‘A learning process’: Berkeley business owners adapt to life amid closures

Telegraph Avenue
Sunny Shen/File
Berkeley business owners adapt to the pandemic through creative approaches such as hosting virtual events. To support local businesses, the Telegraph Business Improvement District began working with the city of Berkeley to create the Berkeley Relief Fund.

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On the morning of March 25, Games of Berkeley owner Erik Bigglestone stood outside his store, but instead of the usual displays of games and toys, the windows were completely boarded up.

Bigglestone is not alone. Similarly, businesses around the country will forever have an economic scar from the effects of COVID-19 in their histories, and it will affect their futures. The whole nation changed as small businesses around the country closed down their shops.

Games of Berkeley’s boards were barren until a member of San Francisco’s Paint the Void program painted a blue-and-white chess-themed mural onto them.

On July 9, Games of Berkeley reopened and took a piece of the mural inside to display it as both a beautiful art piece in itself and a visual reminder of the perseverance of dealing with COVID-19 in 2020.

Other businesses will not be able to display art, because the pandemic and the struggles that came with it will run them out of business completely.

Creative approaches

Like many other business owners, Bigglestone found it difficult but necessary to close his shop, but his first priority was always the safety of the customers and employees.

Bigglestone had to brainstorm ideas to make sales virtually. To help generate some revenue, he offered customers an option to place orders in advance to be picked up when the shop reopened.

Games of Berkeley’s community of customers garnered over the past 40 years still needed a “place” to meet, so Bigglestone had to adapt. He started hosting online events on a newly created Discord channel set up in which customers could chat about gaming and painting techniques.

“It was just one more place to try and keep our community engaged with each other and engaged with us and giving them some way to be entertained,” Bigglestone said.

Further south from Games of Berkeley is The Starry Plough, a family-owned Berkeley Irish restaurant and pub since 1973, which also turned to the internet to hold previously in-person events.

It moved its open mic nights online in order to keep spirits up and give small musicians a place to showcase their talents, co-owner Shahin Naima previously told The Daily Californian.

Open mic nights were not the only online events designed to entertain the residents of Berkeley. In an attempt to engage with its customers, The Framer’s Workshop on Channing Way also took a creative approach: Co-owners Kirstie Bennett and Chelsea Whitney, Bennett’s daughter, decided to host online art contests for all ages.

The entries were posted to Facebook and voted on. The winning artists could receive their work framed when the store reopened, and all participants received a $20 store certificate. Bennett said she hopes this will help bridge the online world to physical reality.

Contestants “have written such nice letters,” Bennett said at a discussion with Berkeley small business owners April 9. “We love our customers, and we try really, really hard to communicate with them, especially during this time.”

Outside help

Despite the creative endeavors to keep business going, at the end of June, Games of Berkeley, like many other businesses, was still only making 25% of what it would normally make. As of press time, profits have risen to about 55% of the usual amount since reopening.

Organizations including the Telegraph Business Improvement District, or TBID, are attempting to support the local community, such as Games of Berkeley and the many other Berkeley businesses dealing with losses in response to the pandemic. Alex Knox, executive director of TBID, began working with the city before the shelter-in-place order to help create the Berkeley Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support local businesses, tenants and arts organizations.

Through the Alameda County Small Business Development Center, the city of Berkeley is also offering free counseling for businesses that need advice on loans and surviving during this unprecedented time.

“I’ve been really impressed with how hard these businesses are working to stay afloat. They’ve been doing more with less and keeping the doors open as much as possible,” Knox said. “We really appreciate the consumers and the people who are dedicated to supporting local businesses — we can’t take it for granted that they’re there.”

Games of Berkeley received money from the Berkeley Relief Fund as well as more than $245,000 in government and outside loans. Bigglestone also mentioned that the biweekly town halls hosted by the mayor, city manager and health officer were helpful and communicative in answering business questions.

The Starry Plough, however, is feeling a lack of assistance from the city, according to Naima, although it received $2,500 from the Berkeley Relief Fund. It resorted to creating a GoFundMe page that ended up raising about $30,000 in just one week.

“We don’t want to close down, and we don’t want to dig ourselves into debt,” Naima previously told the Daily Cal. “So whatever money we get would just help us stay open longer or be able to reopen, and once we do reopen, we can stay open, even if it’s slow, essentially until we figure it out or get some grants and become a nonprofit or whatever we have to do to make it work.”

Similarly, owner of Top Dog Richard Reimann said without taking profits for himself and his wife, the restaurant has been able to stay abreast of its operating cost. He refuses to take money from the city of Berkeley and sees the city’s business guidelines as constraints.

Reimann said he believes that city officials should let the businesses decide what they want to do and how to operate.

To operate during the pandemic, he had to have two employees working at once, with one at the door and one behind the counter, as opposed to the usual one-man operation. This complicated Top Dog’s financial situation.

The future

Before March, Games of Berkeley had customers strolling through the aisles, attending events and bonding over their shared interests in games, but Bigglestone said the store does not look the same after reopening July 9

There is now plexiglass in front of the registers, arrows to aid physical distancing and sanitizers throughout the store. Even though the store is open, it will take a long time for in-person events to restart, Bigglestone said.

“My main concern is that a lot of small businesses and some big ones are just not going to be able to last,” Bigglestone said. “A lot of other local game stores are in trouble, and I’d hate to see them go out of business — even anyone who I think of as competition. It’s just not how you want to see someone go out of business: forced out by something completely out of their control.”

So many local Berkeley businesses have deep roots, rich histories and sustainable cultural communities, including Viks Chaat and Le Bateau Ivre. Le Bateau Ivre was founded 48 years ago by Arlene Giordano and her husband.

When her husband died in 2008, she kept the restaurant alive.

Before the pandemic hit, Le Bateau Ivre served classic French food in a century-old estate on white tablecloths by candlelight. There was live music once a week, and the restaurant would decorate for holidays such as Christmas.

In March, Giordano closed the restaurant for COVID-19 safety reasons and chose to not offer takeout, as she said it is just not the same as the dine-in experience and would not be economically viable.

Giordano missed her customers and the connections she made. She spent her time baking cookies for her neighbors while looking forward to reopening. Le Bateau Ivre’s outdoor dining on its patio and takeout reopened July 30 with limited hours.

Along with the city of Berkeley’s protocol requirements for businesses to reopen, Giordano along with other local businesses including Games of Berkeley ordered face masks for their employees. Le Bateau Ivre also ordered a free-standing sanitization stand and mandated its staff to take an online course in COVID-19 prevention.

“This is all a learning process for all of us. I don’t think any of us alive right now has gone through anything like this before,” Giordano said. “We all learn how to live with what we have. You learn how to be grateful for the little things that happen.”

Contact Dina Katgara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dinakatgara.