In the 22 years his restaurant has been open for business in Estero, Michael Fattah has cherished the relationships he’s developed with his regulars at Ristorante Farfalla. They’ve become like “familia.”Empty tables at The Pewter Mug North

“I’d ask, ‘How is your son?,’” Fattah says. “They’d show me their grandson. I’d go out to the dining room, sit down and talk to them. I know them by heart, what they like to eat. They love my ravioli.

“I usually would hug them,” he continues,” but now, they’re nervous, paranoid. It’s bothering me. I’m not used to them keeping their distance. I’m not used to it. I love the communication and contact and talking and warm feelings.”

Fattah’s sentiments reflect what a lot of Estero-area restaurant and business owners are feeling. If they’re lucky, they’ve lost half their business as a result of the novel coronavirus crisis. If not, they’ve lost more — so much that they’ve decided it’s better to close their doors, at least temporarily.

Empty tables at KC American Bistro“It’s a devastating, short-run shock to small businesses,” said Chris Westley, dean of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert School of Business and professor of economics. “It’s profoundly distressing to drive around and see so many places that used to be centers of commerce that now are like deserts. Roads are empty, and payrolls are not being met. I’m hoping that things will normalize by the summer.”

Even as businesses begin to reopen, a Coronavirus Business Impact Study conducted between March 24-29 shows the effects will continue to be felt for a while. FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute tallied these findings:

  • 24 percent (227 of 948 business executives surveyed) said they expect permanent, adverse effects.
  • About 21 percent of businesses with 25 or more employees expect long-term economic consequences.
  • 63 percent (600 of 948) businesses surveyed said their business had declined by more than 50 percent.
  • Hotel and restaurant dollars have decreased by 50 percent or more for more than 87 percent of Lee County hospitality businesses and more than 93 percent of Collier County businesses.

“With restaurants, the money they earn from November through March gets them through the rest of the year,” Westley said. “Shutting off commerce creates so much uncertainty. We have to think of better ways to address these problems because our economy has been affected so much.”

FGCU Economist Chris WestleyThe survey finding that really shouts out to Westley is that a majority of executives report their business has declined by more than 50 percent.

“Even to a large firm, that’s going to be devastating,” Westley said. “But it’s especially hard on small businesses and mom-and-pop operations. They don’t have the resources to weather that.”

While he believes the government’s $2 trillion stimulus will have positive, short-term effects, he adds, “Members of Congress already are talking about a second stimulus because that’s not going to have a long-standing effect.”

If there’s a positive sign, 12 percent of executives said customer demand has increased. Westley noted a Naples company helping people who lost jobs to get into the healthcare industry. Other types of businesses, such as delivery services, also have benefited during the crisis.

But the majority of Southwest Florida’s businesses are hurting.

“We’re in such a restaurant- and tourist-centric economy,” Westley noted. “We’re really fueled by the wealth effects. When a portfolio is richer, people will spend more. But now that we have the coronavirus and the market has crashed so much, there’s much more uncertainty.”

Every industry has been affected in some way by the coronavirus pandemic. Estero dentist Aaron Leishman said his business was also down 95 percent because he had been limited to emergency procedures only.

“It’s devastating for any business,” he said. “But I won’t close. I have an obligation to a lot of patients.”

He has continued to provide emergency dental care, which is important considering the second-most frequent reason males ages 20-39 go to the emergency room is for a dental emergency. “And we want to unburden hospitals,” Leishman noted.

His office has been staying in touch with patients, and he predicts many businesses will see a surge in pent-up customer demand when coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

Statistics & Solutions

Sarah Newcomb, president and CEO of the Estero Chamber of Commerce, said she’s been connecting businesses with the Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at FGCU, where they can apply for disaster, bridge or paycheck protection loans.

Estero Chamber of Commerce CEO Sarah Newcomb

Surprisingly, Newcomb says she isn’t sensing fear or anger from local business owners.

“It’s more appreciation,” she said. “They know they need help now, so any guidance is appreciated. I don’t sense anyone is freaking out because there are resources.”

SBDC provides confidential, no-cost consulting from certified experts. Consultants act as “first responders” for small business following a disaster event, added LaShaun Collier, a small-business strategist for SBDC.

“Right now, we are helping small business owners determine which loan programs are the right fit for their business, putting together loan packages for them, and helping them to implement recovery plans,” Collier said. “Our focus for the next few months is on business continuation consulting. Sadly, 40 percent of businesses do not reopen following a disaster. On top of that, another 25 percent fail within one year.”

The SBDC has some experience in aid after disasters such as hurricanes and red tide. However, Collier said the economic injury to Southwest Florida businesses is unparalleled in the face of COVID-19.

“Our recovery requests from small business owners have increased by 500 percent compared to other crisis scenarios,” she said.

Many small business owners are in shock, scared or worried.

“Our goal is to ensure that small business owners impacted by the crisis can stay strong,” assured Lois Knox, regional director for the Florida SBDC at FGCU.

Recovery for Restaurants

Many businesses have been resourceful in keeping afloat during the coronavirus crisis. Old 41 Restaurant turned from a dining operation to selling essential items as a mini-mart. A Facebook post on March 30 said: “Good Morning!!! Truck delivered: We have TP (toilet paper), PT (paper towels), Bread, Eggs, Butter, Dawn Dish Soap, Latex Gloves, Facial Tissue, Peroxide Sanitizer.”

