On Wednesday, the day after Hurricane Sandy tore through Manhattan, the usually bustling Whole Foods in Union Square was closed. The nearby Starbucks and McDonald’s had both locked their doors. But down the street, Coffee Shop, a diner and bar, was open for business. A server dressed as a pirate greeted customers at the door, where strains of Bach’s Air on a G String, played by a violinist and drummer, drifted onto the street.
There are many arguments for locally owned businesses: They give communities character, increase diversity of goods and tend to support other local services via something like a trickle-down effect. But the post-Sandy destruction offers a more pragmatic argument. Simply, small businesses are what manage to be open. They have the flexibility to make decisions quickly, don’t have to deal with layers of corporate bureaucracy and can build relationships with their neighborhoods. Staff is likely to live closer to work, or be part of the family.
A survey of the area of Manhattan that still doesn’t have power — generally south of 30th Street — reveals a landscape where most chain or corporate stores are closed, with no clear plans of when they might reopen. But, amid nonfunctioning traffic lights, lack of cell service and people aimlessly wandering the streets, small businesses appeared to be thriving. Their lights were off and most could only accept cash. But on street after street, these local groceries, convenience stores and even clothing stores opened to thankful customers.
Natasha Amott, owner of Whisk, a kitchenware and tabletop store, walked from her Brooklyn home to her store, on Broadway near 22nd Street. A sign out front read, “We have tea lights and votives” in green marker. The store, which had no power, was entirely dark and cold on Wednesday. But it was open.
“My main hope is to be open for cash transactions during business hours,” Amott said. She was hoping to sell not only candles but also French presses, teakettles and can openers. Eventually, she hopes to start using an application that allows her to make credit card purchases on her iPhone.
A few blocks away, Mary Forzato and Mariana Loss-Barrett sat behind a case of pastries, warming their hands over glass jars holding votive candles. The two are employees at Tarallucci e Vino, a family of three restaurants in Manhattan. They were staffing the to-go window, which despite lacking electricity and cell service held chocolate-covered pastries and mini sandwiches.
“We have a lot of regulars and neighborhood people who want coffee, so we’re helping them out,” Loss-Barrett said. “Customers are so thankful. It’s unbelievable.” The employees from the restaurant’s Upper West Side location drove the hot coffee — apparently an in-demand commodity in the area — to the to-go location.
Some businesses were showing an uncommon level of trust. At Modern Gourmet, a small grocery store and deli, a steady chain of customers came in to purchase batteries, water, snacks and even firewood. Co-owner Son Cho was keeping track of frequent customers’ purchases, since she could only accept cash. They’d come back later and pay when they could, she said. “Sometimes you take a chance,” she said. “We have people in this neighborhood who come here every day, and I think it builds a relationship.”
At work inside a dark and cold Whisk. Credit: Corrine Ramey
There were exceptions. Above 30th Street, where most places had power, chain stores had either opened or had signs on the windows saying they’d be opening later that day. The Upper West Side Apple Store planned to open at noon to limited customers who had emergencies with communication devices. At the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle, there was a long line to even enter the store. In the area south of 30th Street, a lone 7-Eleven was open.
“We’re a corporation, but we can open if we want,” said Colin Simpson, the 7-Eleven’s store manager. The enthusiastic staff had stayed in a hotel room overnight, and had reams of paper where they’d kept track of purchases during the storm.
To be clear, this is not to say that small businesses benefitted from Hurricane Sandy. While the storm may help some sectors of the economy, like construction, it’s unlikely to help small Manhattan retailers. The extra customers that they might receive when chains are closed doesn’t make up for the lost revenue of unexpected holidays or spoiled food due to lack of electricity. And unlike large corporations, losses from one store won’t just get absorbed into a larger company.
Amott, of Whisk, said her store had had zero sales on Monday and Tuesday. “It really bites,” she said. Cho, from Modern Gourmet, said her grocery had to throw out all the refrigerated food like prepared deli foods, milk, meat and ice cream. “It’s definitely no good.”
But people are thankful, Cho said. “You know how New Yorkers are New Yorkers?” she said. “Yesterday they were so nice and patient. They were really happy we stayed open.”