'It was a ghost town' — Businesses in fight to survive as pandemic changes downtown Lincoln

'It was a ghost town' — Businesses in fight to survive as pandemic changes downtown Lincoln

From inside The Cookie Company, they watched them go.

An exodus of Nelnet employees fleeing the pandemic, their work lives in cardboard boxes. Some toted flat-screen monitors in their arms. Some pushed office chairs stacked with CPUs and supplies down the 12th Street sidewalk.

One after another, all that mid-March afternoon.

“It was surreal,” Cookie Company manager Hans Wanamaker said. “It was crazy. And who knows if they’re ever coming back.”

It’s been seven months since thousands of downtown office workers headed home. And Lincoln still doesn’t know what downtown will look like next month, or next year.

That was an eerie day, Wanamaker said. One of many to come. Downtown closed down, seemingly overnight. Students disappeared. Bars and restaurants locked up, not knowing when, or even if, they’d reopen. Parking ramps emptied.

When the Cornhusker Marriott closed in March, it illuminated a heart that glowed above downtown for months.

Before the Cornhusker Marriott closed, the executive housekeeper traveled from floor to floor and room to room, closing drapes and turning off lights. But she left 18 on, illuminating a heart that shone above an otherwise dark downtown for months, like a 10-story beacon of hope.

The hotel reopened in August to a changed landscape. Some downtown stores, bars and restaurants had reopened, but with rewritten business plans. Students were scheduled to return.

But the pandemic — and its restrictions — had already taken a toll.

The Journal Star set out to describe the damage to the heart of the city. We looked at obvious measurements: The city’s parking meters, for example, collected less than half the money from March to October this year than they did during the same time last year, and its enforcement officers wrote an even smaller percentage of parking tickets.

We looked at not-so-obvious numbers: The Downtown Lincoln Association has gone from emptying dumpsters three times a week during the pandemic to seven times a week more recently.And the city’s rental bikes took 15,000 fewer trips.

But we also talked to dozens of people who live, work or depend on downtown for their livelihoods.

Parking revenue during COVID-19

This is what they told us:

A familiar face appeared at the counter of Danny’s Downtown Deli recently, a regular from one of the offices upstairs in the Terminal Building at 10th and O.

Dan Patrick was happy to make her a tuna Dinky, happier to have her back.

“There are a lot of faces I haven’t seen in a while, so it was nice to see hers,” he said.

Patrick has been selling sandwiches since 2001, the last 16 years from the Terminal’s ground floor. But when his loyal customers upstairs and in nearby buildings started working and eating at home, his receipts dropped by up to 70%.

“The beginning of the pandemic — March, April, May — was really, really difficult. We lost a significant amount of business.”

But he and his two employees never closed. Danny’s received Paycheck Protection Program funds, Patrick dipped into savings — and the business benefited from serendipity and generosity.

First, it found new customers in the workers building the Holiday Inn Express next door, and in the state Labor Department employees who remained working in the building.

And then the big orders came. A man ordered more than 100 sandwiches for Matt Talbot Kitchen. A woman fed Lincoln police one day, state troopers the next.

That helped sustain Danny’s until more downtown workers returned. He figures he’s back to 85% of his normal business.

“There’s no place like Nebraska,” he said. “The generosity of the people that I’ve worked with is phenomenal.”

Kevin Duffy and his business partner at Barry’s Bar and Grill talk all the time.

“I think we’re going to stay closed until January,” Duffy said. “But everything I’m saying is subject to change.”

Barry’s, with its rooftop deck, has remained dark since mid-March.

“We run numbers and we don’t think it can be profitable based on occupancy allowances and social distancing.” Even with the big, open air deck, they worry about perception on social media. “A photograph taken at a bad angle that makes it look like you’re packed.”

So they wait. They can afford to. “But I feel so bad for Mom and Pops; they have their life savings invested.”

On P Street, Jersey Mike’s closed temporarily but decided to make it permanent, said owner Randy Lewis.

“The way school ended had a huge impact on us,” he said. “We always catered to the athletes and did huge catering jobs for a lot of visiting sports teams and UNL sports camps, and those didn’t happen.”

Lewis owns three Jersey Mike’s in Lincoln. Sales at his sandwich shop at 51st and O have picked up, but his rent downtown is high, and pre-pandemic parking was hard to come by, factoring into his decision not to reopen.

