On Tennyson Street in Denver, mom-and-pop shops are dying amid Covid-19

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DENVER – When Covid-19 hit the United States in March, Alyssa Manny’s yoga studio revenue fell 60 to 70 percent. And it wasn’t just her. Almost every business on Tennyson Street, in a gentrified neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Denver, has been hit hard by the pandemic.

The first to go was Biju’s Little Curry Shop, a popular restaurant offering dishes that Biju Thomas grew up with in South India, like samosa chaat, dosas and rotis. He moved to the United States in 1980 and settled in North Denver. February had been his best month since opening the restaurant in 2016. But by March, he was done.

“We lost $ 80,000 in reservations this first week,” Thomas said recently. “We had booked weddings and events in March, April, May. We spent approximately $ 400,000 on catering and events over the course of a year. Fifteen hundred meals a day out of the kitchen. There is no going back for that.

Thomas’ experience is being echoed by small business owners across the country who have struggled since the start of the pandemic, which has killed more than 260,000 people in the United States and strangled the economy. At least 100,000 small businesses across the country have closed for good, according to a Yelp analysis released in September. Many others barely hang on.

On Wednesday, people walk past the Wana Art House on Tennyson Street in Denver. The house was demolished but turned into an interactive art experience over the summer.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

Small businesses represent 44% of U.S. economic activity, according to a 2019 report from the Small Business Administration. Restaurants, which before the pandemic employed 15 million people, were particularly affected. The wreckage is evident in empty storefronts, take-out-only signs, and GoFundMe locations to help traders stay afloat.

“No one was prepared for the reality of an entire economy shutting down,” said Manny, owner of Ohana Yoga + Barre and vice president of the local traders association. “Business owners had to decide, do you want to go into debt and play the long game or get out? Manny chose the former, taking on $ 200,000 in debt and turning his popular studio into a members-only operation.

In the early 20th century, streetcars ran through 38th and 44th Avenues, and riders would jump into Tennyson for shopping and going to the movies. Over the decades, bowling has grown into a grocery store; the cinema, a music store; and the post office, a furniture store. Other small businesses have moved in, such as a hairdressing salon, a printing house and a bar area.

The Tennyson Street shopping corridor, with its eight blocks of restaurants, breweries, an independent bookstore and the Oriental Theater, a concert venue, is the beating heart of the community. Today, Tennyson is rapidly becoming bourgeois, and as a nod to the transformation, premium sportswear supplier Lululemon recently opened a seasonal pop-up, Corepower Yoga has moved in and a boutique hotel will arrive in January. .

On Wednesday, a person walks past Tennyson Street stores in Denver.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

But some residents criticize the changes, which include non-commercial apartment buildings on the ground floor to encourage foot traffic, saying the trend is out of place with a neighborhood where century-old bungalows are set up next to apartments. contemporaries.

Along Tennyson, a vibrant painting of a buffalo hangs in an art gallery window, and the scent of citrus candles greets pedestrians outside a nearby store. The familiar notes of “It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas” come out of an antique store, and passersby know what restaurants serve just by breathing – bacon, toast, red sauce, pepperoni.

During the spring and summer, restaurants that survived the initial shock of Covid-19 turned to take-out and al fresco dining. Picnic tables were moved to parking lots and vacant lots, and the street had a party vibe. Three homes that were slated to be demolished have become pop-up spaces for an interactive art experience sponsored by a marijuana brand. The Wana Art House featured a magical circus, the Beach House projected immersive beach scenes, and the Club House was a place of pop-up art and boutique sales.

But with the change of seasons, businesses have closed their doors again. Fences surround the old art houses and Local 46, a popular waterhole with a tree-covered patio, closed for good on Halloween.

Hops and Pie, a pizza place owned by Drew Watson and his wife, Leah Watson, has had a busy summer, but a short video they released in November informed customers that they were going to take and deliver indefinitely. The heated outdoor tent they had just erected would remain empty as the state announced that one in 41 Coloradan tested positive for Covid-19. No meals inside would be allowed, not even in a tent.

“It was surely the worst year we’ve ever had with a landslide,” said Watson, who has owned the restaurant for 10 years.

Chuck’s Barber Shop on Tennyson Street in Denver Wednesday.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

On November 16, it was learned that the Alchemy 365 fitness studio was closing after it opened in January, occupying the entire first floor of a residential building. During the pandemic, membership has declined by more than 60%, said co-owner Tyler Quinn. The company received federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, allowing most of its staff to stay for a while, and landlords adjusted rent payments. But it still wasn’t enough.

“It’s terribly disappointing,” Quinn said. “It has been called a year of really aggressive growth for us. We are going to be delayed if not completely derailed on our long term vision.

Two of its seven sites, one on Tennyson Street and one in Minneapolis, have been forced to close during the pandemic. Quinn and her team were disheartened by the lack of leadership from all levels of government to help weather the crisis.

“There’s no one who thinks, ‘How can we support these small businesses? “, Did he declare.

Despite Covid-19, Elias Lehnert decided to go ahead with the Colorado Cherry Company’s newest pie shop after its owner sweetened the deal. His family started the business in 1929, and his parents have three stores in northern Colorado.

“Pie is heartwarming. It’s like a hug, ”said Lehnert, who represents his family’s fourth generation at the company. “People just need a hug right now in different ways. ”

Lehnert, who started setting up his pastry shop in August, said the building’s owner Asana Partners offered him rent for the space until it opened in November, and that he was paying until 15% less than what a previous potential tenant offered.

He starts cautiously with pop-ups for the holidays, asking customers to order a pie and pick it up from the takeout counter.

“They want to see us succeed,” Lehnert said of the owners. “I feel a lot better that we don’t have the pressure to be fully open today. … If I had to be totally open, I would be very scared.

The handful of developers who have claimed Tennyson Street also face uncertainty. Lenny Taub, owner of First Stone Development, is working on his second project on Tennyson Street. It sold a 42-apartment building this year, but the pandemic has changed its approach for its next development after struggling to move smaller units.

From left to right, Rachel Lehnert and Elias Lehnert, co-owners of Colorado Cherry Co., turn to a customer at their Denver store on Wednesday.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

“What I learned in the midst of the pandemic is that people were looking for leeway and were willing to spend money on larger spaces,” Taub said.

He hopes to open his next building by spring 2022, with fewer studios and more two-bedroom units. Taub expects Tennyson’s gentrification to continue, pandemic or no pandemic.

“It’s walking. It really is a nice place to walk, ”he said. “I see the attraction. I see why young families are settling there. It is a great place to raise children.

Still, Alyssa Manny fears that Covid-19 will permanently alter the mom-and-pop nature of Tennyson Street, as only domestic businesses will be able to afford leases as small businesses close and owners stop providing a rent relief in the event of a pandemic.

“It’s our small businesses on our streets that constantly give back to our communities,” Manny said. “We are the ones who sponsor baseball teams and give back to the homeless. We want to see this whole region continue to prosper. “

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