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Desperation grows for restaurants, retail as recovery in sight

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“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

That’s how Dominic Marino, general manager of Gallucio’s Italian Restaurant, recalled his decision this week to dress as Santa Claus and walk the streets near his Trolley Square-area business to drum up some attention from prospective customers.

A small business, Gallucio's, in Wilmington

General manager Dominic Marino and chef Julio Tapia wear face masks while working at Gallucio’s Italian Restaurant in Wilmington on May 14. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The days at the restaurant are a hit-or-miss experience due to state-imposed limitations to takeout or delivery service only, Marino said. On Mondays, it’s common for the restaurant to ring up only $200 in total sales.

“If we don’t open up soon, we will be forced to shut our doors permanently,” he said.

Marino isn’t alone.

With Delaware’s economy still largely shutdown amid the spread of the COVID-19 virus, many small business owners in the state are growing weary of the lack of customers and fearing that their doors may never reopen.

A late April survey of 285 Delaware businesses found that one in four believed they only had enough cash to last another four weeks and more than 80% of respondents reported declining revenues. Workers have already suffered, with the survey by the state’s economic development agency Delaware Prosperity Partnership (DPP) and the state’s chambers of commerce finding that 1,900 workers had been furloughed, laid off or terminated by respondents amid the pandemic, accounting for about 17% of their total workforces.

Gov. John Carney has faced increasing public pressure to begin easing restrictions on businesses as the lockdown lingers on. This month, he has opened Delaware’s public beaches, community pools, ice cream shops, and salons and barbershops under strict limitations, but many of those hit hardest, including restaurants, small retail shops and hotels, are still waiting for significant help.

On Friday, the governor gave them some light at the end of the tunnel, signaling that restaurants and retail will be able to reopen June 1 under his Phase 1 plan, but under only 30% capacity and with significant social distancing. Restaurants will also be only able to offer service by reservation.

While many businesses will cheer the return of some customers, it remains to be seen whether the diminished allowable levels, or even consumers’ willingness once reopened, will keep them from shutting their doors for good. That help is also still two weeks away.

In a May 6 town hall, Colleen Morrone, president and CEO of Goodwill Delaware & Delaware County, noted that while secondhand merchandise shops were included under the recent curbside pickup concession, it wouldn’t help their operation as stock is in constant flux with donations.

“I think just in the past few weeks we’ve filled up probably 15 trailers of donations that we don’t have any ability to sell. Each one of those trailers is a cost to us to rent on a monthly basis,” she said, noting that Goodwills in other states that have reopened have seen “unbelievable demand.”

John Wakim, who owns tobacco shops in Wilmington and New Castle, also said curbside service didn’t help his businesses as all customers stop in quickly.

“The average customer takes two minutes to come in, get what they want and pay,” he said, noting he would be willing to limit the number of customers in his stores. “We’re really suffering.”

Meanwhile, small shop owners like Lauren Helme, owner of Found Antiques in Centerville, noted the disparity between boutique and big-box in the regulations, questioning how a stores like Walmart with thousands of customers each day was less of a public health threat than her shop which might see 10.

“Having our shops closed any longer is a gross hardship for us financially and being open is not a threat to the public health,” she said. “Although I understand the broader scope of what you’re doing, it doesn’t apply to us and somehow we need to figure out how to make that work.”

Gallucio’s Marino estimated that his current sales are about 30% of his typical average, and as a result he’s been able to keep only five of his 20 workers on staff. On days when customers are sparse, he’s cleaned the establishment and measured it out to plan for how 8-foot spaces could be provided between tables.

Marino said the days of negotiating with suppliers, seeking customers and reading the never-ending wave of updates are wearing on him. The staff has turned to some dark humor to keep their spirits up, dressing a plastic skeleton at the restaurant’s bar with a sign reading, “Dying for a drink.”

“It’s tough right now, we’re just trying to survive,” he said.

By Jacob Owens


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