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Friday, August 19, 2022

Student return to Gainesville could alleviate pandemic troubles for local businesses

Gainesville businesses prepare for thousands of students’ return in the Fall

Now that students are returning for in-person classes, businesses are optimistic after a year of economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. More customers means more workers can be hired.

Across the country, businesses have dealt with issues over their supply chain, increases in product prices, less in-store traffic and staff shortages. According to a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 52% of businesses nationwide laid off employees, with or without pay, between July and September 2020. 

Satchel Raye, owner of Satchel’s Pizza, located at 1800 NE 23rd Ave., and Satch Squared, located at 405 SW Fourth Ave., cut 26 employees off payroll when both restaurants stopped in-person dining in March 2020. When he reopened indoor dining in May 2020 at his two locations, Raye said he was fortunate to rehire his former employees.  

“When we opened back up, we started hiring them back,” Raye said. “Now we’re back to the staff we had before.”

Preceding the start of the pandemic, Gainesville reached its lowest recorded unemployment rate at 2.8% in December 2019. Four months later, with the onset of COVID-19, the city reached 9.2% — its highest unemployment rate

As of June, Gainesville’s unemployment rate is 4.9%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data.  

While many restaurants avoided closing permanently, the city witnessed many local favorites shut down during the pandemic. Larry’s Giant Subs’ — the popular late-night University Avenue location — closed in May 2020. Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria, known for attracting crowds to its Latin nights and buy-one-get-one-free margaritas, also said goodbye to Gainesville in November 2020.

Still soldiering through pandemic-related challenges like staff shortages and less in-person patronage, the businesses left standing are hoping for change with the Fall semester.

Some restaurants adopted takeout-only policies until September 2020, which allowed them to scrape by with less employees. 

Having opened early 2020, Raye said Satch Squared’s takeout orders kept his business afloat at the beginning of the pandemic. As he prepares for an influx of customers with student return,  Raye has had trouble finding more employees. He’s hopeful Satch Squared may become a student favorite.

“We found there’s a lot less people who show up for interviews,” Raye said. “We don’t know what to expect with students coming back.”

Phyllis Marty is the CEO of CareerSource North Central Florida, which helps connect Alachua County and Bradford County residents to potential employers. She said rather than local businesses that normally don’t provide health care and dental benefits, retail and food service workers have flocked to distribution and advanced manufacturing centers, such as Walmart, Nordstrom, Amazon and Sysco.

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“Restaurants are struggling to get workers,” Marty said. “But advanced manufacturing, they don’t have a problem getting people hired.”

Online orders also became popular during the pandemic to avoid in-person contact while shopping. Cordaroy’s, a furniture store known for its bean bag chairs, located at 3417 W University Ave., found success in online sales when in-store traffic drastically decreased. 

Cordaroy’s store manager William Von Wowern said the need for furniture geared toward relaxation while people were in quarantine, like beds and bean bag chairs, helped the business stay open. 

Although the store kept busy with online sales, Von Wowern echoed Marty and Raye’s concerns about staffing as his employees were spread thin.

“We’ve had some issues with the warehouse employees,” he said. “We have just enough people, so we’re definitely hiring.” 

Ward’s Supermarket, a locally-sourced grocery store located at 515 NW 23rd Ave., is struggling to get products it normally carries. Store manager Angie Mohr said she has also seen product prices increase, as the store is not getting as many shipments as it used to. 

Despite these issues, Mohr was proud to say the store kept all its staff employed and avoided letting go of employees. She said she’s ready for the Fall semester.

“We hire a lot of young people,” Mohr said. “This is a stepping stone job.”

While many restaurants are now offering dine-in services, staff shortages continue to limit their full potential.

Ryan Phillips, general manager of One Love Cafe, located 4989 NW 40th Place, said his restaurant offers an outside seating area that accommodates for social distancing. Unfortunately, he said the cafe has still had to brave a lack of employees, continuing through today.

The cafe used to be open Tuesday through Sunday but had to decrease its hours of operation to Thursday through Sunday during the pandemic. Phillips said the restaurant started closing in the afternoon before reopening for dinner, mainly due to slow business and limited staff. It continues to have limited hours.

Phillips said going forward, his priority is to hire new staff.

Because the pandemic caused some students to stay in their hometowns for online classes instead of attending class on campus, Gainesville lost a significant amount of its population. This Fall semester is offering local businesses the chance to get back on track.

“All business in Gainesville is dependent on students,” Phillips said. “Summertime is always a huge drop in business, so now that school’s coming up, we’re expecting to pick back up.”

Contact Troy Myers at tmyers@alligator.org.

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Troy Myers

Troy is the criminal justice reporter and a fourth-year journalism major with an outside focus in business administration. He previously studied accounting for two years at Santa Fe College but has since transferred to UFCJC. When Troy isn’t writing, he enjoys going to the beach and spending time with his dog, identical twin brother and family.


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