Camden businesses are getting by during the pandemic

Chef Dan Prentice prepares an Okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake, on his grill outside Tori 44 where he serves customers on his patio due to the pandemic.

Written by Connor Cummiskey

Well into the coronavirus pandemic that has shutdown schools, sent workers home and obligated masks in public, we reached out to businesses across the Northside to see how local businesses are weathering the storm.

Generally, businesses have reduced contact with customers, enforced masks and social distancing in their property, and in some cases began working outside to keep customers and employees safe.

Below are a handful of Camden area businesses who responded to our request for comment.

Fremont Market Inc., is a convenience store near the corner of Fremont and and 36th Avenues. It has made arrangements to maintain social distancing in the store and has signs posted telling customers to wear masks. They are also sanitizing often, manager Mike Azem said.

Despite the signage, it’s difficult to make sure everyone is wearing a mask because of how many people are going in and out.

“Some customers, they get mad,” Azem said. “We get snapped at so many times.”

He said usually the customers who get mad are not regulars, they come from outside the area.

“I’m gonna say 80–85% of all our customers are cooperating and they understand the situation, but the other 15-20% – no they are not and they do not care,” said Azem.

This month business had dropped, but Azem isn’t sure why. Business remained somewhat steady in previous months.

They did receive some aid from the Payment Protection Program, but didn’t get anything from the state, Azem said.

Joe Skifter co-owns the Dancing Bear Chocolate Northern Chocolate Studio with his husband Steven Howard. They provide artisan chocolate and some pastries.

They are currently only open three days a week, Friday through Sunday, but hope to add Thursdays soon, Skifter said.

Dancing Bear Chocolate actually opened during the pandemic, just before Mother’s Day, according to Skifter.

“We haven’t been able to execute our real plan, so we’re executing a modified plan at this point due to COVID,” Skifter said.

The couple installed a walk-up service window that was intended for serving ice cream on hot days, now it’s how the business serves all of its customers.

Skifter suspects their business is actually doing a little better than expected, because of the local support.

“Right from the initial announcement that we purchased the building the community has supported us, just immensely,” Skifter said.

Normally chocolate sales decline in the summer, but they’re not seeing that this summer, Skifter said.

To keep employees and customers safe, the local ramen shop Tori 44 has moved much of its operations outside, said chef and owner Dan Prentice.

Prentice estimates the pandemic has cut his sales to about one-sixth of what they were before.

When the shutdown happened Prentice had to let all 18 staff members go, so they could take the unemployment benefits.

As the restaurant has grown its takeout service, Prentice has been able to bring back five or six of his full-time staff. He’s also brought on some part-time staff for odd jobs, such as rebuilding the patio.

“One of my servers happened to also be a boat builder as a main trade, so these are over built a little bit,” Prentice said. “I like to say they’re sea worthy.”

Tori 44 did receive a small PPP loan. “The loan has helped us stay afloat, and I’m trying to pay people a good wage,” Prentice said.

Prentice isn’t considering re-opening the indoor dining area. He said he doesn’t think it’s safe enough to get a few more tables.

“It’s just not worth it to me to put everybody that works here in that much more danger,” Prentice said.

Prentice has debated adding another day, but isn’t sure if that would help business or not.

While staying open is more work than before, Prentice said it was worth it.

“I don’t want to live in a world that’s just Amazon Eats delivers and Taco Bell,” Prentice said.

Residents choosing not to go out to eat may be familiar with the Guy-Am West Indian Groceries and Videos owned by Sookdeo Somaiah. Business has remained fairly steady for Somaiah.

“I think people stay home more, so they tend to cook,” said Somaiah.

Earlier he ran into problems getting products like toilet paper from his suppliers. Recently the run on paper products has slowed down.

Somaiah has shut down his U-Haul rentals. Part of that is because it was easier to get his customers in the grocery store to comply with mask rules, because they are regulars.

Somaiah had considered keeping the U-Haul rental using online “24/7” service. However, he still had to clean and sanitize the truck between rentals.

“I didn’t feel safe doing it for myself and the customer, because if I cannot clean the truck for the next customer – I don’t think it’s right,” Somaiah said.

He also didn’t receive any supplies to help him sanitize the truck, so he decided to shut it down – at least for now, he said.

Because the market is a family-owned and run business, he hasn’t had to reduce staff. Somaiah tried doing a text-based curbside pickup, but that didn’t work because they still had to bring out supplies and give change to his customers.

It was safer just to sanitize shelves and baskets between each customer, Somaiah said.

They also tried to cut back hours, but heard customers complaining about getting what they need.

“I know they can’t, there’s not too many stores around like this,” Somaiah said.

Somaiah didn’t apply for PPP loans. He wasn’t sure what to do.

The riot was scary Somaiah said, but his store wasn’t hit. He decided against even boarding up the store, because potential looters might become curious about what he has.

“I figured I stand a good chance of them not coming to me, because what I have here they don’t want, they can’t use,” Somaiah said.

Camden Pet Hospital, which provides veterinary services for companion animals did see a drop off during the initial restrictions mandated by the state, but business is going well now, said owner and vet Cynthia Fetzer. The hospital did receive money from the PPP which Fetzer said helped significantly during the restrictions.

Currently the clinic is using car side appointments, where pet owners remain outside while their pet is being seen. It does take longer and their appointment backup is getting larger, Fetzer said.

The Thirsty Whale Bakery is currently doing curbside pickups and has begun offering bread products alongside their custom cakes and hand cut donuts.

The bakery initially shut down for two weeks, to make sure all the staff were healthy, said Amber Settlemire, who manages and co-runs the bakery alongside Megan and Kyle Baker.

A large portion of the bakery’s orders had been weddings, but those virtually stopped for a time. In July weddings started coming back, but they are fewer and smaller than pre-pandemic weddings, according to Settlemire.

Normal operating procedures are a thing of the past for now at the bakery, according to Settlemire. Hours are cut, mostly to make sure there’s enough time to fulfill orders. Right now one of the biggest challenges is getting all the baking done without burning out, Settlemire said.

“The only reason that we haven’t failed or gone under is because we are working insane hours,” Settlemire wrote in an email.

She said she averages over 60 hours a week. With all that work, they are still playing catch up on emails about events.

While most of the customers are still being nice, Settlemire said that some customers have gotten angry and taken their stress out on the staff. She asks that everyone able to support them to be kind to small business employees and anyone in retail.

Interested residents can find local Camden areas businesses at a Google map maintained by the Shingle Creek Neighborhood Association. It can be found at shinglecreekmpls.org by clicking on the neighborhood community resource page.