He didn’t rule out a return to downtown down the road.

“It’s a great downtown,” Lewis said. “It will come back.”

Ghost Town-Judtih Andre, 10.21

“Construction is still going on, but I miss the energy people bring to downtown.” — Judith Andre, downtown resident, with her corgi, Murray, in the Mission Arts Building, 124 S. Ninth St.

Judith Andre lives in a second-floor apartment of the Mission Arts Building on the south side of downtown.

She’s owned — and lived in — the building for 26 years.

“It’s much quieter for sure,” she said. “My building has many fewer people in it.”

The first floor artists’ co-op, Gallery 9, is only open two days a week after being closed for the first few months of the pandemic. Art openings are fewer and smaller.

“The artists are hanging in there,” she said. “Sales have come up the last couple of months.”

Andre is a downtown observer on daily walks with Murray, her 13-year-old corgi.

“Construction is still going on,” she said. “But I miss the energy people bring to downtown.”

Downtown ghost town, Husker Headquarters

“Some people were OK with coming back into stores but a lot of people got spooked; they didn’t want to be out in public.” — Blaine Braziel, marketing director, Husker Headquarters, 1120 P St.

A one-two punch nearly knocked out Husker Headquarters.

Before the virus, the Lincoln-based business had 19 employees and three stores. Now it’s down to three employees and two stores, said marketing manager Blaine Braziel. Overall, they’ve lost about 90% of their business.

It started with downtown’s empty summer sidewalks. “This store relies a lot on foot traffic and customers just walking by and noticing us,” he said from its P Street location.

And it continued with the on-off-on-again announcements about the football season, and the news that fans wouldn’t be allowed at Memorial Stadium. No real game day, no real business boost.

“That typically is our strongest day, with 90,000 people in town and at the game. We were fortunate. This location, I almost want to call it a destination for fans.”

They permanently closed their Gateway store, sold hundreds of masks when they reopened their other locations in June and tried to do more business online. But customers have always appreciated their brick-and-mortar stores, being able to feel fabric and try apparel on, he said.

He wants to see them back on the sidewalks.

“Some people were OK with coming back into stores but a lot of people got spooked; they didn’t want to be out in public.”

Dean Settle lives in University Towers above the Rococo Theatre. He’s a few blocks away from his business, Metro Gallery on N Street, which has been hit both by the pandemic and construction of a parking garage.

Settle began online art auctions this summer and added art restoration to his business plan. “We are above the waterline.”

He and his spouse have continued their date night tradition.

“We’ll usually go to a restaurant. Often, we’re the only people there.”

Roy Hereth is still washing windows downtown, but not as many as seven months ago.

“We’re doing half of what we normally would have,” the owner of Roy’s Window Service said.

A few larger downtown companies continue to have their windows cleaned, even as their buildings sit empty, but others decided — at least temporarily — to cut back. The Marcus Grand Cinema suspended service for several months, but came back late this summer, Hereth said.

“The restaurants we take care of, we’re still not back at most of them.”

The pandemic hasn’t been a problem for Cliff’s Smoke Shop, which has been selling more tobacco than normal.

“The cigar guys and the pipe guys are religious,” owner Miles Johnston said from the 67-year-old store on North 12th Street. “They’re working at home, so they have more opportunity to smoke.”

But Cliff’s 10% business boost could soon go up in smoke: Worldwide, factories aren’t functioning normally, ports are limited and warehouses are emptying, he said.

“For the next six months, we’re not going to get what we ordered, not get what we want. The availability of product is going to be a problem.”

Downtown - Ryan Donohue, 10.22

“It feels like a break-up, and one you didn’t initiate.” — Ryan Donohue, National Research Corporation employee working remotely

For 14 years, Ryan Donohue went out to lunch nearly every day with three of his National Research Corp. coworkers.

The “Core Four” cycled through Arby’s and Wendy’s and Raisin’ Canes, the Nebraska Union Food Court and Danny’s Downtown Deli and Southwest Pit BBQ, a one-man operation at 16th and P.

On occasion, Donohue would head to The Cookie Company or over to the Coffee House for some “non-corporate coffee.”

Now the father of four works and eats lunch at home.

