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'We are not going to let a pandemic take us out’; area businesses continue to adjust to coronavirus

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After nearly eight weeks since being ordered to close by Gov. Tom Wolf, most retail businesses and all hair and beauty salons in Middletown remain in limbo, as state and county officials argue over when best to reopen.

But there are some bright spots. In the middle of the pandemic, a new tire-selling business, Family Tires IV Corp., has opened on East Main Street.

After choosing to remain closed for a month, the Brownstone Cafe at North Union and Emaus streets opened up for takeout April 23.

The restaurant puts out a sign when it is open, thanking customers for their support. The Brownstone did not respond to requests for comment from The Press & Journal left by phone and by Facebook.

At Alfred’s Victorian just up the street from the Brownstone, the Mother’s Day holiday was just the shot in the arm that this landmark Middletown restaurant needed, said Alfred’s owner Robin Pellegrini.

Business over the Mother’s Day weekend was up close to 70 percent over what it has been during a typical weekend since the pandemic hit, Pellegrini said.

About half of those people coming in were from Middletown. The rest were from surrounding areas such as Hershey and the West Shore, many of whom come into Alfred’s each year to celebrate special occasions like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and Mother’s Day, Pellegrini said. 

Such holidays and special occasions have held up well. If anything, people seem more determined than before to continue celebrating these traditions, despite the limitations of the pandemic, Pellegrini said.

Alfred’s has stayed open the entire time, open for takeout on Fridays and Saturdays. This past Sunday was added just because it was Mother’s Day.

Exceptions are made, such as this past Wednesday when a couple said they had to come to Alfred’s to mark the exact date of their 48th anniversary on May 6.

The pandemic has come at a high cost. Pellegrini for several years has been working to attract tour buses to downtown Middletown, and to her restaurant. 

This time of year Pellegrini would be welcoming two buses a week on average. Instead, there are none.

“It took me three years to build that up and this was going to be the best year,” Pellegrini said of the tour buses. “We lost quite a few in April, all in May and they are canceling June. I doubt the governor will allow us to be open, and I doubt they will allow 50 people on a bus.”

Maybe in the fall, she adds.

Even on the two nights it is open, Alfred’s closes at 7 because by 6 p.m. most people are done ordering. 

“People are definitely eating earlier,” she said. 

She is working with a skeleton crew, having had to let go many employees who have been with Alfred’s a long while, for the time being. Keeping staff on hand with no tables to wait on “is not a good fit for me,” Pellegrini said. 

She has encouraged these workers to file for unemployment, and Pellegrini said she is staying in touch with them.

Area restaurants have worked together to support one another, and to support front-line workers.

Alfred’s recently cooked up 100 meals for workers at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, at the request of the owner of the Fenicci’s restaurant in Hershey.

“That was a different speed for us. Now we know we can do it,” Pellegrini said. The Fenicci’s owner also recently posted a video on Facebook featuring a tour of historic Alfred’s.

If the pandemic has a silver lining, it’s that it has given Alfred’s the opportunity to shake up its menu and try some new things. Pellegrini is also working on using more locally sourced ingredients.

“This is my chance,” she said. “We always talk about that we should try this or that, but day to day keeps you too busy” to do it.

In Middletown, Pellegrini said restaurant owners such as herself are fortunate. There is such a variety and each have their niche.

Pellegrini believes this “culinary smorgasbord” will help ensure that each restaurant in town will be able to survive and get through the pandemic.

“We’ve gone through, let’s see, floods, nuclear disasters … we are not going to let a pandemic take us out.”

PPE arrives, business resumes for Kostyak

Meanwhile, Scott Kostyak was back at work Monday for the first time in seven and a half weeks.

He runs Kostyak Painting & Deck Refinishing. His line of work was considered non-essential until the governor allowed residential construction to resume May 1.

But Kostyak couldn’t start back until Monday because he had not received all of his shipment of personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer for himself and his workers.

He had put his order into Amazon weeks ago. Friday, he got the word that it had been shipped. 

“That seems to be the norm. Everybody else wants the same things,” he said.

The equipment is an added expense Kostyak said he can’t pass on to customers. But he would be breaking the law without having the equipment, and Kostyak said he wants his workers to be safe, including subcontractors he hires for bigger jobs.

The gear and the social distancing precautions do slow a project down, although Kostyak said masks are nothing new to his workers because they do a lot of industrial spraying. But he figures this is how things are going to be, for the foreseeable future. 

