Crisis is said to showcase both character and community.
Here in South Pasadena, residents and business owners — sometimes both — have demonstrably used their character to build community as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes it increasingly difficult to live any part of life as we normally have. The county’s order for nonessential businesses to close doors has largely shut down much of the city’s commercial area, and those that remain open operate under limiting guidelines. Grocery outlets are enforcing their own social distancing rules and restaurants can only offer takeout or delivery service.
Michelle Hammond, owner of Munch Co. on Mission Street, wanted to include her now-closed neighbors in on the loop. When customers order from Hammond’s shop, they are not only given the option of adding a few kitchen staples — butter, bacon or eggs, for example — but they could also add a bracelet kit from Kidd’s Jewelry Heist or some beauty products from Maya Salon, among a handful of items from other local businesses on that block of Mission.
“Every couple of hours it seemed like there were new rules and we didn’t know who would be open or closed,” Hammond said, reflecting on the first week of changes prompted by the pandemic. “We don’t know when it will be over, but until then, we’re trying to get creative, help each other out and make it work whichever way we can.”
Hammond, who has owned Munch for three years, said she has stayed in touch with her neighboring business owners — who largely have been forced to close indefinitely — and is hoping to help keep them afloat by marketing their products alongside her own. Leading into Easter, one could add an Easter basket from Dinosaur Farm onto their turkey brie and fig sandwich lunch order. Other involved shops include Dual Crossroads, Further Product, Christy at Caring Rose, Retreat and Handle and Gift.
“We all definitely are looking out for one another and that really does help you get you through these times, people checking in and seeing how we can help each other out,” Hammond said. “We’re all doing it. The more our community can stick together, the better chance we have of making it through.
“It helps with cross promotion, too, because they’re also putting out on social media that you can find these things at my place, so it helps get some reach for me,” she added. “I think it helps the community feel better about where they’re spending their money, too.”
Nearby, at the corner of El Centro Street and Fremont Avenue, Fiore Market Café, too, is chugging along thanks to takeout orders and local support. Bill Disselhorst, who has owned Fiore for a decade, admitted he did not have to add to or change his menu much.
“People know what I have, so they’re coming for the same things they’ve always come for,” he said. “My business is nowhere near normal, but it’s not bad to be honest with you. I’m at about 75%.”
Disselhorst said he makes it easy for his customers. Every day, he posts to the shop’s Instagram page a picture of his freshly baked good with the day’s menu of sandwiches, bread and pastries as the caption. He always asks to call in orders after 11 a.m. and that payments be made over Venmo, the popular mobile payment app. Call-in orders are bagged, tagged and placed on a table outside for pickup.
“There’s completely no contact,” Disselhorst said.
One of South Pasadena’s longtime mainstays in Gus’s BBQ also remains open, with a scaled down carryout menu. Co-owner John Bicos explained last week how the main restaurant, which has closed its sister locations, reorganized its entrance area for takeout service.
“We’ve just altered our operation so you can no longer step into the restaurant,” Bicos said. “We have stations spread with and a very sanitized experience for our customers. We’re just trying to make it as comfortable for the guests as we can.”
The menu at Gus’s was simplified to all of the barbecue offerings — “Because that’s obviously our bestseller,” Bicos said — and a handful of sandwiches and appetizers. Eventually, they began making and bottling their signature drinks — such as the sangria or old fashioned — that can be ordered to-go.
“It’s just convenient,” Bicos added. “You’re coming to pick up dinner for your family, so why not grab a bottle of wine? Every week, we’re trying to tweak our operation to try to see if we can add something that the community needs.”
Much as the city’s Chamber of Commerce has encouraged locals to buy and eat local (especially now), the proprietors also make a point to support each other. Hammond was buying bread at Fiore the day its owner, Disselhorst, was discussing how business was going.
“The thing that’s impressed me the most is the women business owners,” Disselhorst added. “They’ve been the strongest, most creative and most determined — all of them — to make their businesses go.”
Bicos added that it’s in the nature of mom-and-pop eateries to be adaptive on the fly.
“Family restaurants are pretty scrappy,” he said. “It’s notoriously a low-margin business, so people who own and operate restaurants are always looking at a way to increase quality and increase profits at the same time, and all of this really just puts it to the test.”