The Coronavirus crisis very quickly changed the world as we knew it. The pandemic triggered a global health emergency with critical consequences for the economy and our way of life, even here in Portugal where our initial response to the virus received praise within the European community. In a short matter of time, the situation deteriorated as it has elsewhere. Cases have been rising significantly again, particularly in the Greater Lisbon area, which has prompted the Government to implement new restrictions. For small business owners trying to navigate changing rules and constraints, most stories tell of very uncertain times.
Living now temporarily back at my childhood home, in a neighborhood within Cascais, I wanted to find out more about how Coronavirus has been affecting us all. Devastating news has been infesting all extensions of the media, but to truly understand the repercussions of such facts, I decided I should speak to those in my local area.
This short photography series depicts the small business owners in my neighborhood and asks them to share their stories. It’s my attempt to capture this new reality, our “New Normal.”
Paula, or Aunt Paula as my sister and I would sometimes call her, is the owner of Dolce & Caffe, the cafe and bakery that opened in our neighborhood 15 years ago. If you are looking for the best home-made meals outside of home itself, this is the place to go (the soups are divine).
Before this pandemic started, the business was going quite well. “It was a time in which I could finally see the results of my work. To open a cafe had always been a dream of mine, I had always envisioned it as a different sort of cafe. And despite it being small, everything we have here is home-made,” Paula says. But with the arrival of COVID-19, everything came to a halt. At the start of the confinement phase, the cafe was forced to close. Afterward, they were able to open, yet only to sell take-away meals.
“We did it before anyway, but operating 100% as a take-away didn’t work,” Paula tells me. Most clients who dropped by to buy these meals were local workers. Most started working from home while in confinement, so the business stagnated.
Unfortunately, even now that restaurants are allowed to open their doors once again, the cafe’s earnings are still low. “I’m working at 40%. The room is almost always empty, with just a little more movement on the terrace. Most people are still not comfortable enough to go out, they keep on respecting the rules of social distancing, at least in this neighborhood,” says Paula.
There are increasing costs and concerns, with the mandatory use of masks and disinfectants, and less support. Being one employee short, busier times become stressful and Paula has ended up having to work more hours to ensure the cafe continues to run smoothly.
“Things are far from what they used to be. Let’s see if I can hold the fort.”
Luís opened his butcher shop “Pampitalho” in our neighborhood about 10 years ago. I still remember this, as my sister kept harassing our mother to go check out the new “little market” around the corner.
Luís wasn’t from around here, but once he built the trust of the locals he grew a strong customer base. In fact, it looks like the shop is still quite busy, as during our conversation I continuously let myself out so that a new customer, waiting by the door, could come in instead.
When it comes to his business, the pandemic hasn’t negatively affected him, it seems. “People are actually buying more now so they can keep a stock at home,” he explains as he slices a piece of meat. Even though regular customers don’t come to the shop itself so often, they still order via phone. This gives Luís and his colleague Cristian the time to arrange the packages, which are ready to go once the client arrives. “It all works slightly differently now. Customers come less often, but they do buy higher quantities. A lot of people are working from home, they have their kids at home, so they end up consuming more. I’ve been selling up to 3 times as much as before,” Luís adds.
António acquired “Apolo,” my neighborhood’s newsagent shop, nearly 1 year ago. “I was tired of my previous job and this opportunity came up, so I decided to invest in it.”
Things have not been easy. António says that the pandemic decreased people’s willingness to gamble in the lottery, which was one of his shop’s largest sources of income. “As people were staying home, and all sports games were canceled, there was a significant break in the shop’s earnings,” he explains.
He tells me that even now, with some restrictions lifted, people are still buying less.
“Everyone was affected, many workers were furloughed, so people are thinking a lot more about what they can spend. People need to save up in case a situation like this happens again.”
“Bom dia.” An older man in a mask greets us while we’re chatting outside, so António excuses himself shortly to assist him. Suddenly, more customers show up, forming a line before the shop’s doors. I walk around for a while and return when António is free again.
He comes back outside and carries on, explaining that selling newspapers and lottery cards meant his shop had permission to stay open throughout lockdown, which is an advantage. “By selling newspapers, we keep people informed about what’s happening, which is one of the reasons we are allowed to stay open.”
Fátima is the owner and chef of our neighborhood’s restaurant, “A Roda,” which opened back in 1995. Everyone in my family, cousins and grandparents included, are huge fans of their mouthwatering arroz de tamboril (monkfish rice stew).
Fátima tells me that they’ve been working at about 50% by doing take-away meals. “It wasn’t the same, but it surpassed my expectations”, says Fátima. But even now that restaurants are allowed to host again, business is still quite irregular. “It’s not so much that people are afraid, they’re just short of money. In that sense, and especially with the take-way meals, I’ve tried to make dishes where a portion is big enough for two. Usually, these cost about 8 euros. This is not the time to increase prices,” she explains.
Despite the challenges, Fátima is staying positive. “In a way, it’s been nice to finish work early, I’ve had time to slow down, read…”
She runs over to the kitchen to turn down the heat on a pot.
“I never had time off before, and there were often days when we would finish work at midnight. These times have been hard, but we’ve been able to survive, we’ve learned to run things differently.”
This “slowing down” also applies to the customers, who seem to have become more patient when waiting outside for the take-away meals.
Recently, with new restrictions imposed, restaurants have to close their doors at 8 pm. “It’s a step backward again, now we have to stop service on the terrace earlier. But it is what it is. We have to think one day at a time.”
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