Supply chain issues squeezing Johnstown’s small businesses

JOHNSTOWN — Edna Dermott, who owns The Plaid Giraffe cafe and gift shop with her family, fears the business may soon fail. 

“If it stays like this, I’ll shut my doors. We won’t have a choice,” said Dermott, who says she has occupied the store in downtown Johnstown for 11 years. 

“It hurts because I am taking from my house money to support my business. We take money from our household, and we put it in here to pay the bills,” she said on a recent Friday afternoon. “That’s all we can do, but we can only do that for so long.”

Like many small businesses in the United States and in Johnstown, The Plaid Giraffe is feeling the pain on multiple fronts. From diminished foot traffic to the ongoing supply-chain backlog, small businesses like those in Johnstown are bearing a big burden as a result of the pandemic. Business owners in the city say they are hoping that events like Small Business Saturday on November 27 can encourage people to patronize local shops, because the bottom line is that if business doesn’t get better, many businesses that give Main Street America its appeal may be forced to shutter. 

“Then we don’t have a downtown; we have Walmart,” said Jessica Henry McClements, president of the Downtown Johnstown Business and Professional Association and owner of McLemon’s Boutique. “Then you don’t get the charming, unique businesses down here.” 

Dermott pointed to empty tables at The Plaid Giraffe. Prior to the pandemic, Dermott said the cafe would typically be bustling with a lunchtime crowd eating sandwiches, wraps and paninis. At the moment, the shop had no customers. 

“We’ve dwindled right down,” she said.

Dermott said the business had to shut down for about four months during the pandemic, and it hasn’t regained its normal volume since. As a result, The Plaid Giraffe has cut back its hours to four days a week rather than six, Dermott said. 

It doesn’t help that food costs are way up and that supply delivery is unpredictable, she said.   

“My cost price alone is four times higher than it was six months ago,” Dermott said. “Food costs are just out of sight.”

Shawn Beebie, owner of Second Wind Coffee, said he has struggled with the unpredictable supply, a problem that presents added difficulty for a small business that uses so many products each day.  

“There are so many intricacies and items. From napkins to paper towels to toilet paper,” Beebie said. “But then you have sugar. I have six different sugars I have to keep track of.” There are also items like stir sticks, lids, cups and sleeves. “And then all the food items,” Beebie said. “The chips and all the baked goods and all the ingredients to do the baking, the ingredients to make the sandwiches. It’s a lot.” 

Beebie said that his suppliers, such as Driscoll Foods and Sysco, often can’t fulfill parts of orders, but there is no predictable pattern. One week, he says he won’t be able to get cup sleeves, the next he won’t be able to get cream cheese. 

“You don’t know each week what they are going to be out of,” he said. 

Beebie, who has been forced to lay off his entire staff of six, said he’s done what he can to work around shortages, but it can be difficult and isn’t sustainable. For instance, when plastic cups weren’t available during the summer, Beebie said he served iced drinks in paper cups, which tend to leak over time. 

To deal with the unpredictability, business owners like Beebie and Dermott said they order supplies in greater bulk, but that causes a financial strain at a time when business is slow. 

“We try to stock a little bit more than I want to, but we try not to stock too much because business hasn’t been booming,” Dermott said. 

Of course, it’s not just restaurants and cafes affected by supply-chain disruptions. 

Nicole DeLorenzo, owner of Vishnu Music and Varieties, says a few acoustic-electric guitars tell the story. DeLorenzo said she ordered the guitars, which have a “tigery finish” in March only to be told by her distributor that the instruments wouldn’t be available until the summer. Summer came, no guitars. She was told they’d be available in the fall. They still haven’t arrived. 

“I’m hoping to get them for Christmas,” DeLorenzo said. But last she heard, the guitars aren’t expected to arrive until next year. DeLorenzo said in her more than 30 years running a music store, she’s never waited this long for an order. Typically, a guitar comes within a few weeks, she said. 

“It makes it hard because I can’t get things as quickly as I could in the past,” DeLorenzo said. “The downside is we can only guarantee what we have in the store.” 

DeLorenzo, who stocks about 100 guitars, said she places orders through wholesalers throughout the country who get the products and hold them in shipping containers. She said she works with one distributor in New York City who has had items waiting to be unloaded in California for more than a month. That distributor also told DeLorenzo that the price of shipping containers are now three times pre-pandemic costs

“That eventually gets passed on, passed on, passed on,” DeLorenzo said. 

She explained small businesses often have a difficult time keeping pace with big box stores, such as Guitar Center, which can place orders in greater bulk and therefore gain easier access to shipping containers. 

“We try to be as competitive as we can,” said DeLorenzo, adding that small businesses have the advantage of maintaining personal relationships with their customers — a dynamic that is helpful in a music store, where instruments need to be physically handled, tuned and repaired. “We offer more of a personal touch.” 

Louanne Vannostrand, who has been helping run the family-owned Something Special infant and children’s clothes and toy shop for 31 years, knows about personal connection. She said she has watched babies grow up to have babies of their own. If stores in downtown go away, the city loses that continuity and family feel, she said. 

“[These businesses] make our community a better place.” 

Like many businesses, Something Special has been having an unprecedented amount of trouble getting merchandise, Vannostrand said.  

“It’s clear across the board,” she said. For instance, in one recent order, she was able to get a lot of girls’ clothes, but the majority of the boys’ clothes she requested weren’t available. 

“The entire thing is just weird,” Vannostrand said. “It’s like somebody drops a pebble and it just ripples out and affects everything.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at awaite@dailygazette.net and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

By Andrew Waite

Leave a Reply