Sen. Tim Kaine meets with Suffolk, Franklin business owners: “There’s a whole lot of pent-up demand”

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Dave Ress, The Virginian-Pilot
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Sen. Tim Kaine kicked off a statewide tour Monday about the pandemic’s impact on small businesses in Virginia’s smaller communities with visits to Suffolk and Franklin.

On Franklin’s Main Street, Cat’s Meow owner Debbie Crowder’s voice trembled when she talked about how the town rallied round after the first few months, when state orders required stores to shut.

“They wanted to be sure we stayed here. They were here with us and they’re still here with us. … People come to the door and they ask: ‘how are you doing, how are you really doing?” she said.

The city helped with small business grants, using funds from the first federal relief act — something that really struck Kaine, since that portion of the funding had sparked controversy. But those funds have played a bigger than expected role in helping communities and the businesses that serve them bounce back, he said.

Crowder told Kaine she scrambled after the first stay-at-home order to find ways to keep in touch with customers. She networked with other boutique clothing store owners, trading ideas, and hired someone to launch a social media marketing effort and set up a web page. Before opening in May, she ran a virtual fashion show. During the weeks the store was closed, she dipped into savings to buy new point-of-sale technology.

“I thought I could stay at home and while or I could try to do something to make the business better,” she said.

At Serve Restaurant, across the street, which opened just a few weeks before the first stay-at-home orders, “we had to turn on a dime,” owner Mike Smith said.

He had just finished renovating the restaurant but quickly set up a takeout and delivery operation.

Executive chef Nicolas Hagen took over the parking lot, setting up a patio dining area with a half-dozen picnic tables, a stage, barbecue smoker and lights, in just a week and half. The city sped the paperwork and permit process to keep the investment on track, he said.

Kaine said he’s been struck by the efforts businesses have made, and how so many have been working on ways to improve their operations for the time when pandemic worries have eased.

”I’m feeling it picking up, he told Katrina Manley, owner of the Spoken Interior Homes store on Franklin’s Main Street, after she said she’d increased her online business but was expecting more traffic in the store, too. ”I can just feel it,” Kaine said. “There’s a whole lot of pent-up demand.”