“It feels like a breakup, and one you didn’t initiate,” he said. “I feel worried and concerned from afar that those businesses aren’t doing well.”

Donohue misses Lincoln’s vibrant downtown, like a shrunken-down version of Kansas City or Chicago, he said.

“You could turn any which way from that little intersection and get any type of cuisine you wanted.”

Kiechel Fine Art used to draw 100s of gallery-goers to its First Friday shows, but just eight showed up for this month’s event.

“There’s just not much going on in the art world,” owner Buck Kiechel said. “It’s been slow. It’s been tough.”

And it’s been across-the-board. Online sales — the bulk of his business — are down. Locally, he’s selling maybe 30% of the pieces he used to. And his corporate customers have all but abandoned the market.

“The last thing they’re thinking about is buying artwork for a building they’re not occupying.”

He’s been watching downtown through his window near 12th and O. The sidewalks emptied those first few months, restaurants closed, storefronts eroded.

“It was a ghost town, completely empty.”

Traffic has picked up, but it’s far from normal. “Most of the people who walk past my door are homeless people wandering around downtown, not students or businesspeople.”

John Doan never closed Trade-A-Tape Comic Center, but he survived nearly two months without new books to sell.

A Kapow! — but not an all-out Kaboom! — for the 45-year-old former eight-track store on South Ninth.

“We remained open all this time,” he said. “The only thing I did, I changed hours for a while.”

That, and he added curbside delivery, mail service and bolstered his online sales.

After going dark early on, his publishers and distributors have picked up production, sending him 40 to 70 titles weekly.

His clientele is loyal, his store a destination; he doesn’t rely on strangers walking by. Still, about a third of his regulars haven’t returned.

Hitting the brakes, bike ridership during pandemic

No one was buying gas the first few months of the pandemic, and no one was walking into Melichar’s 66 for candy or cigarettes, either.

“Inside sales are still down 80%, maybe more,” Jeff Melichar said. “There’s just no foot traffic.”

Melichar manages the full-service station at Ninth and P started by his grandfather 51 years ago.

“Oddly enough for us, service work remained pretty steady,” he said. “People had stimulus money, they had tax money. They were thinking there are enough problems right now, I don’t need anything going wrong with my car.”

Those were desolate days for downtown, he said. And without the out-of-town crowds for football, the rest of 2020 doesn’t look great.

“It’s not been fun. The good news is we’ve been able to hang on.”

All spring, the flower shop on O Street operated with a skeleton crew.

“Early on, it was pretty hard on us,” Abloom manager Jeanette Steider said. “Mother’s Day was down a lot, but it’s picked up this summer, a lot more deliveries and walk-ins are back, so that’s nice.”

Ghost Town-Tavern, 10.21

“We’ll be around for a while, but it’s not the most fun year we’ve had in 10 years in the business.” — Matt Taylor, owner, Tavern on the Square, 816 P St.

Tavern on the Square’s regulars — the Happy Hour crowd — stopped coming, because most stopped working downtown. Its partner bar, The Other Room, had relied on business travelers, but most had stopped traveling.

So owner Matt Taylor got creative to keep his employees paid and his businesses open.

He put them on salary, even during those dark months when they were forced to close. “I couldn’t make up what they made in tips, but I could make sure their light bills were paid.”

And he opened an off-sale store, selling DIY cocktail kits and partnering with other small businesses, like Abloom and Wax Buffalo, to include bouquets and candles and cigars.

“It was nice. We were making partnerships along the way.”

Now reopened, his bars are doing about 50% of normal business, but he worries about winter: The Tavern’s limited capacity is boosted by its big courtyard, and that’s a seasonal crutch.

Still, Taylor hasn’t lost hope: He just signed a seven-year lease. “It’s not all gloom and doom. We’ll be around for a while.”

At the start of the pandemic, the Lincoln Running Company extended its hours, opening at 8 a.m. instead of 10.

“We figured people wanted in and out early,” said manager Ann Ringlein.

They began bicycle delivery in March — Ringlein has logged at least 1,000 miles — and started an online store for contact-free shopping. The cancellation of the Lincoln Marathon didn’t affect them, she said, with the uptick of exercisers during the pandemic, and veteran runners continuing with their marathon running plans, despite the lack of an official race.

“Take away April, and we are even with last year in sales.”

