‘Fighting for survival’: GWorld vendors struggle to stay afloat on vacated campus

Media Credit: Zach Brien | Staff Photographer

GWorld vendors are worried about plunging revenue as many close during GW's virtual semester.

When students cleared campus last week, Carvings and Uptowner Cafe co-owner Usman Saleem needed a game plan to keep business afloat.

Saleem already needed to shutter Uptowner Cafe as Lisner Hall, where the vendor is located, closed. He tried to keep Carvings running by providing takeout service, but Saleem said there was “very, very little business” and he eventually shut down the restaurant indefinitely and laid off workers so they could collect unemployment checks.

“I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything where we’ve had to completely just halt all business,” he said.

As the majority of GWorld vendors shut down, several have transitioned to curbside pickup and increased delivery and takeout orders in an effort to keep up sales as the COVID-19 pandemic takes a hit on businesses around the District. GWorld restaurant owners and servers said without students on campus to help keep the vendors busy, they’ve been forced to lay off workers and consider closing keep their sales from plunging.

Saleem added that the spring is typically a busy season for many GWorld vendors, and owners use the semester save funds before students leave for the summer. He said he hopes the University can step in and help vendors that operate on campus by covering rent.

“I think if GW stepped up and gave us free rent – that would be the biggest saving grace for a lot of businesses going under,” he said.

South Block founder Amir Mostafavi said the vendor temporarily closed the Foggy Bottom location because it too is located in the now-closed Lerner Health and Wellness Center. Mostafavi said he has continued operating his eight other South Block locations by offering curbside pickup, delivery through Uber Eats and takeout orders.

Mostafavi added sales have gone down by about 25 to 30 percent, but he set up an employee relief fund – which is funded through gift card sales – to ensure his employees can stay employed. The customers of South Block have purchased more than $15,000 worth of gift cards in the past few days, and Mostafavi said he forfeited $30,000 of his own salary to go into the fund.

Zach Brien | Staff Photographer

Southblock employees are still getting paid through a relief fund set up by the founder.

“It’s been a hustle,” he said. “I haven’t had to fight for the life of the business like this since we first opened. We are fighting for survival right now.”

Daniel Kramer, the managing partner of Duke’s Grocery, said the GWorld vendor is closed indefinitely and all employees, about 15 of which were students, are laid off at the Foggy Bottom location. Once business reopens, Kramer said he aims to rehire employees at all locations.

“These are very uncertain times, but we will come back firing on all cylinders,” Kramer said in an email.

Roza Nahar, a server at the Thai restaurant Charm Thai, said the restaurant has started free delivery and began offering a 10 percent discount for pickup orders made through GWorld in a last-ditch effort to boost sales. But she said the restaurant, which is about 85 percent reliant on student customers, only fulfilled two orders from GW students this week.

Nahar said she received a call from GW Dining Friday asking if the restaurant was open so that the GET app would reflect the most up-to-date information. Nahar said she told the University Charm Thai still fulfills deliveries and requested that GW communicate to students that they can order for pickup.

But she added that if the pandemic persists for longer than six months, she isn’t sure the business will survive.

“If [GW] would help us when this gets normal, [such as] they take less commission per customer that’d be a help picking the business back up to its feet,” Nahar said.

Asia54 server Ling Cheng said the restaurant now closes at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. on Monday through Thursday as well as Sunday and 10 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. If circumstances do not change soon, Cheng said the business will consider closing.

“It’s hard to tell you how long we [will] stay open [for],” Cheng said.

Nico Nieto, the head of marketing and brand at Roti, said that out of the restaurant’s 14 locations in D.C., its franchise on GW’s campus is one out of three still open and fulfilling free deliveries through its website and delivery systems like GrubHub, UberEats and DoorDash.

“We understand that everybody [has] got a little bit of extra stress on their plate right now,” Nieto said. “We want to take that stress out of your plate by giving you one of ours. That’s something that we’re doing really in a very deliberate way.”

Nieto added that restaurant vendors on college campuses across the country are facing steep declines in revenue. He said campus vendors lean on foot traffic for business, and the owners of these businesses rely on the revenue for their livelihood.

“When you look at the restaurant industry, and the people working in restaurants, the majority of those people have always worked in restaurants,” Nieto said. “That’s their work experience. So as the economy gets tighter, if the restaurant is closed or if the restaurant is in danger, they have nowhere else to go.”

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