Three local businesses share their road to COVID recovery

JC, Junius Carpenter, cuts a client’s hair at the shop his owns, Tuesday, September 22, 2020. He is thankful for the support of the community and loyal clients since the rise of COVID-19.

Easton Reynolds

Small businesses that rely on college student commerce across Bowling Green are still coping with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When WKU sent students back home in early March, shops, bars and other establishments had to find ways to adapt to over 18,000 students leaving Bowling Green.

Similarly, businesses across the country that depend on student commerce are also struggling. According to Yelp, businesses in college towns are 24% more likely than other businesses to permanently close.

Hilligan’s, which is situated at the bottom of College Street, instantly took a hit from students leaving campus in late February and not returning until August, said Ashley Bland, General Manager for Hilligan’s.

“We missed the May graduation, which is definitely one of our biggest days of the year,” Bland said.

Hilligan’s had to modify the business to strictly takeout and delivery while in-person seating was prohibited. Hilligan’s has always had delivery options but with the transition to delivery-only service, it “definitely put a hamper on business,” according to Bland.

“The governor opened up alcohol delivery with food purchase, but it had to be probable to what you’re eating,” Bland said. “You can’t deliver a sandwich and a whole case of beer.”

When Gov. Andy Beshear lifted restrictions on indoor seating, Hilligan’s was only able to seat 30% capacity. This proved difficult to do in a close bar set- ting, but Hilligan’s adapted to accommodate the new restrictions, Bland said.

“We had to re-shift tables and seating and get rid of bar seating,” Bland said. “We had to utilize a lot of our outdoor space.”

When visiting Hilligan’s, customers will notice the emphasis on patio seat- ing and a new area on the volleyball court with tables and chairs that keep to social distancing guidelines.

Upon reopening in May, Hilligan’s experienced the consequences of the pandemic first-hand. In mid-June, five employees tested positive for COVID-19, so Hillligan’s had to temporarily re-shut down for deep cleaning and quarantining.

“Any of the staff members we thought, or the health department thought, needed to be quarantined,” Bland said. “It definitely made scheduling a little harder, trying to navigate who can work and when.”

However, Hilligan’s has not reported any new positive cases since and is doing everything it can to keep customers and staff as safe as possible, Bland said.

“It’s definitely been a roller coaster the last six months,” Bland said.

Hilligan’s was lucky enough to receive economic assistance from the federal government, Bland said. Hilligan’s successfully applied for a Payment Protection Program loan that helped ease the financial burden caused by the Pandemic.

JC’s Barber Shop, however, did not receive any loans.

Junius Carpenter, owner of JC’s Barber Shop, located on Adams Street, said the shop could not get any financial re- lief in time.

“I applied for some, but all the money was gone,” Carpenter said.

JC’s was not alone. According to Reuters, 75% of small businesses applied for a PPP loan, but less than 40% actually received help.

“I’m a landlord for another business, and he was able to continue paying his rent, so that helped me,” Carpenter said about staying afloat.“We just made it work.”

Since reopening, Carpenter said business has been “unstable” with one week being very hectic and the next be- ing very slow. He’s hoping business stabilizes in the future but does not know when that will happen.

“People are still nervous coming out,” Carpenter said.

Despite the struggles at the barbershop, Carpenter’s second business, JC’s Barber College has grown tremendously. Since reopening, his barber college more than doubled in students attending from four to 10 students.

“Here [at the barber shop] it’s been unstable, but over there [at the barber college], it’s the exact opposite,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter thinks the sudden increase in barber college students could be attributed to people wanting a career change coming out of quarantine.

Once WKU brought its students back to campus, Carpenter has prioritized reaching out to students and letting them know he is still open for business.

“Those first two weeks we came back, now that was crazy,” Carpenter said. “We’ve been advertising on campus, telling the freshmen about us. We definitely appreciate the students coming back because we didn’t know if they would or not. It affects our business too.”

Carpenter also realizes the added risk of face-to-face contact a barbershop presents. He said overall customers have been “pretty conscious” of other people when it comes to maintaining social distancing and mask-wearing.

“A lot of people look at the door and forget their mask and go back to get one,” Carpenter said. “I’m always wearing my mask, but generally when they get to the chair I’ll ask them to remove their mask to do their face.”

He emphasized how vital it is for businesses to adapt to the new circumstances.

“That’s just part of it,” Carpenter said. “We just got to adjust.”

Adjusting to the current situation was also crucial for Matt Pfefferkorn, owner of Mellow Matt’s Music and More.

Mellow Matt’s is a record store located on Smallhouse Road which is known for its involvement in the local music scene, but it had to sideline many of its events due to COVID-19.

Specifically, during MASTER Plan, Mellow Matt’s would hold a booth and host a concert on campus for the incoming freshmen, but plans had to change. “We weren’t able to do anything,” Pfefferkorn said. “That’s one of the things we look forward to because we DJ as well.”

They also host food trucks, concerts and voter registration inside and outside the shop but have had to cancel many of these events due to the pandemic, Pfefferkorn said.

In order to stay connected on campus, Pfefferkorn said they used social media to let students and customers know they were still open for curbside or mail-in orders.

“We did a lot of social media, on Twitter, Instagram and even Facebook that helped out immensely with reaching college kids,” Pfefferkorn said.

Once Beshear lifted restrictions on re- tail shopping, Pfefferkorn said they received little pushback from mask-wear- ing or occupancy limits.

“That’s the nice thing about our customer base, whether it’s Western stu- dents or older people, just anybody, they understand that crazy things are going on and we’re just trying to keep everybody safe,” Pfefferfkorn said.

Easton Reynolds can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @epdogg5000.