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Chester County Press

Local businesses seek solutions amid COVID-19 shutdown

04/07/2020 05:24PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Since he first resurrected a once forlorn slice of State Street business in Kennett Square six years ago, Chris Thompson of Philter has owned and operated one of the most successful businesses in the borough, and on any given day and at any time, the establishment hums with several conversations and meetings,held over grain salads and mocha lattes.
In order to help serve his near-constant ebb and flow customer base, Thompson has 20 employees, 12 of whom are actively employed, but when he decided to close his business to regular customers on March 15, he was forced to lay off every one of them for the duration of orders from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, which has directed all non-essential businesses to close through April 30, in an effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
For Thompson, the messages he sent to his staff – which included information about how they could apply to receive temporary unemployment benefits – was among the most difficult decisions he has ever had to make as a business owner.
“Everyone who works here thought that it was the right thing to do, even before it was mandated, but I thought it was also the responsible thing to do for the public,” Thompson said. “I felt that continuing to do take out was not becoming an option because we were not sure that everyone was taking these precautions seriously.”
Using Philter as an office and distribution center, he is now taking his business on the road, making home-to-home deliveries of all Philter retail items, such as coffee beans, packages of tea and craft chocolates, with more items added every day –all of which can be ordered directly from the company’s website.
At first, Thompson relegated his travel radius to five miles, but he’s since expanded his travel area to within a 25-minute drive from Kennett Square.
“I was very down about having to close, but on the other end, I needed some kind of revenue coming in, so my wife recommended that at least I could sell some of our products to our customers,” he said. “It’s keeping me very busy, introducing me to a lot of parts of the county I had never been to before,and giving me a sense of hope that we’re going to get through this.”
If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then many small businesses throughout southern Chester County are, like Thompson, developing creative initiatives during the shut down that have enabled them to not only keep the lights on at their respective businesses, but further their brand and connect with their customers.
On the day Jack Mavraj had to close the doors to La Verona, the restaurant he owns with his brother Sam on State Street in Kennett Square, he had tears in his eyes. He realized that he had been in the restaurant nearly his entire life and it was not only his livelihood but his passion. Worse yet, he knew that the reason he needed to close those doors was for reasons that had nothing to do with him.
Like many other restaurants in southern Chester County, however, the Mavrajs took advantage of the silver lining of Gov. Wolf’s March 19 order, which have allowed restaurants to remain open for take-out only. For the past two weeks, with only the help of a waiter, the Mavraj’s have set up a take-out table at the front of the restaurant, where phone-in orders are prepared at the restaurant and made available for easy and socially-distant pick-up –complete with sanitized packaging.
It was the restaurant’s “regulars,” Mavraj said, who encouraged him and Sam to tough it out during the shutdown.
“They told us that they were missing our food, so we decided that even though it wouldn’t make us any real profit, it was important for us to be loyal to those people who have been loyal to us,” he said. “We’ve also extended our offer of food to our employees, because of what they’ve meant to us. I tell them, ‘If we have food, you’re going to have food, too.’”
For Lexa Chernin and Elizabeth Gehrt of Yoga Secrets in Kennett Square, receiving word that they would need to close their studio as per the order of the state could not have happened at a more inconvenient time: they were in the middle of conducting a 200-hour training sessions with aspiring yoga teachers.
It left Chernin and Gehrt scrambling to find ways they could continue to offer classes to their members --as well as the many drop-in visitors -- who regularly visit the South Mill Road studio. Their solution has come in the form of a virtual classroom –one that allows practitioners to sign up for online classes, set up their mat at home, and connect to their teacher and fellow students by Zoom.
“When we began to accept that we would probably have to shut the studio down at some point, we realized that the studio itself wasn’t entirely necessary to be able to still offer yoga,” Chernin said. “We could still offer classes online, so that people could still use their practice to remain sane during this period –and do it from our homes to their homes.”
So far, Chernin said, the online class sizes have been about the same as those that normally come to the studio.
“People have been grateful that we have the ability to offer them online classes so that they can connect to their practice,but also remain connected to each other,” she said. “Everyone right now is so full of fear and anxiety and stress, and that negatively affects all of our body’s systems, and we all need to find a way to reduce that stress so that we can relax and handle what’s happening now – whether it’s through yoga or meditation or going outside for a walk every day.”
