KEARNEY — As the coronavirus pandemic keeps students and most workers at home, local food service providers are adapting their operations day by day.
Kearney’s Ktown Cakery owner Kari Printz is one of many food service providers to learn to balance life with a new way of doing business for now.
As Printz took an order by phone Tuesday afternoon, one employee decorated cake pops and her young school-aged children played outside on the sidewalk.
Normally three to five employees are busy baking and decorating cakes and other goodies at her shop. But when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts recommended last week that no more than 10 people gather in one place, Printz said her catering business came to a “screeching halt.”
“All of our cakes are either postponed or canceled,” Printz said. With the exception of a wedding this weekend, which changed its order from a multi-tiered and groom’s cakes to 24 cupcakes.
She also has no choice but to bring her children to work.
Their school, Elm Creek Public Schools, closed along with other area schools last week. Printz and other parents don’t know when schools will reopen.
“I’ve been told week to week to week,” she said of the school’s decision to stay closed or to reopen.
Printz said she appreciates that the Kearney community is understanding of her situation.
“I mean I have two rug rats running around because the reality is I went (to the school) this morning and picked up two trash bags full of stuff and I went home at lunch and read what I was supposed to do (as a parent),” she said.
Printz also has had to adapt the way she serves her customers. Like many other food service businesses she started to provide takeout and curbside service for customers. She continues to offer free delivery and keeps open her small dining room.
“We generally don’t have big crowds in our bakery anyway,” she said.
To take extra precautions, she and her employees also individually package desserts that are sold over the counter.
“We have just packaged them differently so we handle them less,” she said.
To make it more convenient for customers to pick up their food from the street, the city of Kearney erected “Curbside Pickup” signs Friday in front of eight food service locations in downtown Kearney, including at Ktown Cakery.
Kearney’s Assistant City Manager Eric Hellriegel said he and Downtown Kearney director Bridgett Lavene thought the signs would help support small businesses.
“We just thought it was a really good opportunity to creatively use some resources and we want to do everything we can to help small businesses survive through uncertain times,” Hellriegel said.
The city set one of those signs in front of Tru Cafe, which serves organic meals.
Owner Marc Loescher said he and his wife, Roberta, started curbside pickup and delivery to their customers since the CDC recommendation. Their dining room also is still open.
“We stay within the (CDC) guidelines,” he said. “The reality is we never come close to those numbers since the coronavirus started.”
Loescher said his business has been hurt by the pandemic, but he wants the community to know that they still are open and able to take care of people’s food needs with their organic meals.
Kitt’s Kitchen and Coffee also continues to serve its customers but only by curbside or takeout. Kitt’s once bustling dining room is closed for now.
Owner Brock Arehart said he also is offering Calico Coffee “bonds” for $20, which will be worth $25 in 90 days.
“We’re planning on being here in 90 days to start honoring those coffee bonds, and people can almost get a free latte in interest,” he said.
Despite Arehart and his business partner Andrew Brackett’s efforts, business is slow. Right now, he said, most of their food and beverage orders are made in the morning.
“It’s having a huge impact on our business and everybody that I’ve talked to around here ... it’s having a negative impact to a point where we will have no choice but to hit the pause button until things change,” he said. “And that could mean layoffs for all or most of our employees because we don’t have enough business right now to sustain us for very long.”
Arehart said he hopes city and state governments will offer relief for small businesses during this time.
At Ktown Cakery, Printz said, “Nobody knows what the right answer is.”
She said she needs to make good decisions early to preserve her business, such as reducing operating hours.
“My biggest concern is if you don’t make smart decisions up front, then you will find yourself in a bigger hole that will mean if this thing is weeks or months long that you really will only have one option.”
Printz also believes that when shops may resume full operation, it will take a while to build back their business. For example, she already has planned for a smaller graduation season, a busy time of year for Ktown Cakery.
“I don’t think I will lose all graduation in town but I suspect graduation will straggle. So, we will all just have to be smart when we come back,” she said.