Ever since the state ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down March 25 to curb the spread of COVID-19, there’s been a debate over what is essential.

Tanya Laiter argues her business, Rolling Pin Bake Shop, is essential because of her comforting food.

That’s one reason the Fitchburg bakery at 2935 S. Fish Hatchery Road has remained open.

“We are a community bakery, the owner said. “I feel like I am helping my community by providing essential foods like breads and desserts. Sometimes you are sitting at home and you have to have brownies or breads. You need your sweets.”

Even before the Safer at Home order, most businesses had been forced to adapt to new conditions since a March 17 order limited gatherings to under 10 people.

It’s been especially complicated for restaurants, cafes and bars. Many switched to carryout only business, some have closed altogether, and others have adjusted week to week to keep their employees working.

Quivey’s Grove, 6261 Nesbitt Road, remained open for two full weeks after the order was issued. Then it shut down, then reopened.

Caleb Percevecz, one of the managers, told the Star everything was going perfectly fine at first, but as the spread of the virus progressed, there was concern customers would congregate while waiting for orders – which would lead to gatherings of 10 or more – especially during Friday fish fries.

And Quivey’s, like so many other establishments that have adapted to a new way of doing business, was simply not built to do an all carryout business, Percevecz said, as part of its appeal is the ambience of the rustic barn and stone house it operates in.

“It’s really hard to figure out the best way to do it,” he said. “It’s definitely been hurting us, but luckily we have 40 years under our belt and really great owners who have put the work in to make sure we have a strong foundation.”

One universal sentiment among food- and drink-based establishments has been the difficulty of weathering the pandemic financially over the course of several weeks. At Barriques, 5957 McKee Road, for example, its core business is its coffee and cafe food, but most of what it’s been selling during the shutdown is alcohol, co-owner Matt Waygendt told the Star.

“It’s pretty tough,” he said. “Still, just the cafe part of what we’ve been doing would be enough to keep doors open.”

Caroline Clanton, who owns the Thirsty Goat, 3040 Cahill Main, along with two Fitchburg hotels, said she doesn’t know how long the restaurant will survive under the current model.

“With the amount of money we’ll lose, how long can we continue to do this?” she said. “Nobody is getting this money back.”

Financial obstacles

Despite Laiter’s cheery outlook, she said the Rolling Pin is experiencing financial struggles, too, bringing in one-third of its prior sale numbers.

“A couple weeks ago we were shocked. Usually people are sitting, eating or standing in line, chatting. Now there’s one customer per half an hour,” Laiter said. “It’s picking up, but not fast, it’s difficult, but we are doing it.”

At Barriques, the reception has been good, even if the volume of business varies day to day, Waygendt said.

On days when alcohol purchases are higher, Barriques might reach 40%-50% of one of its normal, pre-coronavirus days in sales. But even reaching just 25% of what would have been a normal day’s sales volume generates enough profit to sustain payroll, he said.

Like many establishments, the Thirsty Goat thrives on large gatherings. It would serve athletes and spectators of spring sports such as wrestling and youth basketball, Clanton said.

On a regular Friday before the restrictions, the restaurant would do $15,000 in sales. Now, it’s down to $9,000. Clanton said she believes it was down $100,000 overall for March, and she is looking ahead to graduation and Mother’s Day as potentially significant profit losses.

Quivey’s co-owner Deirdre Garton said the federal Paycheck Protection Programs has helped keep her business afloat.

“Luckily we got a PPP loan to pay staff. Our goal is to move very carefully and slowly as we reopen, for customer and employee safety,” she said.

Making adjustments

Every business that’s stayed open or reopened has been forced to adapt somehow.

Barriques began the “Safer at Home” order by closing for two weeks, and when it reopened the first week of April, it limited its food and drink menu offered while offering alcoholic beverages for carryout, mostly through a mobile ordering site it already had in place for a while.

Weygandt said the current menu is only 10% of the regular offerings, most of it drinks.

The Thirsty Goat has found it challenging to meet pre-arranged pickup times, like having a broasted chicken, brisket and buns ready for 6 p.m. pickup. It’s also found carryout containers to be a strain.

Clanton said not only is the business spending more on packaging containers, vendors such as Gordon Food Service have been out of some items, such as brown paper bags, for over a month. She had to turn to online purveyors like Amazon, where she’s found a purchase limit for some items.

And now, with so many carryout orders, employees have learned to write what every item is on top of the containers, Clanton said.

At the Rolling Pin, Laiter has been offering lunch and breakfast to go along with her bakery staples. She said her 20 different soups have been popular, and the support of her regular customers has kept things going.

Quivey’s is still sending out weekly emails to its mailing list to keep people updated on changes while also offering up tidbits like the recipe for its popular dishes, such as parmesan potatoes. Percevecz said the restaurant has received lots of emails and messages on Facebook and Instagram, from people seeking to show support by reaching out to a favorite bartender or provide the staff with donations.

“Lucky for us, we have a huge customer and follower base and they’ll stick and return when this all passes and we can all gather,” said.

Safe and clean

Another challenge for businesses of all types has been keeping people safe while working.

Clanton said six or seven people are still working at The Thirsty Goat, four of them in the kitchen. She has been talking to the employees on a regular basis to make sure everyone has been self-quarantined when not working.

But limiting exposure to customers has been difficult. On Fridays during fish fries, there might be 20-30 cars in line, Clanton said, and people kept getting out of their cars to try to collect their orders. So she asked customers in a Facebook post to stay in their vehicles, don’t try to come in and don’t touch the restaurant door.

Laiter said that Rolling Pin offers contactless curbside pickup, leaving products on a table after customers pay ahead. Employees serve everything with gloves and change those gloves after every transaction.

“They know we are very clean and sanitize everything well and follow the CDC rules,” she said. “Those coming in are staying six feet apart.”

Barriques has a similar contactless pickup. Still, Weygandt said that if an employee feels unsafe, accommodations will be made.

“If someone gets to the point they feel uncomfortable, it’s fine and we’ll make necessary adjustments,” Weygant said. “Everyone has some anxiety right now. But also, being in a familiar environment and being able to work removes some other anxieties of being at home.”

Laiter said she is just grateful to have kept operating.

“It’s very interesting how everything’s changed,” she said. “We’re not closing down. You live and learn.”

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.