With few tourists and months of lost income, many Moab businesses are in a perilous position, balancing economic pressure with concerns about customer and employee safety. Respecting public health orders, each is creating an individual plan for how their business will adapt to the “new normal.”
“We know, absolutely, that when we open we won’t be the same business as when we closed,” said Natali Zollinger, general manager of popular Moab restaurant 98 Center. “We’re not going to be what we were.”
“To figure out what the next steps look like, we’re committed to going slow and listening to everyone on our staff, from the dishwasher to the owner,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Andy Nettell, owner of Back of Beyond books and Arches Thai owner Calvin Nakprad. Both reported that listening to their employees was guiding how they were moving forward at their businesses.
Moving forward with caution
All reported that they considered how to move ahead after Utah Governor Gary Herbert announced the state would move into a “Moderate Risk” category on May 1, allowing more permissive operations for many businesses.
“We talked to the staff, I talked to my other owners and we very easily and clearly decided that no, we're not going to open regardless of what the state may allow,” said Nettell.
While the store never ceased operating, Back of Beyond Books closed their location to the public in March, retooling their business to focus on pickup orders, deliveries and a focus on their online rare book sales. Nettell laid off the store’s staff and was the sole employee until recently when he’s been bringing people back on.
“Financially, we’re taking a huge hit,” said Nettell, “but when I look at case numbers for this virus, they’re still increasing.”
“It’s taking a big toll on us, with Moab being such a seasonal town,” reported Nakprad.
“We’re just grateful for the people who work for us; we want to keep them fed and able to pay bills, and safe,” he said, adding, “The thing is that information is changing so fast that it’s sometimes hard to know what the best thing to do is.”
He reported that while income is down, he is checking in with customers and employees of the restaurant to guide changes to the business.
Arches Thai announced that while public health orders barring dine-in service have been lifted in Moab, they would keep their dining room closed while continuing delivery and to-go services for now.
“The reaction from people has been so supportive,” said Nakprad, who said he had been concerned about criticisms. Instead, he said, he’s heard from many in the Moab community who have been appreciative of the business’s transparency and communication.
“It’s a business and we’re trying to make a profit,” said Nakprad, “but at the same time, we have customers and employees who have families. People have family members, mothers, grandfathers at home who can’t get sick: it’s not worth it to rush.”
Nettell was even more blunt.
“My 91-year-old dad lives here and I’ll be damned if I'm going to put him at risk,” he said. “Almost everyone on my staff has someone within their family who is at risk.”
“I think Grand County so far has dodged a huge bullet and I think the health department has done a wonderful job,” said Nettell, “but to say that we’re in the clear is just naive.”
Restaurants reimagine service
Nakprad noted that his business had planned on making some big purchases this spring. Instead, he says, they are spending money on pivoting online. Arches Thai launched a new website that makes it easier for customers to order takeout and delivery.
“It’s clear that we have to adapt so quickly,” Nakprad said. “Things are not going to go back to just eating in a dining room at a restaurant.”
Zollinger echoes that sentiment. 98 Center made an early decision to close their dining area before public health orders were issued and later decided to close operations entirely.
“It was really important to us to close, even though it was so hard,” said Zollinger.
“We don’t want money to be the leading factor when we make decisions,” she said, reporting that the restaurant’s management wanted to take time to talk to industry peers, public health officials and their staff to come up with a plan for how to operate safely.
“First and foremost, we wanted our employees to feel safe. May 1, no one felt confident,” she said. She reported that the staff took the last two weeks to come up with new policies and ideas for the business. 98 Center reopened for take-out and delivery orders on May 13; their dining area remains closed. Staff members who were hired as servers now will be delivery drivers.
“We’re going slow. We’re thinking about when June 1 comes around: what does that look like?” said Zollinger.
“The business turns four years old on June 6,” she said. “We really want to open our doors, but we want it to be with a new idea of how we can be a local spot that’s safe and has the same vibes. There’s definitely a lot of reconsidering what we’ve built.”
Looking toward the future
Nettell says that he’s thankful for all the community support his business has felt. He reported a customer gave his entire stimulus check to the store in a show of support.
“That just brought me to my knees,” Nettell said, “that’s just beautiful.”
Still, the store owner is pragmatic about the financial outlook for his business and others in town.
“All the community support won’t get us by,” he said. “We’re a tourist town and depend on tourist dollars.”
Nettell said that, for his business, they have decided to trust that tourist customers will “be patient” with them as they continue to uphold the safety precautions they’ve decided on.
“There’s so much in the whole discussion that feels very emotional,” said Nettell. “It feels gut-wrenching to have to make these decisions.”
Zollinger said that the reexamination of 98 Center’s business strategy has been exhausting, but she feels it’s necessary.
“We’re still pretty scared to open, in a way,” said Zollinger. “It feels like the right time but, in general, there’s a deeper conversation that we want to be part of about the direction that our town is taking.”
She added, “If we’re really here for the locals, this is our duty. We have to step up and embrace this change and celebrate Moab feeling safe.”
“People are adapting so quick, but also so slow,” said Nakprad. “It’s really hard to see how things are going to change in the future.”
“You can look at the data and just see numbers, but those numbers are people’s lives,” said Nakprad. “It’s a rough and confusing, interesting time. I just want to see how the world turns out after this.”