations and grants to stay afloat amid the shelter-in-place order.

On March 16, the city issued a shelter-in-place order, causing many small, nonessential businesses to close their doors. Although facing tough times financially, many are remaining positive and engaging in resilient and innovative means to support themselves, their employees and the community.

“We have had to rethink our whole business model essentially from the ground up and it is encouraging when the community is understanding and supports the different initiatives we launch,” said Bobby G’s Pizzeria owner Randeep Rekhi in an email.

Bobby G’s Pizzeria has launched a “Feed the Frontline” fund on GoFundMe. All donations to the initiative will go toward making and providing pizzas to medical professionals in East Bay hospitals, Rekhi said in the email. He added that the pizzeria has been selling gift certificates, as it is down by about 70% in sales.

Riva Cucina — a family-owned Italian restaurant — closed March 15, one day before the shelter-in-place order was enacted, said co-owner Jennifer Boldrini in an email.

She said their family in Italy had “urged” them to stay home, as both Boldrini and her 10-year-old daughter have compromised immune systems and Massimiliano Boldrini, her husband and chef of Riva Cucina, could potentially become exposed to COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus.

“We truly wish we could have stayed open for delivery and take-out to support both our staff and our community, but we decided to close until we can safely resume operations,” Boldrini said in the email. “As parents, we just can’t take the risk of exposing our ten year old daughter who has kidney disease.”

According to Boldrini, Riva Cucina’s staff has been “feeling the love” from “regulars, family members, friends near and far” through generous donations. She added that their landlord, Rich Robbins, is not charging them rent for the month of April.

Simone Arpaio, owner of Almare Gelato, said it is “hard to be optimistic now,” when his sales have been cut by 80%, his home country Italy is “struggling” and his 4-year-old daughter is home without school.

Almare Gelato is currently relying on loyal customers to purchase cookies, chocolate and pints of gelato, as the wholesale side of the business has been reduced to only two orders per week, rather than the typical six to eight orders per day, according to Arpaio. He added that the store’s hours have been reduced in order to support as many employees as possible.

Local Italian restaurant Paisan is also “struggling mightily,” despite the support of its regular customers and its landlord, said Eric Wright, director of operations, in an email. The restaurant has seen about an 80% drop in sales and has had to lay off many staff members.

Wright added that Paisan and Berkeley restaurant Longbranch Saloon have created a joint menu “takeout concept” in order to maintain enough revenue to remain operational and keep some staff employed.

“Being able to offer two concepts I think is appealing to a lot of customers and separates us from many other restaurants attempting the take-out business,” Wright said in the email.

Bartavelle Coffee and Wine Bar has also adopted innovative measures to maintain a revenue stream. Every Friday, Bartavelle sells coffee and other items in a pop-up shop style, said owner Suzanne Drexhage in an email.

She added that the layout of the pop-up space allows for “easy social distancing,” as it has a large window and door to serve people through. Bartavelle also set up a “virtual tip pool,” according to Drexhage.

“We are hoping for the best possible outcome for us and for all the small businesses affected by this,” Drexhage said in the email. “We really have no idea what the future holds, but try to remain positive.”

As an independent, nonprofit music venue that relies on revenues from concerts and private events, The UC Theatre has experienced a “drastic financial impact” from the ordinance, according to founder and CEO David Mayeri.

The city of Berkeley is continuing fundraising efforts and is asking the community to match the city’s benefaction, according to Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Mayor Jesse Arreguín. He added that the first round of funding is expected to be sent out within the next few weeks.

“The scale of need as a result of COVID-19 is far greater, however, than what cities are able to provide alone,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email. “We must all continue to advocate to our friends in Sacramento and Congress for greater relief funding.”

Contact Skylar Schoemig at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sschoemig_dc.