Businesses in The Woodlands prep for changes in wake of coronavirus

Market Street on Six Pines Drive is one of the retail centers that has adapted to new rules for gatherings. (Andrew Christman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Market Street on Six Pines Drive is one of the retail centers that has adapted to new rules for gatherings. (Andrew Christman/Community Impact Newspaper)

Market Street on Six Pines Drive is one of the retail centers that has adapted to new rules for gatherings. (Andrew Christman/Community Impact Newspaper)

Locally owned businesses in The Woodlands are facing potential changes following announcements from the state, Montgomery and Harris counties that affect day-to-day operations, with some owners reporting decreases in business up to 50%. Others have found a niche in which they can provide that larger stores do not.

As an alternative to a traditional grocery shopping, Theiss Farms Market on Rayford Road has been seeing success over the past week by having fresh produce, though owner Mike Watthuber said future plans are uncertain.

"We appreciate people finding us," Watthuber said. "Being a small business, we don't have the immediate draw like a Kroger or Walmart. We're extremely thankful because we don't know how long it will last, and we're just trying to help the community."

Watthuber said the market is looking to bring back its delivery services, which are normally suspended through winter months. Theiss Farms Market also has a presence at a farmers market on Tamina Road on Saturdays, where Watthuber said a drive-thru market is going to be attempted.

"Financially, we're doing okay," he said. "As long as the customers keep coming, we're happy."

The biggest concern the market has moving forward is overall supply of fresh produce, as there are still a few weeks remaining before products like green beans start coming in, he said. Watthuber said he is working with local suppliers, such as Pain Train Salsa, based out of Tomball, to keep the market stocked.

Among more traditional restaurants, Hummingbird Tea Room owner Nasim Bell said as of March 14, she has had to cut hours for two employees at her FM 2978 shop, and she is in the process of examining hours for core staff as a cost-cutting measure.

"I am hoping in the next couple of weeks, things would have calmed down a bit, the fear level reduced and small businesses will not be impacted as much," Bell said. "We are all in this together."

Bell said the factors affecting her restaurant have been families stocking groceries, and restrictions in place have discouraged patrons from coming in. To keep business going, Bell said she has partnered with delivery services such as DoorDash, UberEats, Grubhub and Favor, and she hopes business can return to normal. The tea room is also promoting curbside pickup for orders, with staff taking meals out to customers' cars.

Market Street Marketing Director Noemi Gonzalez said the retail center on Six Pines Drive has had to make changes as well. According to a statement from Gonzalez, tenants are reporting to the management to alter operations, and guests are encouraged to call ahead to ensure restaurants and retailers are open.

"Based on the recommendations from the County and Judge Mark Keough, Market Street will not be hosting any events through April 30 and it will be determined if/when they will be rescheduled," Gonzalez wrote. "Market Street is working diligently with our housekeeping department to maximize cleanliness and to provide additional disinfecting measures using recommended CDC cleaning supplies as needed throughout the property."

Struggling center

In the Grogan's Mill Village Center, some businesses already affected by the recent closure of the anchor Randalls grocery store there said new restrictions on public gatherings along with customer fears have further hurt their businesses.

Mehmet Ozpagda, owner of Maine-ly Sandwiches, said the Randalls closing had already resulted in fewer customer visits to the shopping plaza last month before he saw a 60% drop in business this week as coronavirus concerns grew.

“After Randalls, maybe two or three weeks later, the coronavirus came. And it’s really bad now. Nobody’s outside; nobody’s in the restaurant; we need some business," Ozpagda said. "We are doing only 40% of our business. It could get better or not, I’m not sure, because every day another instruction is coming through."

Ozpagda said his dining room has been far emptier than usual this week, but the restaurant is still serving meals both in-person and through delivery or catering orders. Maine-ly remains open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily and offers free delivery to customers within a 10-mile radius of the Grogans Mill location.

“We need to be strong. Just like in [Hurricane Harvey], it wasn’t easy. And this time we have to be strong and together," he said. "All restaurants, homes, other businesses, they have to keep each other and be strong. That’s my opinion. That’s what I am trying to do.”

Wesley Cordova, co-owner of The Blue Lion Pub—which opened in The Woodlands on March 10—said the bar had a strong launch before business fell off recently. Cordova said he began sanitary preparations in the establishment prior to Montgomery County issuing new occupancy orders, such as installing a hand-washing station and spacing seating 10 feet apart, but patronage remained low this week, and he said he expects the trend to continue toward a shutdown of bars in the area.

"I think there’s a growing movement towards not going out irrespective of what the Montgomery County judge says. There are some people that are advocating for not just distance at a bar but no bars, pubs, restaurants at all," Cordova said. "I think that’s actually going to snowball and so irrespective of what the judge says, people are not going to go out. I think that’s coming. I don’t know that it’s here, but it’s coming.”

Cordova also noted the strain many businesses are experiencing in balancing their livelihood and the feeling of social responsibility related to coronavirus preparations.

“I’m feeling a little guilty, because I’m feeling like I have a social responsibility to close. I feel that, but at the same time, I’ve got to survive. So I’m feeling conflicted about how to proceed, which is why I took the steps that I took yesterday," he said. "I have people that are depending on tips and me to make a living. So you’ve got to weigh the risk and weigh your responsibilities to your employees and to creditors and everybody else. It’s a tough thing to consider."

Pressure to close

Chad Gauntt, co-owner of Blue Door Coffee on Waterway Avenue, said the coffee shop has seen business drop as new government guidance related to the coronavirus has been released over the past week.

“When this first started, it was something that was really concerning for us, obviously. And it seemed like things started happening last Friday, when everything really started closing and a lot of people were announcing. And so we were off about 30% that day, that’s how quickly and immediately there was an impact," Gauntt said.

Since then, Gauntt said patronage continued to fall, and the store worked to implement strategies to shift its business and address what he said are the shop's social and ethical responsibilities to provide for its customers while addressing community safety concerns.

"We are trying to kind of shift and pivot a little bit so that we can accommodate peoples’ need for meals now, like take-home meals," he said.

Blue Door remains open for counter service and takeout orders, with new packages like breakfast and lunch family meal platters available alongside the shop's regular offerings. Despite the shift, Gauntt said he is concerned about the prolonged effects a closure could have on his store and other small businesses in the community and urged customers to support their neighborhood establishments through delivery or carryout orders and gift card purchases.

"When we have to close down or when we take a 40%-50% hit in our normal revenue, it’s a model that doesn’t work. We’re going to have to figure other options out, or there’s going to be a lot of peoples’ favorite restaurants in The Woodlands that are going to probably go out of business," Gauntt said. "I think we’ll be fine, but we’re having to scramble.”

Andrew Christman - Ben Thompson