Forest Grove businesses forced to cope during pandemic
COVID-19 hasn't been great for anyone, but aside from the obvious health concerns, it's taken a particularly heavy toll on local businesses.
From department stores to restaurants, golf courses to banks, national chains to your local mini-mart, the fallout from the ongoing pandemic has been unchartered waters for people trying to stay afloat during this trying time.
"It shut us down pretty good over those first couple of months," Frye's Action Athletics owner Kyle Kobashigawa said. "When sports went away, that's what we do, right? So those first couple of months, our business was down a significant number."
Without youth and high school sports, there has been no need for equipment, no shoes to sell, and definitely no baseball, softball, lacrosse, soccer or any other teams to outfit — which is a large piece of Frye's revenue pie.
Kobashigawa, a former Pacific University student who worked at Frye's since 1990 before buying the store more than 15 years ago, said he was forced to lay off all of his staff this past spring. Since then, he's been manning the store on his own.
But while down, he's definitely not out, and in recent months, Kobashigawa has seen just a little light in what has been a very dark tunnel.
"Thankfully, softball and baseball youth teams have been playing a bit, because some neighboring counties are in Phase 2," Kobashigawa said, referring to Columbia County to the north, Tillamook County to the west and Yamhill County to the south. "So a lot of these Washington County people are doing whatever it takes to go play in those areas, and we've had a bit of business come back. But it's nowhere close to where it would normally be."
Kobashigawa is quick to point out that others have it worse than him, and that he's been fortunate to have a landlord who's worked with him and loyal Forest Grove customers who've been there for he and the business during these tough times. He also said that both the local and federal aid has been a tremendous help,
"It's helped a lot," he said. "Even though we've been surviving, it's really been handy."
Going forward, Kobashigawa said that what makes things difficult is the inability to plan around the unknown. This past spring, he had already ordered in spring and summer inventory when COVID-19 ended the sports season before it began. He can't put himself in that same position again, so without any clear ending in sight, he's incapable of preparing for what might come winter or even next spring.
"I've just got to keep positive," Kobashigawa said. "It's a double-edged sword, because we want to get to Phase 2, hope the kids get back in school and get to play sports, but we also don't want to put people at risk.
"What I want to say though, is that the Frye's and Forest Grove community has been very, very sensitive to what we're going through, and that's the part I appreciate."
Phil Carow has also been navigating the COVID-19 twister for the past eight months. The Forest Grove native has owned and operated Phil's 1500 Subs since 1989, and in 2019, he opened Black Dog Bar & Grill with two partners.
Carow said his sub shop has been thriving in what has become a take-out-heavy dining environment, but the Black Dog has been a more difficult proposition with restrictions on indoor dining. He's offering a small outdoor seating facility and has tried to maximize the restaurant's available space, but with fewer people open to the restaurant experience, the business has been stuck behind the proverbial eight-ball.
"With limited occupancy, it's always going to be tough, but also people still just aren't that comfortable under the circumstances," Carow acknowledged. "But also, what's really hurt is without the people that sit at or in the bar, you lose a lot of energy and vitality in the restaurant."
Carow said Black Dog has struggled trying to recalibrate the staff to match the supply with the decreased demand, and for a number of months, that meant 60-hour work weeks for the owners. But like Kobashigawa, he and his partners have been helped by the government aid and an understanding landlord.
"We've been fortunate that way," he said.
And how does Carow feel about the future?
"I'm feeling extremely confident that we'll get through this," he said.
On the outskirts of town, Forest Hills Golf Course south of Cornelius has been one of the success stories. The golf course business has thrived over the past six months; even when Oregon was in lockdown, golf courses stayed open, providing one of the few options for people to get out of the house and work off some stress.
Marcus Speros, general manager and course superintendent at Forest Hills, said business has been good, but it also hasn't been without its share of challenges.
"In the beginning, it was tough because it was like, 'Are we going to be open today? Are we going to be open tomorrow? Can we serve food today or can we not?' It was tough," Speros said. "And from a staffing standpoint, when this started, we were just coming out of the winter and we would normally be staffing up, but with all of the unknowns, it was difficult to know whether we could or couldn't."
With courses being closed in neighboring states like Washington and California, many thought Oregon Gov. Kate Brown would follow suit. But according to Speros, it was the Golf Alliance of Oregon, a group comprised of major industry associations in the region, that convinced Brown's office that the updated protocols in place ensured golf course customers and employees the safety they needed to remain open.
Along with those safety protocols, it's been up to Speros and his staff to create the type of environment in which their customers can feel safe.
They removed rakes from the sand traps, installed mechanisms that limited touching of the cup and flagstick, set up pre-pay options, kept people out of the clubhouse, and repeatedly sanitized carts and limited riders to one. In turn, appreciative customers returned, and new customers experienced the course — and in some cases the game — for the very first time.
That's something Speros isn't taking for granted.
"I'm just super-excited for the golf industry as a whole, because for the last, I'd say decades, it's just been (in) decline, and at most, stagnant," Speros said. "So, it's just been a good opportunity for the golf industry in Oregon, and really nationwide for that matter to get new people to come out and see the sport and enjoy the game."
Despite things continuing to hum for the golf industry, Speros understands what it's like to be in a position of flux, so he empathizes with businesses that are struggling right now.
"I'm pretty sympathetic to places, especially mom-and-pop establishments, because that's how I look at our business," he said. "And I know how uneasy the unknown can be to a business owner."
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