The company’s plan? “Keep evolving,” Ringlein said. “Be kind to everyone.”

When downtown emptied, The Cookie Company began selling cookie dough in tubs for customers to bake at home.

“That worked wonderfully in April and May,” Wanamaker said.

But as the pandemic wore on and people wore out, those sales stopped. Walk-in traffic — a big share of their business — is down about 50%.

“It’s going to take a year,” Wanamaker said. “You need people to come back to offices.”

At the same time sales have slowed, the manager has been busier than ever, making deliveries and filling shifts for employees on quarantine.

“I don’t even remember summer. I just worked and tried to keep it going.”

Bin 105 has been selling wine in the Haymarket for nearly a decade.

“I started right after the financial crash, so this is the first downturn I’ve seen,” said owner Steve Blazek.

Employees at nearby Hudl aren’t around to stop for a bottle of wine on their way home. Hotel guests aren’t in town to pick up one for their room.

“It’s cut my business considerably. I’ve just been appealing to my longtime customers to come and shop, and doing more sales-type things. Just kind of basic — work hard and see what happens.”

Jane Stricker is seeing more bodies on the streets downtown.

“The last three weeks, it seems to be the most lively downtown has been,” the owner of Threads said. “I feel like people are really trying to get out and support downtown, so that makes me hopeful.”

The clothing and shoe store is preparing for the annual Shop the Blocks in November — modified, but still happening.

“We all have to be OK that things are going to be different this year and be fluid. People are still looking for fun things to do.”

The hardest part of the pandemic is not knowing when it will be over, Stricker said.

“It’s like running a marathon that never ends.”

Francie & Finch Bookshop owner Leslie Huerta used to park at the top of the parking garage on M Street, the only place she could find a space.

“For a while, I could park wherever I wanted to,” she said.

One sign that things are changing in her neck of downtown: She’s up to the third floor since the re-opening of the Cornhusker Marriott.

Huerta shortened her hours during the pandemic and is no longer hosting artist and author events, but the store began offering deliveries and more online shopping.

“Business is up a little bit,” she said. “I’m pinching myself.”

She credited the buy-local community spirit in Lincoln and the enduring lure of reading.

“Books have a really strong place in people’s worlds, especially now.”

At one point in the pandemic, business was down nearly 90% at From Nebraska Gift Shop.

“We never did close,” owner Barb Ballard said. “We turned the lights on every day; we turned the open sign on.”

They got a boost from a pair of Nebraska companies based in Omaha and Aurora who purchased gift baskets filled with snacks and wine for their employees working at home.

“That’s honestly what kept us afloat,” Ballard said. “That and great people who were in Nebraska or left Nebraska and still had Nebraska in their hearts.”

They stopped wine-tasting events and started closing at 6 p.m. instead of 9, because there weren’t any business travelers stopping in.

Sales are still down about 40% to 50%, but the company forged ahead with a planned expansion into what had been Licorice International, adding a year-round Christmas shop and mercantile.

“Instead of downsizing, we expanded. We’re just hoping for the best. We pray a lot.”

They’ve stayed busy at Sartor Hamann, Lincoln’s longtime jewelry store.

“We always say, ‘COVID doesn’t stop love,’ said sales associate Anna Alcalde.

The store updated its website and began consulting with customers wanting custom work over Zoom.

“We adapted,” she said. “That’s what you have to do.”

Ghost Town-Novel Idea, 10.21

“I love my job and I want to have a bookstore that supports the community.” — Cinnamon Dokken, owner, A Novel Idea, 118 N. 14th St.

A Novel Idea owner Cinnamon Dokken has kept her used bookstore on 14th Street closed to walk-in traffic since the end of March.

“We keep our door locked; we take shopping appointments,” Dokken said. “Our sales went down, of course, and I spent all summer working on our new website.”

The book-filled space makes it hard to keep social distance, she said, and her “lackluster immune system” makes that especially important.

When customers do come in, they have their temperatures checked and are given gloves and, if they don’t have one, a mask.

The store began offering care packages this spring, partnering with four women-owned small businesses. Twice a week, Dokken delivers pandemic-inspired “book bundles” to customers — adults and kids — dressed in one of her many costumes.

