The COVID-19 pandemic has changed Belmont Shore.
Required shutdowns and a drop in foot traffic led to store closures. Vacancies have repeatedly popped up along Second Street.
But business owners in the area say the story’s not over for the shopping and dining district. It’s just time for a new chapter.
As more and more properties are being newly developed or sold for new businesses, Belmont Shore Business Association’s secretary and co-owner of Legends Sports Bar, Matt Peterson, said the area is in the midst of a transformation.
“The composite of businesses is going to change throughout the Shore as we go through the next 12 months,” Peterson said.
While older businesses like Gap, Fern’s Garden and Blue Cheese Pizza are gone, new options like cinnamon roll bakery Cinnaholic and Wine Beach have opened—while others, like South of Nick’s Mexican Kitchen, are in the works—to fill in the gaps.
Aaron Tofani, co-founder of Rance’s Pizza and a BSBA board member, said the shakeup may have been a long time coming.
The primary vacancies, he said, are in buildings once occupied by what he calls “legacy retail,” which he defined as both larger and smaller retailers that felt outdated for one reason or another.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the neighborhood or pandemic,” Peterson said of the area’s retail struggles. “People are buying their goods through online sources, and that’s hurting retail all over the country, not just in Belmont Shore.”
As for what’s next, Tofani said he envisions more modern retail offerings, while “great new restaurant concepts will serve to anchor the area.”
But the area’s mainstays, including Legends and Rance’s Pizza, aren’t going anywhere.
“For us, transitioning to takeout only was relatively easy,” Tofani said of his restaurant’s Chicago-style deep-dish offerings. “Generally speaking, we weathered the storm fairly well.”
That’s not to say the pandemic didn’t impact his business. Customer traffic declined during stay-at-home orders, and costs rose overall due to supply chain issues. He noted one thing in particular that saw a dramatic price increase: chicken wings.
“Costs skyrocketed for food,” Tofani said. “Sometimes, you couldn’t find what you need, or guys would run out.”
Legends, meanwhile, was able to get by with reduced staffing thanks in part to a city initiative that will sunset over the next couple of months: the use of parklets.
“I think the parklets have given so many more people an opportunity to come and enjoy the space,” Peterson said. “Parklets were incredibly important for the sustainability of a lot of the restaurants in the city.”
Of course, parklets were a controversial topic in Belmont Shore. Complaints ranging from the loss of parking to public urination were heard during council meetings as the city decided how to handle the new structures along Second Street.
The city is now phasing out the program, though officials have allowed some businesses to apply to make their structures permanent, which Peterson has decided to do.
“We are very desirous of having a permanent parklet,” Peterson said. “Hopefully, we can go through the permit process to build a permanent outdoor dining experience.”
Some business owners on Second Street, though, believe that the program has served its purpose. Tofani, who also serves on the Belmont Shore Parking & Business Improvement Area Advisory Commission, is one of them.
“They were intended as temporary solutions to the restrictions on indoor dining,” Tofani said. “It’s helped us make up ground, and it’s been a wonderful addition to the community for the time.”
“But I plan to take my temporary one down at the end of August, because it’s just time.”
It’s also time, the BSBA has decided, for the return of events. The neighborhood’s Stroll and Savor event, for example, came back to Second Street last month for the first time in two years.
Through Stroll and Savor, patrons can walk up and down Second Street to sample restaurants’ menus. Other businesses along the corridor also benefit.
“Although they might not shop at your shop that day, they are going to see it,” Heather Duncan, who owns the gift and clothing store Blue Windows, said of people visiting for Stroll and Savor. “That might not be their goal that day, but they might come back, and that’s what you don’t see.”
This exposure is important, but businesses like Duncan’s were helped through the pandemic thanks to an already established, loyal customer base.
“I was really humbled by how much there was an outpouring of support,” Duncan said. “I think especially [during and after] the pandemic, people were more small business minded.”
Now, businesses like Rance’s, Blue Windows and Legends are seeing even more customers than they did prior to the pandemic.
“Despite the recession and things being more expensive, I think you, me, your friends, my friends—we all just want to get out and live our lives,” Peterson said.
People are appreciating their rediscovered freedoms, which has not gone unnoticed by business owners.
“Certainly during the pandemic, it was so weird because it was just tumbleweeds because no one was allowed to be out,” Tofani said. “But as soon as those restrictions got lifted, I would say the vibe has been more jovial and celebratory and happier than ever.”
For those who came to the area long before 2020, this isn’t necessarily a surprise.
“Since I have been here so long,” Duncan said, “I know that Second Street will always revive itself.”