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Downtown Newton awaits holiday shoppers

Chad Frey
cfrey@thekansan.com
Prairy Market and Deli has remained open, labeled as an essential business, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Owner Aaron Gaeddert is hopeful that Small Business Saturday will bring cutomers back to downtown for a strong holiday season.

Aaron Gaeddert has owned Prairy Market and Deli for six years — and this year has been the most difficult for his downtown grocery store and event center.

“It was plenty tough,” Gaddert said. “It has been really difficult. It did not feel like that at the very beginning — we were allowed to stay open as an essential business. It seemed like it was contained, and we had to mix some things up.”

During a full business shutdown earlier this year designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, most downtown business were shuttered for weeks. Statewide, unemployment claims hit record numbers on a weekly basis.

Some businesses, such as Prairy Market and Deli, were deemed essential and stayed open. But as the pandemic began to drag on, even those businesses began to feel the pinch.

“With optimism, we thought it would be over quicker than it was,” Gaeddert said. “But as this has drug out, it has been a mess. Everyone is feeling it. ... It has created more and more issues.”

One of those was closing down an event room at Prairy. Some businesses are not coming back at all.

“Some are working more hours than they have ever worked. They work all day selling, then they go online at night selling again,” said Pam Stevens, director of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We are trying to keep things so we don’t shut down. ... We are trying to get things under control. People, please wear a mask, it is an easy thing to do.”

In Gaeddert’s mind, and the minds of his staff, there lies the importance of Small Business Saturday 2020. First created by American Express more than a decade ago, the day is an effort to kick off the holiday shopping season for small businesses that were getting swallowed up by the promotion of Black Friday by national chains.

This year, Small Business Saturday will fall on Nov. 28, and downtown businesses are hoping people will take the chance to rediscover downtown business at a time that is critical.

“With all of our businesses downtown, we are not all represented by websites online and things like that,” Gaeddert said. “Especially in a pandemic year it is important for people to come out on Small Business Saturday. We are all having a hard time downtown.”

The Chamber of Commerce is encouraging possible holiday shoppers to wear a mask as they consider “shopping small.”

“Please shop local. It is more important now than ever before,” Stevens said. “It has always been important, but dealing with COVID, we need to keep even more dollars here.”

Salvado Lujano Jr. and his family did the almost unthinkable during the pandemic — they opened a small restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Main. The pandemic has hit restaurants particularly hard.

“Now that I am this far into it, I look back and say, ’What the heck was I thinking?’ We did not think this pandemic would last this long. We thought it would die down, and numbers were going down — but now they are going back up,” Lujano said.

Restaurants have adapted to using carryout, curbside and delivery services. Some have operated as drive-thru-only for months — an option that is not available for Del Puente because of its location.

But Lujano is thankful for how things have gone — even if the restaurant has never had the chance to really boom because of the pandemic.

“We are thankful we are healthy. We are still able to get up in the morning and go to work,” Lujano said. “The restaurant may not have the output that we would like, but we are still able to get up, work and leave it to the man upstairs.”

His restaurant, and many other local businesses, are hopeful that Small Business Saturday can be a time of rediscovery for the community — a time to re-find downtown — and, of course, spend some holiday shopping money in small businesses that are struggling.

“It is crucial. We have a lot of people that have considered shopping local. Some think if you do that once, you have done your part. We have to remember those (businesses) are here and part of our community,” Lujano said. “They need those sales to keep their families here and keep their business afloat.”

Gaeddert and his employees have found reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving season.

“We are hopeful, and thankful, that things will rebound a little bit during the holidays,” Gaeddert said. “We are thankful that people will still be out there shopping. I am thankful that we have made it this far.”

Prairy Market and Deli has seen steep declines in the number of patrons dining in the deli during the COVID-19 pandemic.