Local businesses that are thriving in pandemic’s wake

There’s nary a person, place or business that has not been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another.

By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media

Contributed photo    
Carr Hardware has been serving customers throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.

PITTSFIELD — There’s nary a person, place or business that has not been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another.

From the mind-boggling death toll to months’ long shutdowns and the virus variants, vaccination controversies and face masks that continue to linger two-and-a half years after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, it’s difficult to overstate the impact of the crisis on the global community.

For Pittsfield businesses, the impact of the pandemic has varied, from those that were shut down for months and found rebounding difficult, to essential businesses that thrived in the early days and now find new challenges facing them.

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Carr Hardware, deemed an “essential business” by the commonwealth, has been at the frontline of the pandemic from the start.

For some businesses and cultural institutions, the early days of the shutdown meant exactly that — their doors were closed completely. The Berkshire Museum was closed for nearly half of 2020. And when their doors did reopen, it looked very different from their pre-COVID days.

“We shut down in March 2020 and we reopened in August of that year with limited admissions so you had to make reservations,” Hilary Ferrone, chief engagement officer for the museum, said. “There were very clear paths walking one way through the museum, we were really attentive to distancing, and each pod (of people) that was allowed to come in was just a group of six and it had to be a family group, so we wouldn’t have six strangers in the same pod.”
While things differed from the museum’s typical operations, it worked, Ferrone said.

“People were really respectful and really grateful that we provided a safe place for them to visit,” Ferrone said. “We were very attentive to all the safety protocols and really followed the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, the commonwealth guidelines, our local city guidelines — we never went outside of that because obviously health and safety is of utmost importance to us.”

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The Berkshire Museum was closed for several months during the COVID-19 shutdown, and used the time to get work done on a long-term renovation project.

The Berkshire Museum, located at 39 South St. in Pittsfield, is a unique museum offering eclectic collections, from history and art to science and technology. The museum even includes an aquarium with live sea creatures and a touch tank, and exhibits geared to both children and adults.

“It is really, really fun — it is multi-disciplinary and also interdisciplinary, showing how everything informs other aspects of the world,” she said. “We have about 40,000 pieces in our collection, ranging from shells and birds to art and sculpture, from all sorts of cultures and places all around the world.”

The museum, at nearly 120 years old, also has one very distinctive and much beloved feature — a large replica of a stegosaurus named Wally that has long stood guard outside the museum’s entrance.

Contributed photo     
Wally, the beloved stegosaurus that stands guard outside the Berkshire Museum, got a makeover while the museum was closed for the COVID-19 shutdown.

Wally got a makeover during the COVID shutdown.

“Wally is back,” Ferrone said. “He was restored during COVID at Louis Paul Jonas Studios, where he was created. He is all freshly resurfaced and repositioned in front of the museum. That was one of the things that we did during the downtime of COVID, when the museum was closed.”
When most businesses were shut down in March 2020, the Berkshire Museum was in the middle of a renovation plan and used the shutdown time and the months that followed to get some work done.

“We were in the midst of these long-term renovation plans, so we were able to get a lot of construction done during that period,” Ferrone said. “Finally, in August 2021, we reopened the museum fully. Our second floor has been renovated so we had new gallery space, and since then we have been open seven days a week, just like pre-COVID times.”

Contributed photo Crust Pizza uses the finest ingredients it can find for its handcrafted pizzas.

Museums may not have been considered an “essential business” during the COVID shutdown, but they are big drivers for local economies and can spur growth and create jobs, Ferrone said.
“When we look at who visits our museum, yes, our primary support is from people who live locally, but we bring in people from Albany, from central Massachusetts, from southern Vermont. That’s really important, but we also employ 28 people at the museum, and during our construction project we worked with local firms and kept them busy, even during COVID when we were so concerned about people staying employed and keeping their jobs,” Ferrone said.
But the impact of the museum and other cultural institutions goes beyond dollars and cents, and the pandemic has helped shine a light on that, she said.

“I think we are all in a place of seeing what really matters to our community and I think cultural institutions play a really important role,” Ferrone said. “We had a donor tell us recently that the Berkshire Museum is the glue of the community, and I think there could be no better compliment than that.”

For some businesses deemed “essential,” the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a boon, but even then, there were challenges.

Contributed photo Crust Pizza opened its doors at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and adjusted its business model to thrive in a challenging environment.

Carr Hardware has eight locations in western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut, and its flagship store is in Pittsfield at 547 North St. The store has been in business since 1928 and was purchased by the Raser family in 1962, owner Bart Raser said.

“It’s a full-line hardware and rental operation, so we sell hardware, electrical, plumbing, tools, paint, all the things you would imagine,” Raser said. “We are also in the equipment and party and event rental business. Another big piece is our industrial-commercial business, called Carr Supply. That sells large institutional, government and large contractor supplies.”

Because hardware stores were considered an essential business by the commonwealth during the COVID-19 shutdown, Carr Hardware remained open from day one. And business was booming.

“We were considered an essential business, so we were quite busy,” Raser said. “We sold a lot of PPE (personal protective equipment) and a lot of home improvement.”

With most people staying home far more than they typically would, the early days of the pandemic were a busy time for Carr Hardware.

