Sow's Ear

Employees and customers continue to wear masks at The Sow’s Ear.

As a kid’s activity center, the Treehouse was never well suited for the migration to online programming so many businesses moved to when COVID-19 restrictions were at their peak in March and April.

So founder Allison Plumer kept the 201 E. Verona Ave. business closed for two-and-a-half months, and during that time, she and employees focused on curriculum development and summer program plans.

“The market is crowded with online and virtual programming now, so it didn’t make a lot of sense for us to make the investment and time into something everyone else was doing,” she said. “We are more of a social club in focus, where it’s important for kids to be together.”

On June 1, a week after Dane County began allowing phased reopening of the local economy, the Treehouse joined many other Verona businesses in cautiously moving ahead with a new way of operating. It allows a maximum of 10 children per program, has staggered pick-up and drop-off times to keep parents from crossing paths and has suspended walking field trips to nearby establishments, such as Icki Sticki and activities where kids prepare their own food.

Plumer said she’s managed to fill 90 percent of her classes since then.

“Our clients are very supportive and happy to have this social outlet back and overall feel safe with our measures,” she said.

Two weeks later, on June 15, Dane County moved into Phase 2 of Public Health Madison and Dane County’s phased reopening plan, a step forward that allowed businesses to operate at 50% capacity. While that’s allowed many businesses to get closer to what might be the new normal – including extra cleaning and safety measures – some are finding that online, carryout and delivery services are still customers’ overwhelming preference and that they are struggling to fill their inside businesses.

At JNJ Craftworks, 1051 N. Edge Trail, owner Jerina Vincent began allowing customers into her shop Saturday, June 13, for the first time in three months. However, she’s still doing her best business online, she told the Press.

She said most of her regular customers – 80% according to an online survey – are not yet ready to shop at the store, which sells handmade crafts, home décor, apparel and other gifts.

During the shutdown, Vincent built up her webstore, placing many objects online for the first time. She began offering delivery of store items to Verona households starting March 15 and curbside pick-up three weeks ago.

Jen Davis, general manager of The Sow’s Ear, 125 S. Main St., also turned to the internet to help make up for income lost while social distancing kept her retail store closed to the public.

With the cafe portion of the business closed, Davis put employees to work at home, having them set up an online inventory of yarns, needles, hooks and other items ready for shipping.

While a web store was a longtime goal for Davis, the pandemic made it a priority.

“Going online was something we had always looked to do,” Davis said. “COVID was a blessing and a curse – it created an opportunity for growth.”

Sugar River Pizza Company, at 957 Liberty Drive, stayed busy throughout the pandemic but struggled with the first phase of reopening, which limited dining rooms and other indoor areas to 25% of capacity, said owner Sarah Thomas.

“We tried to remember that even though we lived and breathed all the Phase 1 requirements, customers are not as aware of the requirements we were supposed to follow,” Thomas said. “Now that we are up to 50%, things are a little bit easier; the whole restaurant is not completely empty.”

Last Thursday during lunch, she said every table was filled.

“We love to see that, it brings some excitement back,” she said.

Thomas said she is “very very blessed that we have a large patio,” and are able to put a lot of tables outside.

While Thomas said carry-out and delivery at Sugar River exceeded her expectations – about 60% of normal sales – Davis said the Sow’s Ear was not as successful with carryout, doing less than 10% of its normal business during March and April.

Even at 50%, the Sow’s Ear has only five tables, making it difficult to make ends meet, Davis said. It will remain closed to in-person knitting events until at least fall.

“We actually don’t think we are going to be making a profit this summer,” she said.

There are positive signs, however, and it’s expanding hours this week and adding more tables to the outside deck. She’s hopeful to make a comeback with the Christmas knitting season and is still holding online classes in case the virus keeps people away in the fall.

“Business is still down, but people are coming back more and more every day,” she said. “I see more customers each day than a week ago at that time and a week before that. People are venturing out again.”

Thomas has found one other delicate balancing act at Sugar River, between making customers feel safe and enforcing restrictions. Some customers, she said, have gotten angry at the limitations.

She recalled a family of eight being upset they could not be seated because the restaurant could only seat six more customers before reaching capacity, despite having open tables.

Meanwhile, she is hiring new delivery drivers to meet the change in her business model.

“Accommodating and making people happy, that’s our driving force,” she said. “We don’t want to make everyone angry trying to do both dine in and delivery, but there are harder challenges to face, like no business. When we first shut down, we had new processes every day, those first couple weeks we were scrambling. Now we feel a little more in control, we feel like we’re on a good track.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at