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White Rabbit Café Works Through COVID-19 Pandemic

by Nicole Cortino

In April, Westmoreland county reached a peak of unemployment, with 17.2 percent of the population out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the rate has been gradually decreasing but is still high. One small business fighting to stay open through the storm is The White Rabbit Café.

From the café’s initial establishment, the owners had no expectation of high foot traffic. However, 5 years later, they began running the business 7 days a week. COVID-19 has switched their plans once again.

Prior to the pandemic, the café, located at 113 North Main Street in Greensburg, was open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Tommy Medley, a co-owner of The White Rabbit, was forced to shut down the cafe from March 20 to June 8. During that time, they were functioning under hyper-limited hours on a to-go basis only. This meant closing the cafe at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and staying closed throughout the weekend, with Medley working all the shifts.

“It was substantially slower, and with the inability for folks to hang out, the overall feeling of the shop was a bit alien,” Medley said.

The owners reduced business hours, delayed equipment upgrades, and are building a cash buffer in the event that they would have to shut down again.

“But it severely impacted our cash flow. When we were forced to close for a few months, we had inadequate cash reserves,” Medley said.

The pandemic shutdown lasted longer than the owners had thought, as they were hoping it would only last a couple weeks.

The “restrictive state of business,” Medley said, demonstrated that they needed to do everything they could to “cut down as much liability as possible.”

“Having two and a half months with no sales income prompted us, the other owner and myself, to sell our house. This allowed us to remove ourselves from payroll until a few weeks ago, keeping a positive cash flow into the business,” Medley said. “We moved into the apartment over the shop. Of course there was a feeling of nostalgic loss, but ultimately, it is vastly more important to maintain the viability of the shop than to overstretch our funds.”

Medley said he needed to “try and put my personal feelings aside and do what is best for the overall picture.”

He suggests for new businesses to balance between lowering liabilities quickly and maintaining a cash flow sufficient enough for emergencies.

Maintaining The White Rabbit Café has been a struggle. The most difficult challenge when adapting to the pandemic regulations, he says, is the general lack of stimulus or grants he has received for the café, aside from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“This has been frustrating. Keeping staff employed beyond the scope of the PPP funds has been a challenge as well,” Medley said.

According to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, Westmoreland County has the second highest number of positive cases in Pennsylvania, and businesses have felt the effects.

Medley feels fortunate that sales have increased steadily since they’ve reopened, earning sufficient numbers to ensure long-term viability.

“There is still a fear of congregating that may mark a fundamental shift in the psychological makeup of our country. At least for the foreseeable future,” Medley said. “However, our customers have been incredibly kind, thoughtful, and supportive of us.”

Customers purchased gift cards in support of the café when it was closed in efforts to give the owners a cash injection (a quick supply of money to improve financial position).

“Many customers providing financial support instructed us to tell them when were okay financially, refusing to use the gift cards until we were stable,” Medley said. “There was one instance, on the last day we were open before the shutdown, a customer handed us a card with a really touching note and cash in it. More than helping financially, such a gesture gave us an emotional morale boost.”

Medley feels positive for the future despite his struggles.

“This gives me not only hope for small businesses, but more importantly the communities they serve,” Medley said. “We have been met with nothing but graciousness and a communitarian spirit, the magnitude of which I have not seen before.”

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