Downtown Small Businesses: Resilience During a Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic initially spread across the United States earlier this year, small businesses, especially those in the service industry, were confronted with unprecedented obstacles. In fact, according to a July report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, nearly 50 percent of small business owners said they have altered their practices in some capacity, whether by reducing operations or closely permanently.

When these impacts reached St. Louis, the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District (CID) quickly took steps to support this tight-knit community. In March, the CID donated $100,000 to the Gateway Resilience Fund, established to provide short-term relief to employees and owners of independent bars, restaurants and shops in the Downtown area affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Through March and April, as much of St. Louis went on lockdown, dozens of businesses applied for and received critical funding to keep businesses going. For Kim Pitliangas, CEO of the Thaxton Event Space and Speakeasy, the Gateway Resilience Fund Grant helped her business get through the constantly changing situation.

“The quick turnaround and generosity blew me away,” said Kim. “It allowed us some breathing room while we figured out how to reinvent our business. Just because the place shuts down doesn’t mean you get to stop paying rent and utilities.”

The Thaxton Speakeasy opened in 2008 as a historic Art Deco event venue and speakeasy lounge – and the only password-protected bar in St. Louis. When COVID-19 came to St. Louis in March, the decade-old business was forced to rethink everything.

“Things were changing every day, too quickly for us to keep up,” Kim explained. “It was really difficult. We needed to take a minute and step back, so we decided to temporarily close at first.”

After careful consideration, the Thaxton reopened on June 11, but not without some changes.

“We have limited hours, but we’re grateful to have a slow, consistent flow of customers who come in for cocktails,” Kim said.

Now, the Thaxton is open most Friday and Saturday evenings to the public. You can book a socially-distant reservation on their website here.

Dale Schotte, owner of Park Avenue Coffee, feels the same. “We love the Downtown community, and we wanted to be there for them as much as we could from the beginning,” he said.

Like the Thaxton, Park Avenue Coffee’s team has been taking things one day at a time.

“At the beginning, we were talking every day – sometimes multiple times an hour – constantly reevaluating what we needed to do to protect our workers and our community,” said Dale. “We decided that if our staff was comfortable with the safety measures we put in place, we wanted to keep them employed and stay open.”

The Gateway Resilience Fund is helping Park Avenue Coffee mitigate some of the losses they’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic.

“Our Downtown location is suffering the most because of the reduced tourism,” explained Dale.
“We’re down about 60 percent compared to last year, so the grant is helping make up for our losses. Every penny helps.”

This has been critical for Dale and his team who, despite the toughest challenges presented over the past few months, have refused to quit. “A business owner’s number one fear is failing,” he said. “My heart physically hurt for about the first month of this. But it was important to keep going, to be there for our neighborhoods.”

And things are slowly starting to look up.

“We’re doing curbside carryout and now allowing patio seating,” explained Dale. “We want to provide the Downtown community with a sense of normalcy – even if it’s nothing more than a morning cup of coffee.”

As for the future?

“It’s a roller coaster,” Dale said. “But we love being here.”

Kim, too. “It’s a constant game of Chutes and Ladders – and it’s scary,” she said. “But Downtown business owners – we have the long game in mind. We’re fighters.”

For more information on the CID and its important efforts to support Downtown businesses, residents, and visitors, visit downtownstl.org/downtown-cid.