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Adapt or else: Downtown businesses cope with new reality

AP Business Writers

NEW YORK — Downtown businesses in the U.S. and abroad once took for granted that nearby offices would provide a steady clientele looking for breakfast, lunch, everyday goods and services and last-minute gifts. As the resilient coronavirus keeps offices closed and workers at home, some are adapting while others are trying to hang on.

Some businesses are already gone. The survivors have taken steps such as boosting online sales or changing their hours, staffing levels and what they offer customers. Others are relying more on residential traffic.

Many business owners had looked forward to a return toward normalcy this month as offices reopened. But now that many companies have postponed plans to bring workers back, due to surging COVID-19 cases, downtown businesses are reckoning with the fact that adjustments made on the fly may become permanent.

In downtown Detroit, Mike Frank’s cleaning business was running out of money and, it seemed, out of time.

Frank started Clifford Street Cleaners eight years ago. Pre-pandemic, monthly revenue was about $11,000, but by last December, when many downtown offices had to close, revenue had dropped to $1,800, Frank said.

Frank had to borrow money from his wife to pay the bills. “It got down to, I was almost ready to go out of business.”

Instead of shutting down, Frank adapted. He converted part of his store into a small market with toothpaste, laundry detergent, shampoo, bottled water, soft drinks and other essentials. He also delivered clean laundry and goods from the store.

Eventually, some foot traffic returned. With the combination of retail sales and dry cleaning, revenue is back up to about $4,100 per month, he said. That’s enough to keep him afloat, and the figure is improving each month.

In Lower Manhattan, 224 businesses closed their doors in 2020 and 2021, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York. About 100 have opened.

“There’s no question, it’s hard for business districts like ours, we miss our workers,” said Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. “Nobody misses them more than local businesses.”

Lappin predicts office workers will come back, but it might be two or three days a week, on different days or in shifts.

“Just in the way we had to adjust so dramatically to being at home all the time, there is an adjustment to coming back,” she said.

A block from Wall Street, Blue Park Kitchen used to have lines out the door each weekday as office workers waited to buy one of the grain bowls Kelly Fitzpatrick served as a healthy lunch option.

“Things are completely different,” she said.

Online orders now account for 65% of the business — although they are less profitable because the online apps take a cut. Higher-margin catering orders remain non-existent and Blue Park has reduced its staff by nine workers.

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