North Attleborough business owners reflect on working during the pandemic

Chef Rob Nihill makes an order of chicken scarpariello at Stone Ridge Grill and Bar. The business, like so many others, has had to adjust to a new reality over the last year. Staff Photo/Max Bowen
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By Max

It was a little over a year ago that Peter Kalemkeridis closed the doors of the Stone Ridge Grill and Bar and switched to takeout, following an order from the state as COVID-19 became the new reality.

Back then, he figured it would be a short time before things returned to normal. A year later, patrons and staff wear their masks, tables are set six feet apart, and a good portion of the business comes from customers picking up their orders.

We’ve never closed,” he said. “We did what we needed to do to stay open.”

There isn’t a store, salon, restaurant, or retailer that hasn’t had their livelihoods impacted by the pandemic, which led to shutdowns in the U.S. in March 2020. Many are still pulling things together, working with reduced staff and hours. All are looking forward to the day when ‘normal’ can return.

Going Virtual and Back Again

The Craft Bar on Kelley Boulevard is well known for its classes, which in the past were held several times a month. When COVID forced the shutdown, co-owners Pam Morgan and Patti Bukoff pivoted to Zoom classes and take-home kits. Morgan said that this helped keep the business afloat and gave customers something to do. But it didn’t have the same feeling.

We really think that the value of our business is the experience of being here,” said Morgan.

It was a similar situation at Striking Beauties on Church Street. For weeks, owner Dena Paolino held Zoom classes and posted instructional videos. She said it’s gone well, particularly for her Rock Steady classes which helps those with Parkinson’s Disease. Those with the disease are among the at-risk population for getting COVID.

You just learn to make do,” she said.

Dena Paolino, owner of Striking Beauties, has enjoyed the slower pace of the last 12 months. She’s happy to have in-person classes, and continues to offer Zoom versions. Staff Photo/Max Bowen

Both locations have resumed in-person classes, but several rules are in place. The Craft Bar re-opened for classes last October, and Morgan said that nearly all have been sold out. There is a limit of 15 people per class (they normally have 25), along with required masks and everyone six feet apart.

The women are done being home,” said Bukoff. “They want to get out and talk to their friends.”

Paolino has continued online classes, but has brought members back into the studio as well. Masks are required, hands washed, and temperatures taken. Paolino is also an attorney, and said that she enjoyed the slower pace that existed for awhile—she’s only been to court three times since the pandemic began and most hearings are done via Zoom.

I definitely will continue with the Zoom class,” said Paolino. “The Rock Steady people like that and it’s nice to have that option. I will continue to add to the online library.”

Eating In and Taking Out

Restaurants have been among the hardest hit. When the pandemic began, those businesses laid off their staff as they switched to takeout-only. In June, outdoor dining brought new life to the restaurants and indoor dining resumed once the weather began to cool. Mad Moose Saloon Owner Ceil Weeman said the entire experience has been educational as they learned to work within the limits set by state and federal governments.

Mad Moose will have been open for three years this April, and Weeman said one of the hardest parts was not being able to celebrate their last anniversary amidst the closure.

We had been planning the anniversary before all this happened,” said Weeman. “We were planning different things for the menu to attract people in for that day. We had ideas from everybody.”

Takeout remains a popular choice, said Weeman, with some people still nervous about eating indoors. She hopes that outdoor dining can resume in the spring, that it really changed the downtown area.

It was a plus for the town, the streets were alive with people,” said Weeman. “You’d see people outside, dressed up and it helped business. It’s definitely a plus. It reminded you of the times gone by when life was more simple and enjoyable.”

Stone Ridge Grill and Bar opened in November 2019. When the closure was announced, Kalemkeridis looked to the chef and said, “we’re doing takeout.” The entire staff was laid off with the exception of three people and Kalemkeridis has been able to bring some back. He said the customers have been great and very supportive during this time.

I can’t thank them enough for supporting us,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Stone Ridge established a 34-seat outdoor dining setup, complete with live music. Kalemkeridis hopes to continue this service going forward.

I know people really enjoyed it,” said Kalemkeridis. “I expect there will be some people still concerned. I would keep it for them.”

Patti Bukoff (left) and Pam Morgan of The Craft Bar said their in-person classes have been sold out since they resumed in October. They’re hopeful that normal will return someday. Staff Photo/Max Bowen

The Mood Among Owners

Matt Slobogan is the owner of The Preservation Framer and runs the Downtown North Attleborough Facebook and Instagram pages. He often speaks to other owners in the downtown area and said that though the last year has been difficult, no one is ready to call it quits.

We’ve all been through so much,” said Slobogan. “I don’t think the business owners want to complain. I don’t think anyone is at the end of their rope. They’re banding together.”

Like other owners, Slobogan has faced a lot of challenges since last March. He closed his business to in-person customers and went online-only. When he could reopen, it was with limits on how many people could be in the store. One of the tougher hurdles was what to do with The Churchwood Gallery, a space adjacent to the Preservation Framer that in the past hosted yoga classes and art and music shows. He said the space has been used very little over the last year. He added that restaurants and performing spaces such as Dancers Drawer have been harder hit than others, since their income relies on gatherings.

The mood is definitely positive, but the sense that I am getting is the restaurants are the ones hurting the most and do need support,” he said.

Slobogan and his family have helped out where they can, getting takeout or dining at locally-owned businesses. During the lockdown he posted a series of photos with brief stories to the Downtown social media pages to spotlight the owners and what they had to cope with. He’s planning another one in the near future, working with local photographer Derek Cameron. He cited groups like the Attleboro-area SWAT teams, who banded together to help businesses in need.

No one has an answer, but anyone would help if they could,” he said.

Looking Ahead

The vaccine rollout continues to move forward and the business re-opening is now in the second part of the third phase. Kalemkeridis said that he’s feeling optimistic about the days ahead.

That we’ll be back to normal by the end of the year,” he said when asked what lies ahead.

Paolini is hopeful, but remarked that as the good news comes out, at the same time there’s new COVID variants being talked about. She said the government has done well in providing information, but sorting through everything is a challenge.

You wonder when they’ll stop with the masks, when we will be able to,” she said.

When asked if she felt positive about the days ahead, Bukoff said “yes and no.” She said people are thrilled when they learn they can get the vaccine. Morgan believes things will get better and looks forward to those days.

We’re still staying really safe here,” said Morgan.

Slobogan said the town government has done a great job keeping people updated and providing information. He pointed to the outdoor dining that was allowed in the warmer weather. Slobogan said the town put a lot of work into setting the guidelines quickly and helped with getting outside heaters.

I think they let the businesses do what the businesses should do, which is make their own decisions,” said Slobogan. “I feel confident the town has our back and continues to do so.”

Weeman said a half-full restaurant is better than one that is completely empty. She said the town has done well in supporting its businesses. She pointed out that the downtown area has filled up in recent years and was afraid it would become empty once more. But even a year later, many of the stores remain and new ones have opened.

I guess we’re pretty resilient,” she said. “New places are open—our town is a magnet. It’s not a big city, but definitely a great place to be.”