Uncertainty, Fear, Hope: One Small Business District’s Pandemic Survival


A view of Underwood Avenue at 6:30 p.m. on April 8, 2020. Usually cars and people would line the blocks for Dinner, but only a few parked waiting for curbside pickup that evening. Photo by Chris Bowling.
By Chris Bowling

Sunlight streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the second-story lookout.

Since 2003, Mark Pluhacek has had a prime view of Underwood Avenue from the dining room of his restaurant, Marks.

From here, he’s watched Dundee grow into a tight-knit community. One where employees and regulars of the neighborhood’s small businesses count their tenure in years, and you can expect the first warm days of spring to fill the sidewalks with people.

But that vision exists in a different reality now.

Instead, the sidewalks are empty. His employees are gone. The regulars are shut in their homes, and Pluhacek’s looking at that main street, wondering which of his neighbors coronavirus will leave behind.

“It’s frightening,” said Pluhacek, 53. “We just have to hope that when this is over that they all come back and the businesses are there. It would be scary to think of Dundee with a quarter of the businesses boarded up.”

The virus’ spread has put millions out of work and forced the federal government to allocate enough relief funds to outspend the annual GDP of all but seven countries.

But it’s small businesses that most display the effects of the pandemic.

In the six minutes it takes to walk the 1,300 feet between 49th and 51st streets on Underwood Avenue, visitors pass storefronts with signs announcing closures or changed services. There, at least 85 people have lost their jobs, and owners stare down possibly months of little to no business. It’s a hurt affecting people across the city. 

“It would be scary to think of Dundee with a quarter of the businesses boarded up.”

Experts and officials expect to lose millions of dollars as closures and cancelations freeze the economy with no solid prediction of when it might thaw. In Dundee, as with many neighborhoods across Omaha, those numbers aren’t abstract they mean lost jobs, delayed retirement plans and critical decisions to save their livelihoods.

But in those businesses there’s also insight into how this might end. A hopeful future where we come out scarred, but stronger. One rooted in recent donations and emotional support from the neighborhood to its small town main street.

It’s humbled Dario Schicke, who co-owns Dario’s Brasserie and Avoli Osteria on Underwood. The 49-year-old chef has experience with change. He fled Bosnia in 1992 as his home erupted into civil war. Later, he left New York City and a small business in Greenwich Village as the World Trade Center smoldered.

He witnessed devastation, but he also saw strength in community. People survived because they had each other, Schicke said.

That doesn’t mean coronavirus won’t claim storefronts on the block Schicke has called home for 13 years. But community is a lot harder to kill.

“I think we forget how strong we are,” he said, “and how much we can actually take.”

Day by Day

When the novel form of coronavirus, known as COVID-19, came to Omaha, it brought one reality-suspending moment after another for Dundee businesses.

On Friday, March 13, Pluhacek and others rearranged Marks to follow social distancing guidelines. By Tuesday, they had closed their doors. The same day, used and vintage clothing store Scout Dry Goods and Trade owner Kelly Newell, 40, shifted more business online.

Inside Scout Trade and Dry Goods. Photo courtesy of Kelly Newell.

Blue Line Coffee owner Chris McClellan has had to offer to-go drinks to regulars who’d rather sit and sip for hours at a time. Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob owner Anne Cavanaugh closed her store completely. In the downtime, she’s repainting and getting the narrow storefront looking better for when it’s time to reopen.

But it’s the when and the waiting that cause unease among many of Underwood’s business owners. Health mandates keep expanding, and the state may see new coronavirus cases into May and June.

“It’s day by day, and that’s the most nerve-wracking thing,” Cavanaugh said, “because there’s no end in sight.”

Last month, Scout only did a quarter of its typical sales. McClellan is also doing only about 30% to 40% of normal business at Blue Line. Although he said he’s not worried about losing the business, he might have to apply for loans or risk dipping into his retirement savings to keep the doors open.

It’s particularly stressful as neighborhood businesses enter what for many is the busiest time of year.

Spring and summer bring patio denizens who sip wine and order multiple courses.  Meanwhile, sidewalk amblers pass in and out of open-doored shops. But with the cancelation of pretty much every big event until the fall — the College World Series, Berkshire Hathaway shareholder’s meeting, Maha Music Festival, university and medical school graduations and countless weddings — the future looks bleak.

Pluhacek expects the hit to his business will be bad enough to delay his retirement five to seven years.

“To have everything come to a screeching halt with no foreseeable date back to normal that we can rely on is financially devastating,” Pluhacek said. “I mean, it’s really asking for your business to hit the pause button and not exist for a certain amount of time and then come back ‘OK.’ And everyone’s trying to figure out how that can possibly happen.”

