RESTAURANTS

NewBo City Market vendors cope with slow, but steady business during a challenging time

'I'm thankful I'm still here'

Blanche Vega owner of Pinoy Cafe at NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, Oc
Blanche Vega owner of Pinoy Cafe at NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. Vega serves Filipino light meals, desserts, and beverages. Vega opened her booth in Sept. 2018, after having started her business by setting up at cultural festivals and fairs. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — “Now it’s OK, but it’s still too early to know,” Blanche Vega said. “It’s still good. I’m really thankful I was able to keep up. I’m thankful I’m still here.”

Vega opened Pinoy Café in September 2018 to bring Filipino specialties — pork and chicken lumpia, mango pandan and bubble tea, among others — to the NewBo City Market’s food offerings.

The cafe’s second year — from coronavirus pandemic quarantine to a historic wind — brought unprecedented, unexpected challenges just as she considered expansion.

“I was having so much doubt,” Vega said. “A lot of stores are closed, and I’m moving to a bigger space?”

Worried the larger booth may not be available for long, Vega went ahead with the move. Alexandra Olsen considers Vega’s decision a modest success in a trying year.

“When everyone was worried about, ‘Am I even going to be able to stay open?’ she was able to move to a bigger space,” said Olsen, the not-for-profit market’s marketing and development director.

Public worries over Iowa’s still-growing coronavirus cases kept traffic light through the summer. The market doesn’t keep official attendance figures.

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“Attendance is lower this year, for sure,” Olsen said. “But it’s been great to see people still coming out to support small business. We still have our steady lunch crowd, and people have been really good about being respectful of space, and now masks are required.”

“Slow, but steady,” said Connie Allbaugh, one of 22 local artists collaborating at the market’s Artisans’ Emporium. “We’ve had sales. We’re really happy all the customers come in with masks on.

“The people were happy they could get out, even just to walk around. But it’s slow — everybody’s slow.”

“Our numbers this year aren’t what they were last year, but we’re still there,” said Carol Elliott, owner of Aroma Artisan Pizza. “We’re hanging in there, and we’re looking to the future.”

“It’s been very difficult,” said Nathan Lein, owner of Big Boy Meats. “We’re looking forward to, someday, the pandemic coming to an end.”

‘It’s tough’

That sentiment is shared by farmers market vendors and managers around the state.

“Traffic through the markets was down significantly,” said Joseph Hannan, a specialist in commercial horticulture and produce safety for the Iowa State University Extension.

“At a couple of the bigger markets I’ve talked to, the traffic was down by half. Even on the days when the weather was nice, the traffic flow just wasn’t there.”

Pandemic countermeasures pose basic challenges for a facility designed as a public gathering place.

“That’s the whole point of it,” Hannan said. “It’s tough.”

“We decided to close because not only was it concerning to see the (case) numbers going up and we wanted to be safe, it also was tough for the businesses here to reopen when everyone was doing their best to quarantine,” Olsen said.

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“We wanted to give them a break and give them the time to make sure their families were safe.”

Aroma Artisan Pizza’s Elliott used the shutdown to pivot to online ordering and delivery, take-and-bake pies and “pizza kits” for home assembly.

With a wood-fired pizza oven mounted on a trailer, Aroma has catered graduation parties and similar outdoor gatherings.

“We’re trying to get out where the people are,” she said. “That’s been just a gift for us, keeping (customers) and reacquainting and bringing in new customers at the market.”

Lein, whose Big Boy Meats also supplies area restaurants, lost at least two wholesale customers to the shutdown.

“We went from thousands of dollars of orders to zero in about a week,” he said. “That has since opened up a little bit.”

Customers opting for curbside pickup helped Big Boy through the shutdown and over the summer.

“Just doing what we could to serve people and try to stay open,” Lein said. “Our averages were similar to a normal year on the retail side, maybe a little bit better because so many people have rediscovered the joy of cooking at home.

“That still doesn’t make up for the loss of commercial stuff, but it keeps the doors open and the freezers on.”

