NEWARK — Main Street, once bustling with families, students, food, music, community and life, became a ghost town over the course of the pandemic. Business after business closed its doors, leaving nothing but a “space available” sign in the window.
However, the return of thousands of University of Delaware students also brings a boom of business back to the Newark economy, and there are several new storefronts to discover.
At the top of the stairs at 64 E. Main St. sits the Little French Café, owned by Martha Barrier. She has several years under her belt as a French language teacher and many memories of her travels to France. She said she and her husband had been thinking about starting a business for a while, and finally opened their doors in June.
“We came in during the summer so that helped us to get familiar with the locals, and for them to get familiar with us,” Ms. Barrier said. “They’ve been a huge support. So now, we’re just transitioning to handling all the students and hopefully they stay too.”
The Little French Café serves espresso drinks and drip coffee, sandwiches, crepes, pastries and more. Ms. Barrier said that the week that classes started at UD was tough, but she’s glad to have the business.
“What’s difficult is trying to gauge how many staff you need when you don’t know what the highs and lows of the days are yet,” she said. “So it will probably take us a few weeks to get used to that.”
Main Street’s newest addition opened its doors on Aug. 24 and is located at 108 E. Main St. Co-owner of Rooted, Betsy Beehler, started her gift shop business seven years ago in New London, Pennsylvania. When looking for a location for a second shop, she said she felt Main Street had a need for a shop like Rooted.
“We primarily feature local artists and local food and there a lot of things that are handmade,” she said. “It’s important for us to look for things made by women-owned or minority-owned businesses too.”
Some of those businesses include Northern Roots jewelry, Olive Brand Candle Co., Second Spring Naturals and an assortment of books by local authors. Their food section carries Woodside Creamery ice cream, Little Goat coffee and Chesapeake Gold cheeses.
Ms. Beehler said their first week open, the shop was mainly filled with curious passersby, but when students returned the last week in August, she saw a lot of students coming in to make purchases.
“We do a lot of community events (at our other location) and we’re going to try to do something similar here,” she said. “We’ve already worked a little bit with the Fashion Merchandising department at UD. We reached out to them and asked them about employing people from that major.”
Ms. Beehler said they’re also looking to work with art students to feature their work in the store.
Students and locals returning to Main Street will still find old favorites amongst the fresh shopfronts.
Newark Deli and Bagels is still kicking at the top of Main Street. During the pandemic, they had to cut staff hours and reduce their menu, suspending items like roast beef, prosciutto, low fat cream cheese, and some coffee flavors like hazelnut and caramel.
William Cardenas, whose parents own the shop, said without the help of a GoFundMe and grants from the Delaware Small Business Administration, he’s not sure they would have made it through.
“At the moment we are not returning some of the items back to the menu,” he said. “While eventually I think we will add everything back, right now it would just be money sitting on the shelves that at the moment need to be put elsewhere.”
NDB did not let go of any staff, but some did choose to leave to make up for lost hours. Mr. Cardenas said they recently hired some students to help with the spike in business. The return of UD students to Newark has been a relief to the Cardenas family, but Mr. Cardenas said the threat of another closure should COVID-19 cases rise would be devastating.
“It would be horrible for everyone in this town,” he said. “If the state puts in a mask mandate then we will 100% enforce those rules again and we are willing to adjust precautions and our guidelines for workers and customers. I would rather feel stressed because of a long line rather than having no customers.”
Little Goat Coffee Roasting closed for six weeks in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, only fulfilling online orders and pre-ordered bottled drinks. Co-owner of Little Goat Coffee, Olivia Brinton, said she was able to keep all of her staff on payroll since they all agreed to a 40% pay cut and were scheduled just one or two days a week.
“I asked them what they wanted to do, and they all preferred to work,” Ms. Brinton said. “But once we opened the take-out window, everyone was back to 100% (of their salary.) And a few months ago before we opened back up to the public, the majority of my staff was getting promotions and raises.”
For over a year, the shop operated only through a take-out window on the porch. Ms. Brinton said having the store to themselves gave her staff peace of mind in a time of uncertainty.
“I had customers who told me that Little Goat was the only place that they felt safe coming to because of the precautions we took with the takeout window,” she said. “It was just a nice way for us to feel like we were doing everything we could, and still remain open and serve our community.”
Although the time of the takeout window has come to an end, Ms. Brinton said she is prepared to revert back to it should COVID-19 cases get out of control. Ms. Brinton said she works to empower her staff and give them a sense of ownership over the business and let them know they are valued.
“They’re not just this expendable thing,” she said. “It’s really stressful to manage a crowd of people who have sort of a blatant disregard for COVID precautions. It’s nerve wracking.”
There are currently no emergency gathering ordinances in Newark, but if positive rates reach the six percent threshold, Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton said those limits will come back. The bill passed last August ahead of the school year limited indoor gatherings to 12 people and outdoor gatherings to 20 people.
“I think that the university is taking prudent measures to do as much as they can to assure that we don’t have another shutdown,” Mayor Clifton said. “I think it is widely recognized at UD that what they do doesn’t just have ripple effects through the community, [UD] shutting down is a tsunami in the community.”
Mayor Clifton said he is looking forward to having so many students back in town because they are the “economic development engine.”
“The businesses on Main Street are cognizant of the fact that they’re going to have that gap every summer [when the students leave,]” he said. “But with COVID shutting down the university, it was huge. There was a lot of revenue loss just from the students… It’s been a real struggle.”
In the students’ absence, Newark’s linchpin was Al Fresco dining night on Wednesdays.
“Even today, there are people in Newark who really don’t want to dine indoors,” Mayor Clifton said. “Restaurant owners have confirmed that people prefer the alfresco dining, and there are businesses in some cases that were doing two to three times the business on a Wednesday night than they were doing on an average Friday or Saturday night.”
Ms. Brinton said that the pandemic did open other doors for Little Goat Coffee. They picked up new wholesale accounts with companies such as Aramark, the food supplier for UD, and grocery stores that buy their bags of coffee to resell picked up 250% of what they were normally ordering.
Little Goat Coffee was also awarded a small business grant from WSFS Bank. Ms. Brinton said a regular customer nominated the coffee shop for the sacrifices they made and precautions they took during the pandemic to keep customers and employees safe.
Ms. Brinton will also be joining the numerous new business owners on Main Street with her own new shop called the Peach Blossom, a brunch diner with locally sourced ingredients that she anticipates will open in late October. She said it’s unique because it is designed to be flipped into a takeout only business if necessary.
“(Peach Blossom) has been born out of the inspiring feedback and support from the community that we’ve had over the last year and a half,” Ms. Brinton said. “I think that I was ready to take another risk and give Newark something that it was lacking, which is an old school, counter style service breakfast and lunch place.”
Ms. Brinton said it was sad to walk down Main Street and see how many businesses had closed, so she wanted to open something that would thrive when students returned.
Several other spaces on Main Street are turning their “space available” signs, to “coming soon.” Hamilton’s on Main, Oishii Sushi and Ramen, 2SP Brewing Company and Two Stones Pub and Five Guys are all soon to open in Newark.