For Adam Penn and Katherine Tanner, the married co-owners of Veggie Galaxy, the decision to shut down operations on March 14 happened almost literally overnight.
“We were open on a Saturday night—this was kind of when things were ramping up early, in terms of the virus and people’s perceptions of it—and we were still pretty busy,” says Penn. “That whole day my wife and I were asking if we should be open, closed, reducing our capacity, do we just do take-out and delivery?”
What they knew about COVID-19 and what state and local governments were advising businesses were literally changing by the minute, he recalls. But what helped make up their minds was actually seeing the social media mentions of Veggie Galaxy, including pictures of people coming together and enjoying each other’s company.
“It was honestly making us very uncomfortable,” Penn says. “At this point, talk of social distancing was beginning and the people packing in here was making us feel uneasy.”
So for the sake of their customers, their workers, and themselves, they made the call.
“I got on the phone with our general manager and said I think we should just close down,” he says. “We finished out business on Saturday night, got in touch with all our staff, and put up on social media we intended to close.
“So right now we’re shut down entirely, and we view that as temporary,” says Penn.
After talking with his employment attorney, Penn says the decision was made to furlough the staff because it made them eligible for unemployment benefits. Since then, he and Tanner have been working to make sure their furloughed staff have access to the information and paperwork they need to apply for unemployment benefits, and he’s helped a couple walk through the process of applying.
They have also announced that 100 percent of the proceeds from Veggie Galaxy gift certificates bought during the shutdown will be disbursed to staff members with financial needs. The gift cards can be purchased online.
“We’ve raised, so far, about $15,000 from gift card sales,” Penn says. “We have about 50 people on staff, and unfortunately even $15,000 doesn’t go that far with that many people.”
He put that to his staff to see if they felt like the money should first go to staffers with the greatest need, and he says the response was very supportive.
“It put us in the position where we wanted to get it to the people who needed it the most,” says Penn. “I’ve distributed about half of it and we hope to continue to sell gift cards.”
He and Tanner have also talked about the possibility of having their vendors deliver some basic groceries to the restaurant in case their workers start having trouble getting what they need.
“That’s something that’s definitely a possibility,” Penn says. “We’re staying in touch with staff and seeing what their situation is. If it turns out that’s something that’s useful, we’ll look into it.”
He’s also spent a lot of time trying to navigate the programs available for small businesses.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think as it stands now it’s going to be much help,” says Penn. “Things might change. The payroll protection program, in theory you’ve got to get your payroll back to your full levels by June 30 and I don’t even know if we’ll be open on June 30.”
“One thing I have not been 100 percent sure of is, as business owners, we are not eligible for unemployment. So, we don’t have any income,” he says. “But I think that is going to change toward the end of April and I think we will qualify.”
For their own part, he says he and Tanner are doing okay, and on some levels consider themselves “very fortunate.”
“We’re in the position where we’re not feeling on the edge of not being able to reopen,” he says. “There’s a little wiggle room for us to try and figure things out. We’re certainly not in panic mode.”
They see other businesses still open for takeout and delivery, but that’s not something Veggie Galaxy is considering right now.
“We just kind of made the call,” he says. “We take physical distancing very seriously and we didn’t want to be a place where people could congregate, even to come for takeout.”
For Penn, the biggest area of uncertainty right now is not whether they will reopen—he says he feels confident they’ll get through the shutdown and be able to start serving again—but what it will be like after they do open, and how long that uncertainty will last.
“It’s not like, ‘Okay, our doors are open and business is back to normal,’” he says. “Do we open at 50 percent capacity? I think a lot of people will still be cautious about going out. Gov. Baker might say, ‘Okay, reopen,’ but we may not be comfortable to do it at that point. […] Until there’s a vaccine, we’ll sort of be navigating this in a way that we’re all trying to figure out,” says Penn.
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