Local businesses speak about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Madison Abbassi and Andy Robinson

During this year of economic hardship and general upheaval for many local businesses, restaurant owners are eager to receive governmental assistance.

Mistie Cohen, the owner of Oren’s Hummus restaurants in Palo Alto and across the Bay Area, said she is still waiting for new economic aid to arrive.

Oren’s Hummus Express in Town and Country Village sits empty as the pandemic continues to ravage local businesses. According to owner Mistie Cohen, Oren’s has operated during the COVID-19 pandemic with safety precautions in place, although rapidly changing restrictions frequently complicate operations. “Things change, you can get a notice saying, ‘tomorrow you’re open on your patio, and now you’re shut down again’,” Cohen said. “I think that just being able to pull together and evolve with what we are doing operationally has been a plus for us.” Photo: Andy Robinson.

“We still haven’t received four of the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] approvals yet, so we don’t even know if we’re going to get them,” Cohen said. “We’re hoping that we will, but it’s definitely been much more difficult [to receive new aid].”

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Paycheck Protection Program is a loan that is “designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on payroll.”

In addition, Cohen said that many of her employees have been facing increased personal difficulties which she must recognize and address.

“I’ve heard from a lot of our team members that they’re being pulled apart because [there are] other people that they need to support in their family and they’re coming in exhausted and are struggling,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen, her business has implemented a multitude of measures to ensure the mental health of her employees.

“We’ve really done a lot to try to keep people motivated, and [we have] tried to give back and make sure they get their two days off and be able to take those breaks if they need to to go home and check on their children,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that beyond the lack of aid, poor communication between local governments and small businesses has further slowed the recovery process.

“Some of the grants and available credits that they have provided, restaurants actually don’t know about,” Cohen said. “There are so many opportunities for people to get the support and they don’t even know the support is there.”

However, Cohen said she believes that some positive changes have resulted from the pandemic, including new skills that her staffers have learned.

“As a company, we’ve pulled together and so the team that is still in place and able to be there, we’ve pulled into new roles,” Cohen said. “Some can look at [this] as an unfortunate thing, but it’s actually been a great learning opportunity for us to be able to cross-train a lot of our team members. One of our managers started doing more marketing ideas that helped the business and they really enjoyed that … They were able to be more involved.”

Other local businesses have experienced similar struggles with receiving aid amidst the pandemic. Peninsula Creamery owner Rob Fischer said he wants to see more cooperation in the federal government to pass relief measures for struggling businesses.

“I think what has to happen is that both sides of the aisle, meaning Republicans and Democrats and conservatives and liberals need to stop fighting,” Fischer said. “[R]un the country for the people and not for the party.”

Fischer also said that he feels frustrated at the pace of vaccine distribution given how vital in-person dining is for his business.

“Look at what’s happening with the vaccinations, what a mess,” Fischer said. “It doesn’t have to be like this. These people in government need to work, they need to stop fighting, get to work and brainstorm about how to get the vaccinations out to everybody. We need everyone to get vaccinated.” 

Fischer said he hopes that regardless of political beliefs, America can move forward to handle the pandemic with a united front.

“I saw this country come together right after 9/11,” Fischer said. “I’ve never seen the country come together like that. And it was so incredible to watch everybody get along, it was just amazing. That’s what we need, that feeling of togetherness and one country. We can’t be divided like this if we’re going to succeed, we have to be able to come together and be able to talk to each other.”

Ultimately, Fischer said he hopes the Peninsula Creamery will weather the pandemic not only to sustain his business, but to preserve its rich history and decades of societal value to Palo Altans.

“Every penny helps right now,” Fischer said. “We are one of the oldest restaurants in Palo Alto. If this were to ever go away, it would be a crime.”