The Book Fairy, at your service. “I love my job and I want to have a bookstore that supports the community,” she said. “It’s gratifying that people say, ‘I want to have you around.’”

Tsuru is down to its last employee.

Its owner.

The boutique remained closed all of April and that hurt, said Matel Rokke, but the city mask mandate helped bring customers back.

“It helped us not to be the bad guy.”

Business is down 15% to 20%, and she’s grateful.

“I’m really pushing to be positive. I’ve heard people say 50%.”

She’s said goodbye to four part-time employees, updated her website, offered free delivery and shortened her hours.

“When I have a day off, I’ll go shop downtown,” she said. “I hope Lincoln really jumps into the holidays shopping local.”

When the pandemic hit and conventions went virtual, it hit Ten Thousand Villages hard.

“That was definitely a bulk of our customer base,” said manager Jill Christy.

Business is down 50% at the nonprofit that specializes in supporting artisans from around the globe.

“My board insisted on continuing to pay me my salary,” Christy said. “I think we’re all just trying our best to hang on until it’s over, whenever that might be.”

SturFast Caribbean & African Grill on O Street is a sister restaurant to Stur22 across town.

“We’ve been open two months,” said manager Steven Teters. “We’re a little unique that we’re opening in the middle of a pandemic.”

The restaurant stayed busy after early publicity, although it’s since slowed some.

“You can definitely tell it’s not the norm,” Teters said. “There’s not as many businesspeople as I would expect.”

But there are still hungry people downtown.

“We’re getting some regulars. We’re getting some construction workers in.”

Dish thrived on downtown culture, but now most of what brought fine dining patrons to 11th and O is gone.

“Lied nights were our busiest nights,” said Rachel McGill, who owns and operates Dish with her wife, Marypat Heineman. “The Lied Broadway shows have been suspended indefinitely.”

They pivoted from carryout to outdoor — adding heaters — and socially spaced indoor dining, with a 2% COVID surcharge, to offset sanitation costs and unexpected bumps, like closing for a day to clean after a member tested positive.

Revenue is half what it was last year, McGill said.

“Evenings and weekends are a little bit more normal, but nothing close to the business we were doing. Our lunch business is basically non-existent.”

The couple has advocated for passage of a $120 billion restaurant stabilization fund, designated for small, local, minority and women-owned restaurants and eateries making less than $1 million annually.

A heart-shaped sign on their windows makes a plea for that government help: Save Restaurants.

Juice Stop has served smoothies downtown since 1998.

“Obviously, we have never seen anything like this before,” said owner Joel Nowak, who owns stores in Lincoln, Grand Island and Kearney. “The first couple of months, all the stores were hit about the same; now most of them are back to normal, but downtown is definitely not.”

Nowak estimated a 40% drop in business on Q Street without the morning and lunchtime traffic from Nelnet or NRC. Even with UNL in session, they haven’t seen much of a bump.

“It’s crazy, the landscape has changed drastically. You look across the street and you don’t even see students walking around.”

Despite the lost revenue, he’s kept hours and staffing close to normal. “I’m blessed to have multiple locations to help foot the bill.”

Ghost Town-Chef Nadar, 10.21

“I remember downtown when downtown was dead. I keep saying this is an opportunity to make downtown better.” — Nader Sepahpur, longtime downtown restaurant owner

Nader Sepahpur shut down his ramen restaurant early in the pandemic and returned to Mexican, bringing back Oso Burrito, the eatery that originally occupied the space at 14th and O.

He’s in the process of returning to ramen for winter and he’s closed Marz Bar completely.

“It’s tough, you know,” he said. “If I didn’t own Yia Yia’s and own the building, I’d be out of business.”

Downtown is missing its community, he said.

“The art community is not here, the music community is not here, the entertainment is not here.”

Everyone is struggling, he said, yet he’s an optimist.

His father opened Rotisserie at 11th and O — now Dish — 39 years ago, when “downtown was dead,” said Sepahpur, who began his restaurant career there. “Yia Yia’s was a beacon when nothing was happening.”

Sepahpur sees an opportunity to make downtown better when the pandemic is over.

But now is what it is.

“There are hard times to maneuver,” he said. “I’ve kind of got to be like a gunslinger, trying to stay alive. Doing any dance to dodge the bullets.”

Photos of downtown Lincoln during the pandemic:

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