Some have found different ways to make money, including selling retail products online or doing carryout orders. But most say those are only a fraction of normal sales.

“A really busy day at takeout is about the same as what we do when there’s a blizzard,” said Pluhacek.

Amy Schicke, 50, said so far their carryout has fared well. On weekdays, they do about 15 to 20 orders. On weekends, it’s 50 to 60 meals from a menu that combines options from both Dario’s and Avoli.

Jose Flores said to-go orders at Hoppy Tacos and community support is one of the only bright spots of this experience. In February the 38-year-old owner quit his full time job as a manager at Oriental Trading Company as the Dundee taco shop eased into the summer of its third year. The hard part, building out the restaurant and his credibility, was supposed to be behind him.

Now he’s doing a quarter of his sales. But the community stepped in, and while Flores knew he had loyal regulars, he didn’t expect the support he’s gotten.

“We’re a newer business that was just starting to hit our stride,” he said. “When customers come in here, it literally helps us keep the lights on.”

Cars outside Hoppy Taco and the Dundee Dell on April 8, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling

In some ways, the problems presented by coronavirus mirror the daily fires small business owners deal with every day. The only difference is there’s never been such an acute, omnipresent problem. One that’s brought hundreds of uncertainties as well as more downtime than ever before to contemplate them.

“It’s not your usual little fire,” Amy Schicke said. “It’s an explosion.”

That’s the way everyone’s feeling, Cavanaugh said.

“It’s not just a neighborhood feeling this because of something that happened,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s a whole nation of people who are hurting.”

Uncharted Territory

It’s difficult to understand how badly coronavirus gobsmacked the U.S. economy. However, the hurt close to home is easier to comprehend.

“Given that many businesses are going to be seeing a lot less foot traffic, and there’s so many shutdowns, it just compounds into a sour economic outlook for the summer for the city of Omaha,” said Chris Decker, a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “And it does disturb me quite a bit.”

Decker said the loss of the College World Series in June will cost Omaha between $70 and $75 million. The Olympic Swim Trials, also in June, would be comparable, he said. Berkshire Hathaway’s canceling would likely cost $5 to $6 million.

This doesn’t account for lost spending on holidays, community events or the usual buzz of economic activity the city sees around this time of year.

“it just compounds into a sour economic outlook for the summer for the city of Omaha. And it does disturb me quite a bit.”

UNO Economics Professor Chris Decker

Mayor Jean Stothert said whatever the impact, it looks grim for the city budget, 41% of which comes from sales tax.

“We’re looking at, I don’t even want to say it at this time because it’s so high what we’re predicting at this time,” she said at an April 3 press conference. “Multiples of tens of millions of shortfall in the city budget.”

Understanding the total impact will likely be the mission of economists like Decker come fall. For right now, his assumption is the economy and job growth won’t start to recover until August or September. By then, he’s optimistic there will be a sharp recovery to match the deep plunge.

But even Decker admits the situation often changes dramatically and constantly challenges his expectations.

“Under the current circumstances, we are in uncharted territory,” he said.

At the state level, the pandemic disrupted a legislative session already jammed with controversial bills. It’s opened the need to reassess the state budget and future forecasts, said Renee Fry, executive director of the nonpartisan think tank Open Sky Policy Institute.

“We’re going to have a significant shortfall,” Fry said.

Others analyze the ways this may change work as we know it. Jobs in restaurants and hospitality were the first to go when the spread of coronavirus halted events and locked people indoors.

As the economy improves, those people will likely be the last to get their jobs back, said Patricia Meglich, an associate professor of management in the College of Business at UNO. That may lead to big changes in what jobs we train people for. Meglich said those present deficiencies go hand in hand with gaps we’re seeing in social supports and other overwhelmed systems.

“All these things are right there, and we can’t ignore that,” Meglich said. “I imagine there will be major regrouping in every aspect of society when we’re all done.”

Just the Way Dundee is

Over the weeks, Molly Romero, 77, co-owner of Marks, felt the whiplash just like every other business owner. But she thought just as much about her employees who told her they weren’t sure unemployment benefits would be enough to cover their bills.

What about the regulars who patronized the restaurants often and generously? Maybe they’d lend a helping hand, she thought.

“I didn’t have any expectations,” Romero said of a relief fund she helped set up which is a collaboration between the Dundee Merchants Association and the Dundee Memorial Park Association. “It was, ‘Let’s give it a go and see what happens.’”