“People were doing a lot of painting, gardening, all kinds of home repair,” Raser said. “People wanted to be outside, so we saw a lot of outdoor living improvement — we sold a lot of outdoor fire pits, outdoor furniture, hammocks, mosquito magnets, things that would extend the outdoor season.”

As an essential business, the store was never shut down and adapted from the start of the outbreak to safely serve its customers, he said.

“We were customer-facing from start to finish,” Raser noted. “We revolutionized our platform in terms of flexibility — we allowed phone-in, email, texting to order for curbside pickup. We brought in sanitizers so we could spray our stores in the morning and throughout the day to keep everybody safe.”

Carr Hardware and its employees took great care to follow health department best practices to prevent the spread of the virus as the stores remained open for business.

“We were hyperaggressive about it — we partnered with a local liquor manufacturer who was making hand sanitizer so we could distribute it throughout our footprint when nobody else could get it,” Raser said. “We partnered with a group of seamstresses who made masks for us in the beginning of the pandemic when they weren’t available.”

While business was booming throughout the virus outbreak, there were challenges in hiring and maintaining an adequate workforce to serve all those customers as it became difficult to attract workers willing to interact with the public.

“The aftermath of personnel has been the biggest negative takeaway that we have had from the pandemic,” Raser said. “Demand was brisk, but our ability to execute at retail was challenged because folks who were customer-facing became uncomfortable. We had a lot of people who had been with us for many, many years make the decision to retire because maybe they were a little bit older and they were afraid. We were on the frontlines throughout the pandemic. And now, with the global staffing crisis, it has been hard to find workers. That has been the biggest impact for us — finding workers.”

But like other Pittsfield businesses, Raser has found strong support from the community.
“The community has been incredibly supportive,” Raser said. “There has been a big push back to shopping local and brick-and-mortar throughout this. The large majority of our stores are located in downtowns so we are big believers in downtown and community, and they have supported us throughout the pandemic.”

James Cervone, owner of Crust Pizza, got his business off the ground a few months into the start of the pandemic but rethought his business model to accommodate state and local health guidelines and has thrived.

“We started right in the middle of the pandemic,” Cervone said. “We opened Aug. 31, 2020. We are located right in the center of Pittsfield at 505 East St.”

Cervone relocated the business to its current location in January of 2020. When the pandemic began in March of that year, no one knew how intense it would be or how long the virus would remain.

“COVID was supposed to go away over the summer, but no one really knew what was going to happen,” Cervone said. “We thought it wasn’t going to be a big deal. By the time we started renovating the space, it looked like it was going to be more intense, but we were committed at that point. We didn’t plan on opening a pizza café during a pandemic, it was just the way it worked out.”

Through the trials of the next two years, Cervone said having the strong support of the community has made all the difference.

“The community has been extremely supportive,” he said. “I have said it a thousand times — doing business in Pittsfield is fantastic because the community really does support good local businesses.”

Crust Pizza serves high-quality handmade pizzas using the finest ingredients they can find.
“We make everything ourselves — our dough uses Italian flours. We make it the traditional way — we age it for four days, and most of our sauces are organic,” he said. “We think we are delivering a very high-quality pizza.”

The eatery produces handcrafted pizza, with gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options, along with traditional-style selections.

“I started out with an idea to create this pizza using the best ingredients we could find, regardless of price,” Cervone said. “We found out that just because something is more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better, but certain things that we get that are the most expensive are things like organic tomatoes from California for our sauce, and we source all our cheese from a place in Wisconsin. We get our pepperoni from a butcher in Ohio, and we get our mushrooms locally from a farm in North Adams. We could get those items much, much cheaper, but the quality and the flavor are not there, and we would become just like every other pizza place.”

Opening a few months into the pandemic, Crust Pizza adjusted its business model to reflect health department requirements and best practices.

“When we first opened, we had the mandate in place and there was social distancing for dining 6 feet apart,” he said. “When we opened, like most places, we had an initial boost of customers. Then the city shut down indoor dining again. My wife and I were always ahead of that — we shut down indoor dining two weeks before the city did just because we thought it was the smart thing to do.”

The business installed a special fan to circulate the air, with an infrared light that kills germs in an effort to keep the virus at bay.

“And we were always very aggressive with washing our hands and making sure masks covered our workers’ faces,” Cervone added.

With changing commonwealth mandates, Crust Pizza became flexible in how it served its customers.

“Takeout became a very big part of our business,” Cervone said. “We have a very large seating capacity — we can seat 50 people — and we went to 100% takeout, which was a real challenge.”
Under Crust’s original business plan, Cervone envisioned 40% of the business would be takeout service, with 60% dine-in. But COVID changed that.

“Right off the bat, we were maybe 30% dine-in and 70% takeout, and then for a period of time, we were 100% takeout when indoor dining was shut down,” Cervone said. “It was a challenge.”
Continuing challenges include the supply chain, making obtaining some ingredients difficult, as well as inflation that is causing higher prices.

Throughout the pandemic, though, the community has been behind the business every step of the way, Cervone said.

“The city of Pittsfield, when something new comes to town, you’ll get support. People will come out and give it a try. They might even give it two tries,” he said. “It’s a tremendous business environment. The support is really fabulous.”