Nearly two years into the pandemic, supply chain and labor shortages along with other consequences of the pandemic have created a perfect storm for some Watertown businesses, while others thrive.
Both the city and the Chamber of Commerce provided support to local businesses through the distribution of stimulus funds as well as information regarding government assistance programs and current government policy. In total, the City of Watertown sent more than $160,000 in room checks to residents to use to support local businesses in the community. The city has also launched the Watertown Economic Development Authority’s Pandemic Business Reduction Program to help businesses with facilities.
Watertown restaurants in particular have taken advantage of room checks. The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and although many people are eating out again, restaurants are still struggling.
Food costs are up 35 percent lowering the profit margin, notes Mario Cortolizes, owner of Mario Italian Kitchen and South Fork Barbecue.
“Every week you place an order and hope they don’t come out and that the price hasn’t tripled,” he said. “Last year a cup of coffee was 25-30 cents, now it’s $1.20 to $1.30. I always try to look for better prices because people don’t want to pay more for the same cup of coffee, but it’s very hard.”
Cortolezzis is also grappling with an ongoing labor shortage. Many of his employees are high school students, but are restricted in what they can do because they cannot serve alcohol. Moreover, in a small town, one can only raise wages so much to keep up with rising demand and inflation, Kurtolzizis explains. Cortolezzis opened a second restaurant, South Fork BBQ, at the start of the pandemic and had to close temporarily, as two restaurants became too much to run. He hopes to reopen South Fork BBQ in the next few weeks. In the meantime, Layali offers a surprising menu and live music to draw people in to Mario.
On the other hand, the pandemic has boosted grocery sales.
“More people are eating at home and shopping locally than they were before the pandemic,” said Jim May, owner of Marketplace Foods. “As a result, we have been able to continue to grow the business and offer more options.”
However, Marketplace Foods is also struggling with supply chain issues and rising costs.
“We get about 80 percent of what we’re asking for now,” May said. “At the beginning of the epidemic we had a shortage of bread supplies, now it’s very random. Lately it’s been pet food and pop and some Frito-Lay products and specialty foods.”
He has indicated that wholesale costs are rising in general as well. “I’ve been in this field on and off since I was 16 and have never seen it this bad before,” he said.
Pharmacies have also performed well during the pandemic period and played an important role. Recently, Watertown Pharmacy was named Chamber of Business of the Year to deliver immunizations and work hard throughout the pandemic to make sure residents have access to their medication.
The pharmacy has provided nearly 9,000 vaccines to Watertown residents as well as to people from surrounding communities, according to Watertown Pharmacy owner Rose Rosdale. She said mobilizing the vaccine required hiring and training more staff to manage the shots along with creating the vaccine scheduling feature on the site, which was brand new.
In addition to the Chamber Business of the Year award, Chamber President Kyle Jarvis was recently named Chamber of the Year for his efforts in bridging the communication gap between government agencies and Chamber companies. During the height of the pandemic, Jarvis would send emails to room members several times a week, putting information in general terms and giving companies information about programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Emergency Disaster Loan Program (EIDL). According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 3,407 Carver County businesses have benefited from the PPP program.
Despite all the challenges, Watertown companies have found ways to adapt and stay open.
“We are fortunate that the city has not lost a single business over the past two years, thanks to the support of the entire community,” Jarvis said. The Watertown companies intend to keep moving forward and look forward to brighter days ahead.
“At the end of the day, we’re paying our bills and our employees, and that’s the most important thing,” Cortolezzis said.