Old 41 Necessities StoreOwner Tony Backos is confident Old 41 will weather this storm as it has others.

“My restaurant survived a car driving through the front, Hurricane Irma, blue algae and red tide,” he said. “I will survive the pandemic and open up again for my dining customers.”

Reduced to takeout and delivery, Chef-Owner BJ Zarvis said business at The Pewter Mug North was down 95 percent last month. He had been making about $70,000 a week in March until having to shut down dining room service, ironically, on Friday the 13th.

Zarvis considered shutting down the Pewter Mug altogether, but, “If I close, maybe the engine doesn’t start up again. I think I need to stay and fight — otherwise I feel I’m giving up.”

Zarvis says restaurants desperately need to get economic stimulus checks, or there’s a chance 30 percent will close their doors forever.

“Everyone is going to have to get really creative to survive,” he said.

After seeing his business dwindle, Keith Casey shut down his KC American Bistro at University Village on March 20.

“There’s no demand, no reason to stay open,” he said. “I had five people call in 10 days. People are cooking at home.”

Casey said this is much worse than a hurricane because his restaurant usually reopened 10 days later.

“This will turn into 100-plus days,” he predicted. “Personally, I think this will go on all summer.”

February and March are typically the highest revenue months for local restaurants.

“When we approach Easter, we reach the peak,” said Fattah of Farfalla. “I’m not a complainer, but when this hit, we were in the peak of inventory. And when my rent is due, it’s $9,000.

“I have cooks who have been with me nine and 19 years, and a server who has been with me 17 years,” he added. “It’s hard on me.”

Crops & Coronavirus

This is prime harvest season for locally grown produce such as tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini and corn on the cob. Farmer Mike’s U-Pick has had to shift its business model, taking its fresh produce directly to customers rather than opening the farm store and selling at local farmers markets. Now customers can get produce delivered right to their doors less than 12 hours after it has been picked.

“We may need to hire more truck drivers,” said Mike Clevenger, Jr.

His father — the original Farmer Mike — started the business 21 years ago, and his son is determined to keep it going.

“I asked my staff for new and creative ways that people could get our freshly-picked products and herbs. Ideas fell into an online, home-delivery service,” said Clevenger. “We had an employee who’s a lot more talented than he thought. That night, he went home and created a website our customers are using.”

“We’re so fortunate,” he said, noting business is steady. “The callers are so happy to have this service because they don’t want to leave home, and they want fresh products.”

He’s glad to avoid having to plow his produce into the ground and thankful he didn’t have to let any of his 40 employees go.

One problem he still faces is the decreased demand from local restaurants. About 125 hotels and restaurants – many in Estero – buy his produce, and he grows specialty items for some of them.

“We grew them multi-colored cauliflower, broccolini, microgreens, hundreds of thousands of flowers. I have 15 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes — yellow, orange, purple, striped. No one grows a tastier heirloom tomato than me.

“So what do I do now?” he pondered. “It’s a delicacy. I need to find them a home.”

Local Roots, which operates eight farmers’ markets in Southwest Florida including Coconut Point, also has turned to online ordering and delivery. Pre-coronavirus, Local Roots was having a “banner year,” reported co-owner Jean Baer. About 1,000 people regularly came on Thursdays to Coconut Point Mall, buying an average of $40 per person. When calculated over 30 weeks, that’s a $1.2 million impact.

Farmer Mike's booth at Local Roots Farmers Market Coconut PointHowever, the coronavirus led to what Baer called a mass exodus of both customers and vendors. A tea vendor said she made just $9 one week.

Local Roots launched an online ordering service — – the second week of April. Customers can now order from a vendor for either pick-up or home delivery.

Baer advocates for keeping farmers’ markets open despite coronavirus concerns.

“National organizations have urged cities and communities to keep farmers’ markets open as a local food source,” she said. “Our food likely is touched less than in the stores. We’ve also added enhancements like spreading booths apart, and we have sanitation stations where vendors wear gloves.”

Sadly, Baer has heard stories of farmers plowing their strawberries under. “You can get a flat for $10,” she said. “Farmers can’t afford to pick for that.”

Despite the adversities, Baer vows, “We’ll be back here in the fall.”

How to Help

Buy local from shops online when possible, implored SBDC’s Collier, adding it’s simple to ask small businesses what alternatives they may offer in lieu of their regular services. It’s also a great time to write positive reviews for services rendered in the past.

Like, follow and subscribe to local businesses on social media. Most importantly, tell your favorite small business what you need; they may be able to pivot. This could be a lifeline for both the customer and the small business. 

Restaurant owners are asking people to purchase gift cards for later use, which will help keep favorite local eateries afloat at this time.

“We need their help, for God’s sake,” said Fattah of Farfalla. “I’m here in Estero, not Cleveland. I don’t have seven restaurants.”

The businesses that survive this pandemic will be the ones that learn to adapt and innovate, said Jordan Azis, technology adviser for Fort Myers-based Stickboy Creative, which offers work-from-home solutions.

“I think it’s gonna be a renaissance,” he said.     

By Craig Handel

(D.K. Christi contributed to this story)

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