In the days and weeks since the COVD-19 outbreak, many local businesses have found support through their association with community groups.
Like many business chamber associations of its kind, the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce is a constant and well-run machine of activities, all of them geared to promote the area’s many small businesses: networking, professional development and sponsorship opportunities.
However, like many small towns across the country, one of the primary economic drivers of the borough and greater Oxford has come to a screeching halt, and while its small business owners scramble to remain solvent, the chamber is working with the Oxford Mayor’s Office, the Oxford Borough Council and Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. in a unified effort to lend a hand.
In the last few weeks, Chamber executive director Christine Grove has been in communication with state legislators, other chambers and the businesses in the Oxford area, and shared the social media posts of several businesses.
In an effort to help local merchants, the chamber has spearheaded efforts to encourage residents to purchase gift certificates or shop on-line from many stores that have been ordered to shut down completely or significantly scale back.
“We came up with the idea because like all of us, we wanted to help but didn’t immediately know how, so we thought, ‘How can we as a chamber help spread the word to the community that these businesses have been very supportive of the community’s activities, and now it’s our turn to return the favor?’” Grove said. “If all of us, at least once a week, could order take-out for lunch or dinner or purchase gift certificates, that will make a huge difference for these businesses.
“We want all of our merchants to know that we’re all in this together, and that they are not alone, and that there are many people who care.”
For the past two years, Nick and Melinda Winkler have owned and operated Work2gether, a shared office space business in Downingtown. On Feb. 7, they opened their second location in Kennett Square.
As news broke that Gov. Wolf was forcing many businesses in Pennsylvania to close or reduce service, they developed Kennett Strong, an opportunity for residents to purchase gift certificates to any of the 11 participating local businesses. Those making a $100 contribution will get to choose four gift cards from participating businesses, each with a value of $30, and automatically receive a free $30 voucher to aWork2gether co-working space –a total value of $150.
“We believe so much in the Kennett Square community that many of us have literally staked our livelihoods in it,” Nick said. “We have banded together as a business community and come up with a way for the community to support small businesses during this trying time. We are not asking for donations, because we believe in providing the Kennett community the awesome services and products they have come to love and expect. “Our thought is, ‘Even if our doors cannot open, we can still serve you, and you can still support us.’”
On April 3, the Historic Kennett Square Economic Development Council hosted a 90-minute online roundtable that invited more than 75 local leaders and business owners to obtain information on how they can best navigate the COVID-19 shutdown. Moderated by local business leader Bob Norris, the forum featured guest speakers Marian Moskowitz, chairperson of the Chester County Commissioners; Mary Frances McGarrity, senior vice president of the Chester County Economic Development Council; Lorenzo Merino, senior community lending officer with True Access Capital; Mary Kay Gaver, attorney with MacElree Harvey; and Nate Echeverria, director of economic development for Historic Kennett Square.
In addition to a Q & A session, the speakers wove their presentations around the many methods small businesses can use to obtain support and information about the many loan programs now available, including the Pennsylvania Working Capital Assistance Program; the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program; the Small Business Association Loan Relief Program; and the many services available through Small Business Development Centers.
Despite the fact that he has been forced to morph Philter into a temporary delivery service, Thompson remains steadfast that doing so for the near future enables him to carry the company name and its products forward.
“It’s a stressful time, but I’m trying to be as positive as I can,” he said. “This is my livelihood --what I do and what I’ve worked towards for many years. It hurts me to have to let my staff go and not be there to help them, but at the same time, I also feel a sense of hope. I think the community is becoming stronger. They’re remembering what it means to be a community.
“It’s scary, but I have always been able to pull through tough situations, so I feel that I need to channel that energy that I’ve always depended upon, and keep pushing.”
Grove is encouraging the many communities and municipalities in southern Chester County to “think small.”
"Small businesses are the engine of our country,” she said. “They are our friends and neighbors. We care about them as businesses, but more importantly, we care about them as people."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.






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