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Michiana businesses show resilience amid economic uncertainty

Zen Cafe\'s Hill Street location is closed to in-person coffee lovers for the time being. (Photo provided)


SOUTH BEND, Ind.—As Michiana is asked to hunker down at home while communities work to slow the spread of COVID-19, local businesses are coming together and keeping their doors open in new ways, revealing a unique resilience in the face of economic uncertainty.

On Saturday, Zen Café announced that its original Lang Lab location would permanently close thanks to the success of their new location in downtown South Bend at 530 E. LaSalle, which is dubbed “The Hill Street Location” thanks to where the entrance is.

The shift in business focus will allow Lang Lab operations to be spent on roasting production while the café experience will be promoted at the Hill Street location.

In December, Zen Café owner Shaun Maeyens said the coffee shop and roaster had gotten too busy, therefore, they were launching their second iteration of the popular coffee spot.

The Hill Street location was meant to have more comfortable seating than the original location, increasing the capacity of sit-in customers, café manager Tyler Sutch said at the time.

On Wednesday, days after the state-wide mandate forcing bars and restaurants to close to dine-in customers was enacted by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, the seats on Hill Street were empty.

Zen Cafe's Hill Street location on Wednesday, March 18 (Photo provided)

Zen Cafe's Hill Street location on Wednesday, March 18 (Photo provided)

Zen Cafe's Hill Street location on Wednesday, March 18 (Photo provided)

“All of those nice cozy seats don’t really matter much at the moment. We’ve had to end any “dine-in” options. We’ve transitioned completely to to-go orders at the cafe. Lucky for us that means we only had to drop one menu item,” Sutch said on Thursday, adding that due to the mandate, they’ve had to dramatically reduce hours and labor at the café.

Sutch said Zen Café is also offering special deals on bags of coffee and offering free cups of coffee with café pickup options.

“We are trying to drive more sales online. We’re confident that we’ll be able to weather this but like all hospitality businesses, we run on razor thin margins,” Sutch said. “Our primary focus is making sure we all have jobs at the end of this. In the meantime, something as simple as dropping in for a cup of coffee and leaving a few bucks in the jar for the person behind the bar is something we can all do to help our friends weather this.”

Zen Café is just one of the many Michiana businesses to exhibit a type of resilience that evolves in communities during times of uncertainty and challenge.

Elsewhere, acts of kindness throughout the business community have been shared on social media, in the news, and with one another in passing as many Hoosiers and Michiganders look for glimpses of hope and good news during the pandemic.

Brain Lair Bookstore owner Kathy Burnette decided to take her author readings online. The bookstore has been hosting readings on its Youtube page and is planning to host one per week over the next few weeks, even bringing the voices of the books' actual authors into the experience.

“If people have questions about the stories, at the end of the week, the author will create an answer video,” Burnette said.

The decision to head online to share her favorite stories came after Burnette said she could not find much out there for older kids.

“You see a lot of authors, educators, etc. reading picture books, so I wanted to do something additional,” Burnette said. “I also miss reading to the kids. These are books I love”

Burnette made the decision to close her store to shoppers, but is offering curbside pickup and delivery options for books.

Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend said Tuesday that it will open its doors to seniors and immuno-comprised customers during their “at risk” shopping on Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. The store asked other customers to shop at other times of the day to give those who are more vulnerable a chance to get supplies.

The small specialty grocery store made the adjustment in the same beat as many national retail chains like Dollar General and Target to provide special shopping hours for at risk individuals.

Michiana restaurants and bars were served up a huge challenge earlier in the week when governors of both states announced the temporary halt to all dine-in services in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Local business owners and leaders came together as eateries were forced to close to in-person customers by creating a website that lists available take-out and delivery options at many South Bend mainstays.

The website, TakeOut COVID-19, encourages community members to eat local by providing restaurant and bar phone numbers, websites, and any special menus they’ve created, as well as new service options they've had to come up with.

Kevin Lawler, owner of South Bend cafe Baker & Rose, helped create the site in an effort to support the business community he belongs to.

“We are just trying to do our part to support local restaurants and their workers in any way we can,” Lawler said.

Baker & Rose, which closed its Emporium Building pop-up last year, is still planning to reopen in its new location inside of the old Dainty Maid building in a few months. They're working to adjust their plans in response to the pandemic.

Additionally, Takeout COVID-19 is hosting its first virtual community dinner on Thursday, asking that community members order their favorite local takeout and join a Google Hangout call to enjoy dinner together. You can find more information on that event here.

A Bridgman, Michigan based graphic design group used their talents to create a window cling for local businesses to put on their windows to show the community that despite their dining rooms being closed, they’re still open.

A "To Go" cling can be seen on a local business (Photo provided)

Art-Fx Signs and Graphics said it will print more of the window clings if needed (Photo provided)

“We decided to do this because restaurants are facing a very difficult time right now. With support from our communities and a bit of creativity, we are seeing restaurants adapting and trying new things that they’ve never done before,” said Art-Fx Signs and Graphics owner Doyle Rogers. “The window clings are a symbol of good will and hope, as well as a simple way to tell the community which restaurants are still open serving food to-go.”

Art-Fx Signs and Graphics designed the free removable, non-adhesive window cling for businesses that reads “To Go.” The company said it has passed out about 70 clings in less than a week and there are still more to be handed out.

Some Michiana gyms are bringing their exercises and fitness classes online, babysitters and dogwalkers are offering free services to parents who need a little extra help, and stores are providing special shopping hours for at-risk customers.

Pizza Transit created pizza kits for kids to stay entertained while at home and Bellman Oil offered free gas for nurses,.

The stories of resilience in Michiana during challenging times are endless.

While experts are saying the economic hit that small businesses will take could very well be significant, the lasting impact of the ways they step up for their communities might just last longer.

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