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Local businesses in Sandy, Gresham and Estacada find new ways to serve communities, make money during COVID crisis

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Hans Wipper helps a student in one of Wippersnapper's distance learning camps.

When Gov. Kate Brown declared certain businesses must be partially or fully closed to curb the spread of COVID-19, many business owners panicked. Restaurants have still been allowed to offer takeout and outdoor seating, but many have seen drops in revenue. Other businesses in indoor entertainment were even more hard-pressed to find new avenues for revenue.

Wippersnappers Kid's Play Place in Sandy has been closed to the public since March 2020, but they haven't let that keep them entirely out of the game. It has been undoubtedly difficult for the indoor play destination, with a large building full of play structures going largely unused, but rent remaining a constant responsibility. Still, Hans Wipper and Tiffany Vanek have found ways to utilize the space while providing needed resources to the community.

For a few months, Wipper and Vanek have been hosting socially distanced tutoring for students at the 16542 S.E. 362nd Dr. business. They provide a space for students to complete their comprehensive distance learning while still having a tutor nearby for help as needed, which is also helpful for working parents.

"We got many calls from parents and a lot of interest (in our distance learning camps)," Wipper explained. "A lot of them said 'I'm working and I don't have a way to help my kid with school during the day.' That social interaction is important, too. Kids are starving for attention and interaction with other kids. We've seen big improvements in all of our kids since they started camp. They're getting their personalities back."

Participants in the distance learning camps arrive at Wippersnappers at 8 a.m. and are allowed some masked social time on the play structures with their fellow students. Then schooling runs from about 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"We make sure they're all logged in and we help if they need help (technically or academically)," Wipper explained. "We're not the teachers, but we're facilitating. If a kid needs help, we do what we can."

"(Creating this camp) has been a learning experience," Wipper added. "I never thought I'd have kids calling me teacher. It's been fun watching the kids grow."

Right now, the camps have 14 kids participating from eight different schools in five different districts.

But starting Monday, March 1, Wippersnappers will also be able to offer daycare services. Wipper applied for their daycare license last year, and that is what has allowed to facility to host as many as 20 kids for camp at a time. Even with hybrid school starting in a phased manner, Wipper says they'll continue to offer tutoring on the days kids' cohorts aren't doing in-person learning and daycare for kids not in school.

"Even if we open to the public, we'll keep that open," Wipper added.

As Friday, Feb. 12, Wipper can open at 25% capacity for the public, but he says that will also be phased back in around the existing camp and daycare schedule.

"We'd start Friday, Saturday, Sunday," he explained. "We don't quite know what (it will look like to have both) yet. We have to be careful, too, with new risk levels coming out in two weeks."

Two weeks prior to the announcement that Clackamas County businesses could open under high risk level restrictions, the state allowed places like Wippersnapper's to open up for very limited private events. Wipper quickly booked out several weekends of 90-minute private play times for up to six kids. Now under high risk, Wipper can extend those times to 12 people.

With new possibilities, Wipper said they are planning to bring back beverages for purchase, including coffee drinks and sodas, during play times, but they have stopped offering their pizza to-go on Fridays.

"Now that the restaurants are open for indoor dining, we're ending (our pizza to go)," Wipper explained. "If things keep going at this pace, we may have to hire some new people. If we stay at a high or lower (risk level) in two weeks, we'll consider opening for private birthday parties."

While not being open to the public for much of 2020 was not ideal, Wipper says the adaptations he and Vanek have made to the business could be beneficial in the future.

"I think we'll continue with the daycare in the future if it's successful," Wipper said. "It's part of the pivoting and changing. I think it's something that could be very beneficial to us in the long run."

"We see a light at the end of the tunnel, and we hope it keeps going," he added. "We've been looking at every avenue (to create revenue). We appreciate all the support we've gotten so far. We want to be here for the community in the long run."

COURTESY PHOTO: ANTFARM - Several teens have found safe opportunities to learn through internships at AntFarm during the pandemic.

Adapting in service

For most of the pandemic, the staff at AntFarm Café and Bakery, 39140 Proctor Blvd., Sandy, has opted to keep the doors closed for indoor or outdoor dining, even when not required, only offering takeout from the eatery side of the business. The lion's share of the staff's focus has then gone to providing expanded services to people in need through the Youth Services nonprofit organization. Though the café has mostly stuck to takeout throughout the pandemic, Executive Director Nunpa said "we never slowed down on anything else."

Last year, through a contract with Clackamas County, AntFarm began facilitating rent assistance with CARES Act funding.

"We are in a global pandemic and we said: 'What do we need to do for our kids and families?'" Nunpa said. "For us, this fits exactly what we should be doing. Every single human being is affected right now whether they believe in what's going on or not. COVID never stopped us; we decided we needed to step into it."

Through the program, AntFarm has helped hundreds of families. Aside from rent assistance with COVID relief funds, AntFarm has also been assiting people, on a case-by-case basis, mitigate both economic and health impacts of the pandemic.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - To make it through the pandemic, Troutdales The Way Out Inn began delivering food via its Pizza Patrol fleet.

