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Ashland businesses evolve, focus on post-pandemic future

Photo by Jim Flint Downtown Ashland is all dressed up in its holiday finery, with more than a million lights illuminating the core after dark. Holiday business has been mixed, with some businesses flat and others seeing increases over the year before. Most are optimistic about the new year, especially with OSF promising to be in full swing.

The pandemic has been a mixed bag for Ashland businesses.

On the one hand, many shoppers early on increased their online buying when they were afraid to venture out.

But as the pandemic progressed, many consumers began discovering that thinking small had its advantages. Patronizing neighborhood stores and buying locally came with benefits — personalized customer service, value and convenience among them.

For Ashland, it was a double whammy: COVID-19 and closure of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Businesses had to deal with lockdowns, masking and physical distancing mandates. But even as vaccination rates increased and effects of the pandemic eased, there was still the financial hit for many businesses stemming from the loss of OSF tourism.

Businesses coped by downsizing, economizing and marketing more creatively. Some added new products or services. Others were forced to tap savings and reserves.

Retailers joined restaurants in offering home delivery, some using staff and others using delivery apps like DoorDash. While at-home food consumption and the rise in meal-delivery apps have leveled off from their pandemic peak, those sales look to remain ahead of pre-pandemic levels going forward.

Because it is a tourist town, Ashland has an unusually large number of specialty retailers and restaurants. Its unique destination shopping and dining aspect gives Ashland an edge over other towns its size, and attracts both local and regional shoppers.

Ashland business owners are cautiously optimist about 2022. The source of that optimism is in large part the belief that OSF will be back in operation.

Northwest Nature Shop’s Chris Uhtoff is encouraged with OSF’s putting on plays in the winter season.

“I hope Ashland can present itself as a desirable winter destination,” he said. “With the wildfires in the summer, we want to encourage visitors to come in the winter months when smoke is not a concern.”

He sees potential in downtown Ashland developing into a cozy, festive winter destination with outdoor events such as winter markets, so popular in Europe.

Marie Uhtoff says Northwest Nature Shop has dealt with the same kind of labor shortage experienced elsewhere in the country.

“It has been difficult to find and retain employees,” she said, “which has made us place an even higher value on the people we are able to hire.”

She says holiday cards are big this year as people reach out to friends and loved ones. “And we’re selling a lot of puzzles and games that reflect a turn toward family activities. We’re also seeing a trend toward quality toys that encourage kids to be active and creative.”

The Crown Jewel, in appreciation of its staff, gave everyone a raise earlier this year, so each is making above $15 per hour. Co-owner Anne Robison says the pandemic made them value their employees even more, “if that’s possible,” she said.

“Holiday business is well ahead of last year so far. We feel very optimistic. The pandemic has made all of us value in-person interactions, and that includes shopping in person,” she said.

She believes that will increase next year with OSF being in full swing, and with all the new restaurants and outdoor activities the area has to offer.

Business is up

For The Paddington Family of Stores, the pandemic changed things from the beginning. Employee benefits were expanded with increased wages, life insurance and an employee assistant program. In 2022, full-time employees will get health insurance.

“We have a much leaner staff,” said Pam Hammond, president, “with one less store, three instead of four. We reduced hours slightly as well. Product has been turning faster lately than in the last two years.”

She says customers like their holiday offerings. “Our kitchen area is experiencing strong sales in gourmet food, baking and cooking tools, and home textiles,” she said. There is optimism about 2022, “but we realize inflation and supply chain problems will remain.”

Bloomsbury Books began offering evening shopping hours during COVID, but has discontinued that due to staffing shortages.

“Business is up from last year and approaching 2019 levels,” owner Sheila Burns said. “It’s mainly due to many in the valley shopping locally. We are so grateful. And we’re optimistic for 2022.”

TreeHouse Books’ opening hours are shorter than in pre-pandemic years. They found that keeping up with mandates and other pandemic requirements were a strain on staff.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, our customers began going to our website to shop local, which wasn’t really happening before,” said co-owner Jane Almquist. “So now every week we continue to add more books and products to our e-commerce store.”

Books continue to be their bestsellers. Also selling well are Legos, a new line for the store, and a line of art kits.

“This holiday is a bit busier than last year,” she said. “I attribute that mostly to our community’s core value of shopping local.”

There will be special activities at the store Dec. 21 for the winter solstice, she said.

Business at Ashland ACE Hardware has continued to be good through the pandemic.

“At the beginning, it was partly due to extra unemployment benefits and stimulus payments,” said Cathy Trower, one of the managers. “People had extra time and fixed up their yards and the insides of their homes.”

She says the past year has been tricky with regard to supply chain issues.

“ACE is our main supplier, but we occasionally have had to go outside our usual sources in order to keep our shelves stocked,” she said. Sometimes that meant checking with a different ACE warehouse, or using suppliers outside the ACE network.

“In 2022 we’re going to keep doing what we do,” Trower said, “and that’s offering superior customer service. That’s how we go up against the big-box stores. We think it’s important to know our customers. We’re like a family.”

‘Ashland is a great winter destination’

For Ashland Book Exchange, the loyalty of local shoppers has been key.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we have had extraordinary support from the community,” Roy Laird said.

“Under the circumstances, our bookstore is doing well, and this year’s holiday sales are good. We are cautiously optimistic about the future, knowing that nothing is certain in these times.”

Gold & Gems Fine Jewelry says business has been down since the closing of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“We miss the tourists,” owner Richard Hansen said. “It’s too soon to measure Christmas sales. Going forward, we will take what we can get.”

Bestow & Bloom, which opened in 2017, opened a second location in 2019 to house its large-scale plants and workshops.