Since March 19, they raised enough so far to give 178 employees and Dundee residents a series of at least three $100 biweekly checks with the first going out on March 30. They established the fund before the federal government added an extra $600 to unemployment benefits, but it was still crucial in offering immediate relief and keeping it in the community. 

Romero said while it might not seem like much, $100 can make a difference at a time like this. And, more than anything, it shows the community has hourly wage workers’ backs.

About 65 donations came through the Dundee Memorial Park Association’s website. Sara Nelson, one of its co-presidents, who is also a nurse in a COVID intensive care unit, said she has been blown away by people’s generosity. Those contributions averaged around $100, Nelson said. Dundee Bank and Steve Buchanan, who owns the Bucky’s on 50th Street and Underwood Avenue, donated $5,000, while the Sherwood Foundation gave $10,000.

The support didn’t surprise Romero. That’s just the way Dundee seems to be, she said.

“I guess we just have very special people here,” she said. “Dundee is a community; it’s not just a place where people live.”

At Dundee Bank, President Jeff Royal said his team has worked non-stop processing loans mostly for the paycheck protection program introduced in the federal stimulus package. So far, he said they’ve processed 168 loans totaling $28.7 million to help businesses all over, including those up and down Underwood.

“Dundee is a community; it’s not just a place where people live.”

Molly Romero, co-owner of Marks

Those loans will tide over many owners, but there’s also no denying serious challenges still lie ahead. Most small businesses fail within the first five years, and owners like McClellan expect this will accelerate that process.

“It’s a little bit like a population of organisms, and the climate has changed dramatically,” he said. “The weak ones are going to die. Those that can adapt will.”

Last year, Leigh Neary, 36, opened Exist Green, a zero-waste market and eco boutique. Coronavirus erased all her work building up a client base for her niche products, dropping sales back to where they were when she started.

Cars wait for curbside pickup outside Hoppy Taco and the Dundee Dell on April 8, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.

But Neary said her experience might be different. She owns her building, and as a small grocery, her products are still in demand by the neighborhood regulars.

CRAFT Salon co-owner Zeb Ratcliff opened his doors almost three years ago. Closing them on March 18 and sending home his team of hairdressers was one of the hardest decisions he’s made, but they’ll all be back. Ratcliff said sales from hair products on their expanded website have brought in dollars. But it’s the savings they set aside, as well as having bills paid through May, that’s shielding them from the brunt of this economic shock.

That’s not the reality for most businesses in his industry, Ratcliff said. But it may be something those who survive will consider more.

“It’s just figuring out how we can navigate through these times,” he said, “and innovate afterwards to continue to build a business and have it be sustainable in times like these.”

The Other Side

The approach among businesses from 49th to 51st streets is similar: focused on surviving day by day, but confident they’ll see the pandemic through.

In addition to trying to find different ways to run their businesses, they’re spending hours hunched over laptops learning about loan opportunities the same way many other Americans are.

And some are more poised to tackle the coming months than others. Having decades in the business helps, as do business partners with experience in finance. Whether you own your building or have a landlord, and whether that landlord is flexible or inflexible.

But nothing guarantees safety.

Even those confident their business will weather the storm wonder what lasting effects there will be. Will we be able to unlearn the artificial norms of social distancing and engage in the community the same way we used to?

Most are optimistic and think business could come back stronger than ever because by then it’ll be summer and people will hunger for their old haunts, including those in Dundee.

“[My business] is not going to increase because they want coffee,” McClellan said. “They’ll want to do it to patronize local business.”

Molly Romero says these tulips “show the spirit of Dundee.” Planted by volunteers in anticipation of spring, to her their bloom during this uncertain time offers a metaphor for hope. Picture taken April 8, 2020 by Chris Bowling.

But McClellan, who’s quick to second-guess and express skepticism at any prediction for coronavirus, knows that’s still just a hope.

At Scout, Newell doesn’t know what the future holds for the storefront she’s owned since 2008. But she’s reminded of moments like September 11 when the whole country felt intense fear, sadness and uncertainty, when she was a college student waiting tables and lost her income overnight.

Back then she sold plasma and did freelance graphic design to get by. Nearly two decades later, Newell feels like she’s in a similar place — only now she has the responsibility of a business, employees and three kids aged 15, 9 and 6. But, like so many other business owners, quitting is not an option.

All that’s conceivable is living day by day, trying to stay afloat until the day the clouds break and the neighborhood fills the streets and sidewalks of Dundee once again.

That idea, however abstract it seems now, is what keeps people going.

“We look forward to the new normal on the other side,” Newell said, “whenever that will be.”


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