AntFarm has also found safe ways to allow youth to still participate in AntFarm Youth Services staples like performing yard work for elderly in the community, interning in the café or nonprofit and receiving tutoring during distance learning.

"It's really important to still provide opportunities for people and teach them you can do it safely," Nunpa explained. "We actually hired more youth this winter than ever before. The café and bakery have more interns, more time to train and more hands on deck to clean."

"We really appreciate the community members who are still willing to do takeout," Nunpa added. "We've really focused on the services we can provide to people during this time. It's been unbelievable. It's been really powerful helping the community. What's important is we keep showing up to help our community."

New beginnings on Broadway

While numerous businesses are changing the way they operate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some have opened their doors for the first time — including Aradia Italian Bistro and Deli in Estacada.

Now that Lesa Wood's longtime dream of opening a restaurant has become a reality, it looks different than she imagined. In October, she opened Aradia Italian Bistro and Deli at 360 Broadway St., and was able to offer indoor dining for three weeks before COVID-19 safety restrictions tightened.

Prior to a certain amount of indoor dining being reinstated on Friday, Feb. 12, Aradia was operating solely on takeout because there was no space for outdoor dining.

"It's a step in the right direction," Wood said, discussing the change in regulations.

She noted that the business boomed at the restaurant during the first round of offering dine-in.

"With that glimpse we had, it was overwhelming how busy we were and with all of the support from the town," she said.

Wood described operating solely on takeout as "quite a struggle" and estimated that it led to just 25% of the sales the restaurant saw during its first few weeks with dine-in.

"This wasn't supposed to be a get rich business, but it was supposed to get me through to retirement," she said.

Even through the difficult times presented by the pandemic, Wood has appreciated the Estacada community's support.

"Every day we have a new face come in, and those responses help keep my positivity and hope to continue up," she said. "The community here is amazing. The town is trying to support as many small businesses as they can."

Wood acknowledged that starting a business during the pandemic was "a gamble."

"My vision of what it could be is still there, but it's starting to feel a little broken," she said, describing offering some level dine-in as an important part of the restaurant. "That's really what this establishment is about. We want to do special events here. We're a nice family friendly environment."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR  - The team at The Way Out Inn got creative to keep everyone employed through the pandemic.

Trucking forward

When restaurants were first faced with brutal restrictions and dire financial forecasts, a Troutdale pizza parlor made a commitment — no one would lose hours or get laid off.

Leslie Henson, owner of The Way Out Inn, 275 E. Historic Columbia River Highway, did not want to respond to difficult times with cuts. She had a great team working at the restaurant and wanted to ensure not only that everyone could stay onboard, but also that she could expand to offer benefits like medical and dental insurance.

But to achieve those goals, Henson had to get creative. Her answer — dive into deliveries.

Before the pandemic, The Way Out Inn, which opened in 2017, was focused on dine-in and pickups by regulars. The few who wanted delivery would utilize third-party apps. But as more small businesses turned to those companies for help with deliveries, Henson realized how significant a cut they were taking.

"When so much of our business was going to Grubhub and DoorDash — which take 30% and 25% respectively — I knew we couldn't sustain losing that many sales," Henson said.

The deliveries being made by the third-party companies were also resulting in poor customer service. The Way Out Inn was fielding complaints of pizza boxes being tossed with little care onto front porches, all but ruining the food inside.

"We had to take ownership of our deliveries," Henson said.

The Way Out Inn had a small, three-wheeled vehicle that was primarily used for events and catering gigs. They decided to bring it into full time service, transforming it into the photogenic, brightly colored "Pizza Patrol" vehicle. Thus began a limited delivery service, mainly sticking close to downtown Troutdale in the beginning.

"People liked seeing the Pizza Patrol drive around neighborhoods," Henson said. "It helped us stay in business and connect with customers."

The Way Out Inn then expanded again, adding the more robust "Mini Trooper" to its growing fleet of delivery vehicles. The new car allowed for a wider service area, giving the restaurant the ability to bring food anywhere within Troutdale city limits. They also hired two new staff members to handle the deliveries.

"The staff delivering our pizzas now care enough to look after your food," Henson said.

In addition to its food-on-the-go, ordered at thewayoutinn.com, The Way Out Inn has been improving its outdoor dining. While most of the region's restaurants excitedly reopened last Friday to limited occupancy, Henson is waiting to ensure the rug isn't pulled out from under restaurants like has happened in the past.

Instead she is installing new outdoor covers by the end of this month. Last fall, they put up a tent to allow people to eat outdoors, but the strong winds that whip through Troutdale made it untenable. One dire afternoon, Henson had to rush outside to hold the tent down to keep it from flying across the road. Luckily, two of her regular customers were nearby to help her bring it down.

Henson has now purchased two compact covers from a Portland-based company that pivoted to provide outdoor shelters.

And the Pizza Patrol vehicles are here to stay.

"It will be really fun for us to have people back in here, but there will continue to be a need for deliveries," Henson said. "We will keep this going."


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