“When we went into lockdown, we closed our original location and moved everything into the new space,” said co-owner Nyki Keefe. “This petty much eliminated our workshops.”

Business is down compared to last year. In addition to discontinuing workshops during the pandemic, the firm was no longer able to host Makers Markets or indoor shopping events with other artisans.

“Our Second Saturday events have also suffered,” she said, “which were on their way to becoming anticipated events with live music, food trucks, vendors, games and lots of fun.”

She’s uncertain about when things will get back to normal for Bestow & Bloom.

“We are so excited for a time when we can take our masks off and sit around a big table full of people to create fun, surrounded by plants again,” Keefe said.

“We will be focusing on bringing our workshops back, probably under a tent outdoors with gas heaters like some of the restaurants have been doing.”

Travel Essentials has changed its focus during the pandemic.

“We are buying more U.S. travel products,” said co-owner Nancy Bestor. “Guides on national parks, interstate travel, and inspirational travel guides are all very popular right now.”

The business has addressed supply chain issues by buying more in advance. “We have kept a very close eye on our inventory,” she said, “and we have lots of great merchandise in stock.”

Business at the travel store is up over last Christmas. “I think in part because of the OSF holiday show,” she said, “and in part because more people are getting on the road — and in some cases, in the air.”

She says holiday shows at OSF, Oregon Cabaret and other venues are drawing people to town. “Ashland is a great winter destination, with charming holiday lighting to boot.”

Big holiday sellers for Travel Essentials include Patagonia clothing and socks by Smartwool and Darn Tough. “We’re also selling lots of Eagle Creek travel gear,” she said. “Fewer suitcases, but more duffel bags and accessories.”

The business is for sale. “Bob and I are ready to retire,” she said. “We have been running our successful mom-and-pop operation for 28 years, but now we are ready to say happy trails and ride off into the sunset.”

She says they believe the business is set to boom in 2022 with more people vaccinated and feeling more comfortable, even excited, about travel.

‘This Christmas season has been a 180 from the last’

The hospitality sector has not been without its ups and downs during the past two years, also coping with lockdowns and state mandates. But as the pandemic eases, optimism rises.

Louie’s of Ashland has seen its free delivery service grow considerably during the past few years, especially during the pandemic. Like many restaurants, it upgraded its website to handle takeout and delivery orders with greater efficiency.

“Likewise, our outdoor patio is still seeing a lot of business well into the cooler months,” said owner Melissa Jensen. “Fingers crossed, we expect a strong holiday season as folks are drawn to our beautiful downtown when it’s all lit up.”

People are feeling the warmth of the season at Louie’s. “They’re especially loving our rich hot chocolate, hot toddies, Irish coffees and steaming mochas right now,” Jensen said. “And our homemade organic chili and soups are definitely the comfort foods selling well this time of year.”

Jensen remains very optimistic.

“I think people are missing connection, and that’s one of the things we really pride ourselves on at Louie’s,” she said.

Brothers’ Restaurant saw its to-go orders become an important revenue stream during the pandemic.

“DoorDash helped us out tremendously when we were closed or limited for dine-in service,” owner Dan Durant said. “We also now have our own online ordering system. Last Christmas season we were closed for dine-in, so this year we are much busier.”

Bar sales are up, Durant said. “We always have a mimosa special on the weekends. As soon as we mention it, we get, ‘Yes, please!’”

Business has been a rollercoaster the past two years.

“During the month of August, we took our masks off, pre-delta, and enjoyed the busiest month in Brothers’ 45-year history,” Durant said. Then when the delta variant emerged, business plummeted.

“OSF has done an impressive job of reinventing itself. I’m extremely optimistic about 2022,” he said.

Drew Gibbs, owner of Winchester Properties, is happy about business this year.

“I can say without a doubt that this Christmas season has been a 180 from the last, when the state had closed everything,” Gibbs said. “We are grateful for all the community support in having locals join us in the restaurants.”

Younger visitors bring optimism

It’s not just dining and inn receipts that are up this season.

“We’ve seen gift cards flying off the shelves,” he said. “And while we haven’t been able to do our annual Dickens’ Feast, the number of holiday parties has been growing by the week.”

He has hopes of seeing a bump in travelers visiting Ashland with OSF reopening.

“There is a cautious optimism that next year can feel slightly more normal in what will always be an odd post-pandemic world,” he said.

The Iris Inn bed and breakfast said business is flat, despite the OSF holiday shows.

“I was encouraged when we had some activity after OSF announced its 2022 season,” innkeeper Vick Capp said. “We have more reservations than in the past two years, which is great, but it seems that many people are waiting until spring to make reservations since plays don’t start until April.”

She says some guests have indicated their stays will be shorter.

Neuman Hotel Group has three Ashland-based hotels, Larks Restaurant, Luna Café and Waterstone Spa. All have undergone changes during the pandemic.

One change is that out-of-town guests are younger.

“In the past, the majority of travelers (to Ashland) were older people, here for the theater,” said Karolina Lavagnino, speaking for the group. “Our hope was always to attract younger, more active travelers, and COVID made it possible.”

The group has been targeting families and solo travelers who want to explore the “great outdoors.” Marketing has touted small town amenities, easy access to the mountains, the wineries, craft beer breweries, and a diverse selection of restaurants.

“We are excited,” Lavagnino said. “Ashland has so much to offer, and with partners like local outfitters, wineries, OSF, Travel Ashland, Travel Southern Oregon, Rogue Valley Food Trail and Rogue Valley Vintners, we are optimistic about the future.”

The pandemic forced retailers to sharpen their skills in many ways. Going forward, they will need to use what they learned to enhance shopping experiences that meet the evolving expectations of their customers.

Many businesses in Ashland are doing just that, and they are well on their way to a successful post-pandemic future.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.