‘I honestly don’t know if we will survive this:’ Petaluma businesses fear worst

A drink in hand, Rick Williams sat slumped at Café Zazzle’s window-facing high top table, surveying Kentucky Street as the first lunch hour under the countywide lockdown hit Petaluma last week. Wrapped in an apron and sporting slip-resistant shoes, he could easily jump into the kitchen and assemble any item on the menu.

But for hours, none came.

He and wife Tara Williams have operated the popular downtown restaurant for more than 14 years. Joining her husband at the window, Tara Williams wondered aloud if they’ll make it to 15.

“I hate to say it, but I honestly don’t know if we will survive this,” Rick Williams said.

It’s a question on the minds of many Petaluma business owners during the now statewide shelter-in-place order. Kentucky Street, one of the city’s most densely populated commercial areas, bears its effects, with business after business shuttered.

A handful like Café Zazzle remained open the first day of the shutdown March 18, hoping things wouldn’t be as bad as they expected, hoping they can still somehow make things work.

The couple made the switch to takeout orders as required, and shaved down their operating hours, opening up at noon and closing at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. But Tara Williams said she’s even reluctant to tell people what the new business hours are, anticipating she may have to restrict them further, depending on how the first few days of the lockdown go.

“We’re playing it day by day, things could change after tonight,” Tara Williams said. “There’s just nothing to compare it to, not even the fires, so we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

From behind the window, she watched a neighboring shopkeeper walk down the street before disappearing into a darkened clothing boutique. During a normal day, she might expect them to stop in and place an order.

“We’ve lost all the shoppers and shopkeepers on this street as well as regular diners,” Tara Williams said. “Any other day they would normally come in and grab a bite or get lunch to go.”

Inside that shuttered boutique, Ethical Clothing owner Kathy Jeter was taking stock, contemplating how to continue to sell merchandise during the lockdown.

“I think I’m going to be here every day doing something, mainly setting up ways to start selling things through social media,” Jeter said.

She said she’s thinking about new ways of marketing her products, spending these first few days adjusting to what will be a remarkably difficult period for store owners.

It’s something she says neighboring shopkeepers and members of the Petaluma business community are actively discussing, forming email chains and sharing ideas amongst each other online.

Despite the Kentucky Street businesses that chose to close completely, a small handful remained open the first day of the shutdown, winding down the last of their operations before shutting the door, unsure if they’ll be able to reopen.

“Were doing our best to help businesses right now, but it’s a lot to adjust to,” said Executive Director of the Petaluma Downtown Association Marie McCusker. “The world completely changed overnight. You used to be able to go and sit down at a restaurant, go to any store, it’s a big change.”

A few storefronts down from Jeter’s boutique, Sonoma Cutlery Manager Helen Porter propped open her front door that first day of the order as she scrubbed large display cases with Clorox wipes.

The business provides cooking supplies, knives and a knife-sharpening service Porter said restaurants rely on, but stopped short of calling it an “essential service” exempted from the shelter-in-place order. She said they’re switching to an appointment-only model, but was unsure how the business will fare after a few weeks.

It’s not only brick-and-mortar businesses that are severely suffering, as freelancers and independent contractors reckon with the reverberations of a battered economy.

Petaluman Rob Linn is finding many clients can no longer afford to hire him as their personal trainer, as they anxiously guard their expenses, unsure over where the economy may turn or if they’ll have a job tomorrow.

“The financial hit that I’m going to take is not going to be in these first two weeks, but when things really start to shake out and people prioritize their own finances,” Linn said. “I’m most concerned over how I’m going to recover from this long term.”

In the meantime, Linn said he’s offering virtual services to his remaining clients. If the shelter in place order extends through the summer, he says he’ll lose half his income.

“This is an economic disaster, I’m not talking Wall Street, I’m talking main street,” Mayor Teresa Barrett said. “People not going to stores, events, and fundraisers for our groups are just not happening either. It’s a game changer, things are really serious.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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