Newark restaurants depend on UD, so what happens when classes go online?

Sasha Aber, owner of Home Grown Café, is rethinking her catering strategy because fewer UD students will be on campus this fall.

In summer 2019, Greg Vogeley had his hands full. The owner of Drip Café, which started in Hockessin, had a new second location on the edge of the University of Delaware campus. 

He was busy serving walk-in customers—including students and faculty—and scheduling catering jobs. UD, for instance, ordered meals for the 250 musicians attending the multiday band camp.

Vogeley faces a different scenario this year.

 

“It’s just not going to happen,” he says of the camp. “They haven’t told me yet, but I don’t think they’re coming back.”

For one, UD is postponing all fall sports, including football. For another, the bulk of the fall classes will be online. On-campus housing is limited.

“There are multiple ripple effects with any one of these major decisions,” Vogeley noted. 

 

Between the pandemic shutdowns and the construction on Main Street, restaurants in downtown Newark have taken it on the chin for two years, and the jabs just keep coming.

“This has been a double whammy,” agreed Gianmarco Martuscelli, whose family owns Klondike Kate’s Restaurant & Saloon.

Klondike Kate's in Newark

Klondike Kate’s is normally packed with students in spring and fall.

A college-based economy

The university and the ancillary businesses and services that support it drive the city’s economy.

But even with students on campus, Main Street businesses were affected by 15 months of street construction, which narrowed the primary artery to one lane.

Diners who already felt parking was an issue became more disgruntled.

 

“Some people were angry about the construction,” Vogeley said.

Even with the roadwork, restaurants expected to see a sales boost in spring. 

“People are on our porches and decks — they’re celebrating,” Martuscelli said. “My dad used to joke that more people turn 21 in the spring semester than any other time, and as spring moves on, people are graduating.”

 

But in March, students went to online classes. 

Any full-service restaurant usually benefits from Easter and Mother’s Day, but the pandemic also changed that.

“We lost spring,” said Sasha Aber, owner of Home Grown Café. 

Greg Vogeley owner of Drip Café,

Greg Vogeley owner of Drip Café in Newark, said he would be grateful if even half the student body returned.

Reopening and reality checks

By June 2020, most of the road construction was complete, and Main Street’s two lanes fully opened. 

The celebration came on the heels of Phase 2 in Delaware’s reopening plan. Restaurants could open their dining rooms at reduced capacity.

But it came too late for some restaurants. Nationally, anywhere from 20 to 80% will permanently close, according to an article in The Atlantic

Before the virus, the industry generated $900 billion a year and employed 15 million people—15 times the labor force of the airline industry.

 

Perhaps due to the lack of students, some Newark spots have already closed or “temporarily” closed, including Panera Bread, Buddy’s Burgers, Breasts and Fries, California Tortilla and MOD Pizza. Downtown Newark locations no longer appear on the websites.

Delaware-owned Claymont Steak Shop, which has a location on South Main Street, struggled in March, but curbside pickup and delivery helped the business rebound, said owner Demi Kollias.

Still, the loss of UD students and employees this fall would impact business, because they account for a large percentage of sales, she added.

 

Still, the loss of UD students and employees this fall would impact business, because they account for a large percentage of sales, she added.

UD seesawed about opening classrooms and dorms. But as coronavirus cases spiked around the country, officials decided to offer mostly online classes.

Since many students have apartment leases, there will be students roaming Main Street this fall. Or, tenants may sublet their apartments to locals.

“There’s a lot of chatter,” Vogeley said of the speculation. “But there won’t be 25,000 students walking around.”

 

If even half the students return, Vogeley would be grateful.

“I need an uptick in the population,” he said

Vance Funk, the former Newark mayor and a Main Street resident, saw students during the July 29 alfresco dining event on Main Street.

“They seem to be more willing to eat out” despite the heat, he noted. “Incidentally, last night was great. We took friends to Taverna night. Great food and service—rigatoni with sausage.”

 

 The dining event was the first of three. The other two will be on Aug. 5 and 12, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Vehicular traffic is prohibited during this time and restaurants can extend their outdoor seating areas. 

Is there good news?

“We may not see an increase in customers, but we won’t see a decrease,” Aber said. “Hopefully, all the locals who don’t come out when school is in session will show up.”

Traci Manza Murphy plans to visit.

“As a Hockessin resident, we are already planning more Newark visits — knowing crowds will be nonexistent,” she said. “We enjoyed biking through campus with the kids during the quarantine.”

 

Aber, who’s owned Home Grown for nearly 20 years, acknowledged that the character of Main Street won’t be the same this fall.

She’s rethinking how to boost her catering during COVID-19. Kollias began offering individually wrapped sandwich trays and lunch boxes. Both Home Grown and Claymont are selling family meals.

Martuscelli is coming up with entertainment that accommodates social distancing so people can enjoy dinner, drinks and a show.

As for Vogeley, he’s moving forward as though the changes will last throughout the school year: “I think that’s the only way to look at it at this point.”

 


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About the Contributor

Pam George

Pam George

Pam George is an award-wining writer and the author of five books, including Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls, and Treasure; Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware; and Charles Parks: The Man Behind the Art.
Her work has appeared in Fortune, USA Today, Men’s Health, and Forbes Travel Guide. She divides her time between Wilmington and Lewes, Delaware.