FEATURE: The Price Of Campus Closure For Claremont Businesses

The recent decision to bring students back to the Claremont Colleges for the Fall 2021 semester, pending county approval, gives hope, not just to students and faculty, but to the broader Claremont community. The Claremont Village, Claremont’s main shopping hub, is home to many eateries popular among college students. During my time in Claremont last semester, I frequented Claremont’s go-to food spots and learned why they were student favorites in normal times. With the Claremont colleges still closed thanks to the COVID-19 crisis, however, Claremont’s historically-popular establishments haven’t seen many college students since March.

To better understand the ongoing pandemic’s impact on these businesses, I interviewed management at popular bakeries and restaurants like Some Crust, I Like Pie, Bardot, Pepo Melo, 42nd Street Bagel, Viva Madrid, Petiscos, and our local Blaze Pizza. Their responses had a similar theme: the pandemic and the absence of the college community have significantly harmed business.

Since the first government-mandated shutdown in March, many businesses have struggled to find a replacement for the roughly 11,000 students and faculty who normally visit their establishments. 

However, some businesses, like Blaze Pizza, Pepo Melo, and I Like Pie, have been able to adapt. Blaze Pizza has changed to rely largely on online orders. Pepo Melo started a fruit stand during the six months following students’ departure. Owner Keith Strenger said that this fruit stand “really helped us climb out of a little bit of the rut that seemed like we could be stuck into.” Similarly, I Like Pie expanded its model to include more delivery services. It added curbside pickup and another third-party delivery service other than Postmates, Uber Eats. I Like Pie Owner/CEO Annika Corbin said that “our business model is so much more adaptive. It’s been tough and scary, but we are okay.”

42nd Street Bagel owner Laura Cayley, who also owns two Claremont restaurants, Petiscos and Viva Madrid, saw her bagel shop suffer significant losses with the departure of the college community. Cayley noted, “[that the lack of college students’ impact on] 42nd Street Bagel was very significant because we provide the bagels to the dining hall and you know [that] is a good portion of the business.” In addition to working with the dining halls, 42nd Street relies on college students for most of its retail profits. Cayley stated that “we have a good business, but the college students are the heart of that business.”

Having recently acquired Petiscos in January, Cayley could not say if the restaurant has suffered from the lack of college students. Viva Madrid, which rarely sees student diners, has avoided losses on the scale of 42nd Street’s. 

Management staff at the dine-in restaurant Bardot have also noticed an impact since the Claremont Colleges went remote. The manager stated that, before the pandemic, “[Bardot got] a lot of college students that [came] in here on weekends for brunch.” Adding to these losses, the manager also explained that “[Bardot’s patio and brunch really bring the college kids, [The Claremont Colleges’ shutdown] definitely hurt us because when [college students] are on campus we get a lot more business.”

Newer establishments have also experienced losses since the shutdown. The acai bowl shop Pepo Melo is a relatively new business, having opened about two years ago. The manager, Strenger, stated that “There was still room to grow. We are still very new. We just crossed the two year mark this past November.” When asked if there was any impact on Pepo Melo from the lack of the college community, he answered “[The] short answer is yes. I think it also stunted the growth of this location, because there are so many students at the colleges. It does take a little bit of time to create the real buzz around campus.”

Some businesses have found themselves in a place where they can give back to the community. I Like Pie began donating pies in March to healthcare workers in gratitude for their hard work. In return, the healthcare workers have provided them with business. Corbin stated that “We got a fair amount of business from that, with people coming in before or after their shifts because they are still out there in the world. They still have to go to work everyday. We find a lot of them are customers now.”

Despite the pandemic, the Claremont community and surrounding towns have sought to support local businesses. Strenger of Pepo Melo noted that “We also saw the local community, who’s not-college related, just living here locally. [The community] staying more local because of the pandemic. [The community] ventur[ed] out to more local spots. We captured some growth there as well.”

Similarly, the manager of Some Crust Bakery, Scott Feemster mentioned, “We’ve been really lucky. We have a lot of our regular customers. They’ve been really kind and nice in supporting us. We get a lot of customers that come from all over the area, La Verne, Rancho Cucamonga, Pomona, Upland, and Montclair.” These customers have been the main consumers without the college community on campus.

In the fall semester, some college students decided to live off campus in Claremont and the surrounding towns. This semester, some businesses and managers have begun noticing these students around town. The manager at Petiscos recently spotted some college students eating at the restaurant. Strenger of Pepo Melo noted that a “whether it’s supporting them just because there’s a lack of options, or they are close by or because they really want to support because it’s here in their backyard. It’s great to see that it’s been happening.”

Feemster of Some Crust Bakery spoke of a similar increase with students, saying that he’d noticed a few familiar faces while making some deliveries in a nearby apartment complex. Feemster said that “We are very humble and appreciative of the support the off campus college students are providing for us. I do not take it for granted.”

With the robust safety protocols and wide availability of takeout, locals and students can support Claremont businesses and make an impact. The establishments I interviewed were all extremely appreciative of local support. As Annika Corbin of I Like Pie stated, “It really is our livelihood at stake. I’ve been able to work around it, but I know a lot of businesses that are really struggling.” To ensure these businesses are around this fall, people in Claremont and beyond can make an effort to buy from them.

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