Amid reopening, islanders explore new ways of doing business
— Created May 20, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kacie Jo Voeller
From restaurants to retailers, Whidbey Island businesses have made many changes in the wake of COVID-19. Adaptations have ranged from temporary closures to online ordering on the island and beyond. Now, the time has come for the state to begin reopening in four phases through the “Safe Start” program, as outlined by the state and Governor Jay Inslee.
Robyn Kolaitis, owner of Whidbey Party Store in Oak Harbor, said while the store was able to reopen May 4, the first phase of reopening has presented challenges as the store launched a website and curbside services.
“I just had to put a website up now and I still probably only have not even a quarter of our products online yet, so it has been very difficult,” she said.
In preparation for the second phase of the state’s reopening of nonessential businesses, Kolaitis said the store has been cleaning extensively.
“We are doing a complete cleaning of the store and we put up plexiglass and we are all wearing our masks and staying up to date on cleaning,” she said. “And that is pretty much all we can do, (and) trying to keep social distancing.”
Kolaitis said there has been some ambiguity for retail stores in what exactly needs to be done in each reopening phase.
“The governor has not been super clear on what he expects from us as small businesses,” she said. “We are just doing the best we can.”
Tyler Hansen, chef and owner at The Oystercatcher in Coupeville, said adapting to take-out only has brought its challenges for the restaurant. He said the Little Red Hen Bakery and The Oystercatcher combined efforts to make a single online ordering system, with orders being taken until 11:30 p.m. on Thursday for Saturday pickup at The Oystercatcher.
“For us the major challenge has been keeping all of the orders organized and getting them packaged,” he said. “We have essentially consolidated a week’s worth of business into one day, and we have to coordinate food being prepared in our kitchen, production bakery, and retail bakery spaces. On a typical Saturday we have over 150 orders, containing more than 800 individual items.”
Hansen said typically businesses have more time to plan for these kinds of changes, which was not the case in the current situation.
“Usually when you are changing a major aspect of your business you have months to plan and strategize,” he said. “In this case we had days. But like anything else, with perseverance you can make it work, and I am glad to see that our model and the models of other restaurants around the world are being adopted and adapted by many of our amazing restaurants on the island.”
While some restaurants plan to bring back dine-in services in the coming weeks, pending a successful first phase of reopening, Hansen said The Oystercatcher will continue take-out service for the time being and will plan to reopen July 1 at the earliest. Starting Saturday, the Little Red Hen Bakery will be open for walk-up window service on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We believe that the situation is still too dangerous to start allowing the public back into our space, and I think the public feels the same way,” he said. “We have seen all over the country, and world, that when places start to reopen for dine-in service, the business just isn’t there. Even if the state governments say it is okay to go out, people just are not ready to return to life as normal and interact in confined spaces.”
Hansen said even in the face of adversity, the restaurants of Whidbey Island have found ways to overcome current challenges.
“We have an extremely strong, resilient, and most importantly, cooperative restaurant community here on Whidbey,” he said. “Sara (Hansen’s wife and co-owner of the restaurant) and I have spoken with many of the chefs and restaurateurs on the island, and we have been able to share our experiences with them and they have done the same for us. The more we work together, the better off we will all be at the end.”
For businesses throughout Coupeville, another opportunity for an online way of doing business is in the works. Lynda Eccles, executive director of the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce, said the new virtual shopping platform, Explore Coupeville (https://explorecoupeville.com/), will showcase a selection of what local businesses have to offer and allow for online purchases. In the future, she said the chamber hopes to include lodging promotions, Restaurant Week and even a virtual Christmas Market.
“The goal is to support our local businesses to be able to sell items online while they are closed,” she said. “It complements their website and is another way for us to promote their business. It is not a limited time platform.”
Eccles said the chamber has been busy providing businesses with connections to resources and updates on available funds, as well as holding virtual meetings.
“Our support won’t go away once they are given the green light to open their doors once again. We know it will be a slow start so we will continue with Explore Coupeville and promoting Coupeville,” she said. “We have to do our best to help them get through this in any way we can.”
Eccles said although business will look different than normal as reopening continues, she believes Whidbey Island residents will make an effort to continue supporting the local economy.
“Of course it will be different, there are a number of restrictions that require major changes to be made, but I believe strongly in the fact that Coupeville residents will support the restaurants and will greet their reopening with support and appreciation for what they have done to keep open with pick-up and take-out over these last few months,” she said. “It is the first stage in getting back to a new normal; it will be met with a sense of relief, maybe a little trepidation, but if we all follow the rules and act accordingly, it will be embraced.”
Eccles said businesses have been forced to adapt, but continue to overcome.
“I believe this has forced us into making changes in our daily lives that we never expected. It has taught us to be innovative and to make unexpected changes,” she said. “Explore Coupeville is an example of one of those changes and to be innovative to find ways to support our community. I was reading a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently, which said, ‘At times of crisis like this, we see innovation flourish.’ I see that in our business owners in Coupeville as we start planning for the next phase.”
For more information on Washington’s Safe Start program, visit https://coronavirus.wa.gov/what-you-need-know/safe-start.