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Businesses at NewBo City Market were allowed a month’s free rent, and in July lower traffic prompted the market to go to a Thursday-through-Sunday operating schedule, dropping Wednesdays.

Some market businesses haven’t returned.

“We had a couple that decided, ‘OK, this is not looking good,’” Olsen said. “So they decided to close indefinitely. As time went on, we were expecting it to be a lot worse.”

Market staff worked with vendors over the quarantine, helping them shift to online ordering and curbside pickup for takeout meals.

“They’re doing a great job working with different organizations, different vendors to keep things happening,” Elliott said.

“It was tough for them to keep going, but the support from the community has really been incredible,” Olsen said. “A lot of them adapted.”

“A lot of farmers have picked up deliveries direct to the consumer,” said ISU’s Hannan, who with his wife sells at markets in central Iowa.

“The online marketplace, that’s probably not going to go away any time soon. They’ve found it very profitable, even with the extra time spent making deliveries. You can harvest exactly what you need.”

Events

Olsen counts 16 current businesses at the market. The loss of one — Frolics Village Boutique moved to a Czech Village storefront on 16th Avenue SW — counts as a success.

“It’s what we like to see, as a business incubator,” Olsen said.

A new business is set to join the market next month.

“We’re really excited about what could be in the next year,” Olsen said. “We’re starting to see people reach out about being a vendor here.”

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With the arrival of warm weather, social-distancing measures were adopted for the weekly Meet Me at the Market and Rock the Block events.

“We tried to hold as much as we could that we could do safely,” Olsen said. We have so much space out in the market yard, so we looked at that: what if we drew squares on the lawn and really kept track of how many people we had here? It was so much work than what we’ve done in the past.”

Admission to the Rock the Block Friday concerts had been free, but this summer the marked-off yard spaces sold for $20 for up to six people.

Instead of staging both yoga and dance classes for Thursday’s fitness-oriented Meet Me at the Market, the two were offered on alternated weeks.

That ended with the Aug. 10 derecho. The market building escaped serious damage, but the yard was littered with debris.

“A lot of damage in the market yard, which made us cancel the rest of our summer programming,” Olsen recalled. “It wasn’t safe — a lot of broken glass and that kind of stuff out there.”

Power was quickly restored to the market, making it a haven for neighborhood residents who were without service for a week or more.

“The restaurants couldn’t operate,” Olsen said. “We had a few of our food trucks come down. People just needed a hot meal.”

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Volunteers used the market’s Rotary Hall to assemble flashlights and prepare meals for distribution across the city.

Elliott credits market staff for connecting her to World Central Kitchen, the not-for-profit group that works with local restaurants to provide meals in the wake of natural disasters.

“It was one of the most powerful experiences at my life, to get out there to some of the apartment complexes where people were homeless and living in the parking lots,” she said.

“It just made people so happy, just to have some conversation.”

Pandemic precautions, chiefly mask use and social distancing, remained for this weekend’s Black-Owned Business guest market and the annual Rocky Horror Picture Show screening in Rotary Hall.

The guest market, a joint project with the Multicultural Small Business Institute, returns Nov. 14.

Instead of a single showing, the movie “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was shown Friday and Saturday nights, with tables for two to six people safely spaced.

“Usually we have 300 people in here, squeezed together wearing fishnet leggings,” Olsen said. “We decided we needed to be a little bit more cautious.”

With pandemic effects expected only to increase over the winter and no immediate prospect for a vaccine nationwide, planning for the holidays and beyond is complicated.

“I have no crystal ball as far as what’s happening next spring,” Hannan said. “Drought and derecho have probably been the bigger factors.”

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Any additional measures “will kind of depend on guidance coming out of the Governor’s Office and what she wants and sees as necessary,” he said.

“It’s probably going to stay with the status quo, unless something changes.”

“We’re just looking to some of the events we know the community enjoys, and looking to help our shopkeepers,” Olsen said.

“We’re really looking to go back to our roots as a business incubator. We know that it’s a tough time to open or visualize taking that leap, but historically when things hit rock bottom it’s a good time to dream.”

“What I’m praying for is, we stay busy for the holidays,” Allbaugh said.

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