For now, Kostyak said he is concentrating on exterior jobs because it is easier to work 8 feet apart outside.

“I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but from what I see this is going to go on to winter unless a vaccine comes out. That would be the best case, but how long is it going to be to produce and how long for everyone to be vaccinated? This is our new normal.” 

This was the first time Kostyak had been unemployed in his 26 years owning the business. He had his two employees sign up for unemployment compensation.

His wife, Claire, has been able to work from home the entire time as a payroll supervisor for the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet retail chain.

Like many people, Kostyak spent some of the extra time he had on his hands doing cleaning up projects around the house. He and Claire have also been busy with their son in elementary school who has had to stay home.

Kostyak is an assistant Cub Scout master, and the lack of social interaction has been tough on their son.

He kept in touch with his customers throughout the shut-down. About 80 percent of his business are repeat customers.

A backlog of jobs has built up, but Kostyak said it’s nothing he and his crew can’t handle. They typically work two jobs at a time.

Hardware stores have been open throughout

Besides grocery stores such as Giant and Karns, there are other businesses in Middletown that have been allowed to stay open throughout the pandemic, such as the town’s two hardware stores and its two beer distributors.

For Street Stores Hardware at 115 E. Main St., owner Shane Mrakovich said business in the retail portion of the store was better in April compared to April 2019.

Mrakovich said the store has remained open throughout the pandemic because it’s considered an essential business in part because they sell electrical and plumbing supplies.

He suspects that some of his customers, who may be bored at home, undertook home improvement projects that they may have put off in the past or used extra funds from their stimulus checks or money they had set aside for summer vacations to do larger projects and purchases.

“Folks were painting rooms in their home, fixing their decks up now in April instead of this month or early June — just getting projects done now that they have the time,” he said.

Street Stores is also a wholesaler for other stores in Pennsylvania and out of state. Mrakovich said sales to other stores have mostly remained normal besides a handful of stores that were scared and closed. But those are reopening, Mrakovich said.

With a new competitor in town — Riverside True Value in the Westporte Centre — Mrakovich said they wondered whether it would hurt their business.

“But we haven’t felt that,” he said.

He suspects that they may be picking up business that Street Stores didn’t have to begin with.

“All in all, I can’t complain,” he said.

Ryan Bubb, who co-owns Riverside True Value along with his wife Lisa, said it’s hard to say what difference the pandemic has made in his business, since they just opened the store in January.

But “I’d say it’s good. We’re busy,” he said.

He’s seen what he calls an “uptick” in people supporting local businesses, for which Bubb said he is very appreciative.

“There seems to be a real groundswell of people wanting to do the right thing” and support local businesses instead of always feeling like they have to run out to the big box stores, Bubb said.

The store has reduced its hours so employees can be home earlier, with day cares and schools being closed. He hasn’t had to furlough or lay off anyone. 

There have been some minor supply chain issues involving the kinds of things everyone seems short of , Bubb said — paper products, cleaning products, bleach, face masks, gloves, etc.

“We get it as True Value gets it, but it has been very sporadic,” he said. “We get it but we don’t know when we are getting it.”

Bubb said True Value has converted one of its paint-making lines into making hand sanitizer. He hopes to soon have some of this “in-house made” sanitizer available for customers.

The biggest increase in sales he’s seen in his store is for paint and all paint-related products, interior and exterior. 

“People are tired of looking at the same color wall,” he said.

Business is good for beverage distributors

Corby’s Beverage on East Main Street and Tony’s Beverage on East Emaus Street have both been allowed to stay open throughout the shutdown. 

Beer distributors are considered an essential service because most of them also provide food and snacks and non-alcoholic beverages and may be the only option for these products for people in some areas, the state has said.

“We haven’t closed for one minute,” said Corby’s owner Frank Corby. He’s been able to keep all his employees although they all have to wear masks.

Business has been good. “It’s kind of like when it snows and people stock up,” Corby said, referring to the shutdown.

There have been minor supply issues but nothing “disastrous.”

It’s much the same at Tony’s, said owner Ilesh Patel. Foot traffic in and out of the store has been “almost normal.”

He continues to have issues with not being able to get all the product items that customers want, because suppliers can’t always get them to him. But as with Corby, the issues are not major, Patel said.

Staff reporter Laura Hayes contributed to this story.