Businesses on Delmar Loop adapt to changing landscape; WU community helps keep doors open

| News Editor

Local businesses on the Delmar Loop have faced a variety of unique challenges over the past year, from mandatory shutdowns in March to a closure of indoor dining in St. Louis County in November. The spread of COVID-19 and frequently changing guidelines have contributed to the difficulties that small businesses have grappled with over the past year.

Curran Neenan

Restaurants have faced some of the largest hurdles to safely reopen. Several Loop restaurant owners, including Joe Edwards, owner of Peacock Loop Diner, Blueberry Hill and Pin Up Bowl, had to physically change how their spaces were operating.

Edwards mentioned spending a considerable sum of money to fund safety features at Blueberry Hill, including raising booth divider heights and installing hand sanitizer stations. Similarly, Mission Taco adapted the waiting area at their Delmar location to allow guests space to wait for their table outside.

Jen Kaslow, owner of Meshuggah Cafe, noted that University City allowed the cafe to extend the patio seating into parking spots to allow for more tables, which helped morale and business.

“It was really sad at the beginning because the whole reason for the coffee shop is to be a community gathering place and so to not have that community was really sad for all of us,” she said. “But then once [we transitioned to outdoors], we sort of got back our community even though it was outside.”

Many small businesses like Meshuggah were forced to pivot their business models throughout the year. For Kaslow and her cafe, the transition to online ordering was a major change.

“I, to be honest, never even answered my phone because the focus for the coffee shop is just about the community,” Kaslow said. “I don’t really want to have an online presence…but zero chance we were going to survive under that model, so we had to switch to online ordering and figure out how to navigate that.”

Similar to Meshuggah, Subterranean Books was forced to make some adjustments to its business model. Owner Kelly von Plonski said that the need to constantly adapt to changing COVID-19 restrictions was the biggest challenge for her business during the pandemic.

“As soon as you figure out one thing, things change and you have to quickly come up with something else and put new systems in place and fine-tune those systems,” von Plonski said. “So by this point everything is fine-tuned, but it takes a while and we definitely have appreciated our customers’ patience in working with us as we work through constant adaptations.”

Curran Neenan

Despite the challenges, both Kaslow and von Plonski praised the regional support from the Washington University community and local residents. Von Plonski described how University students have contributed revenue to the store, but academic departments at the University have created a lasting relationship. Subterranean Books has carried coursebooks for over fifteen years for classes at the University, most of them in the English Department. The bookstore’s website even has a dedicated section for coursebooks at the University that is frequently updated.

“The professors and instructors, the University, particularly the English Department has really also reached out and given us a lot of support over [this] semester,” von Plonski said. “There are a lot of University-specific orders that people placed with us, not just individuals, but through the department, and that was really nice.”

Similarly, Kaslow at Meshuggah expressed her gratitude to the loyal University students who dine outside the café or pick up orders. A recent promotion of a buy one get one free breakfast bagel during the first week of classes for students was meant to show her and the staff’s appreciation for their support.

“The Wash. U. students have been amazing and we talk about it all the time,” Kaslow said. “The group of customers, the Wash. U. students, that we’ve had through this has been so lovely, so patient, so understanding and really loyal, and it’s been an amazing experience…You really have no idea the impact on the business it has. It really gives another employee a job.”

Besides dining in at a restaurant or cafe, several Loop business owners also noted the importance of following virus precautions. Edwards mentioned that local residents, University students and faculty have been respectful of COVID-19 guidelines thus far, while Mission Taco co-owner Adam Tilford encouraged the whole community to follow safety guidelines and added that supporting businesses from a distance is also an option.

“The biggest thing that the St. Louis community can do is to wear masks, social distance and slow the spread of the virus,” Tilford said in a statement to Student Life. “Try dining during off-peak hours when dining rooms are at their lowest capacity. If you don’t feel comfortable dining in, we also appreciate support for carry out and even picking up gift cards to use at a later date.”

A report conducted by Yelp found that over 160,000 small businesses had closed between April and Sept. of 2020, 60% of which permanently closed their doors. Von Plonski and Edwards both emphasized how supporting local businesses can help vitalize one’s community.

“We fully recognize that there are lots of options out there and appreciate when people do choose to shop with us,” Von Plonski said. “Whether it’s online, over the phone, in person, however they want to do it because that money truly does go back into the St. Louis community…not to mention, it literally puts food on our table.”

“I think supporting the independent businesses that thrive in the Loop under normal conditions, anyway, is really important,” Edwards said. “The more they can enjoy buying right in person and not online, that’ll support all these businesses and the street will thrive and be vibrant.”

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