Return to campus eases 18 months of financial distress for local businesses

Bagel Bob’s, Irving Farm and many other businesses near campus are household names around NYU. During the height of the pandemic, however, they almost disappeared for good.


Camille Harvell

Local businesses near Washington Square Park experienced a difficult time during the COVID-19 lockdown and only recovered when the campus reopened. They form the backbone of the neighborhood, and NYU students and faculty function as a major source of income. (Photos by Camille Harvell)

By Api Dhadda, Contributing Writer

Peter Karounos’ family has owned and operated University Floral Design on University Place since 1928. But in the months following March 2020, the pandemic wrought nearly irreparable financial damage to the flower shop.

“A major loss was being closed for so many months,” Karounos said. “No income, and bills were still coming. … Whatever work we could have or would have done during that time period that we were closed — all that is not replaceable. We’ll never make it up.”

The pandemic devastated New York City’s economy, which relies heavily on industries like retail and tourism that have struggled to operate under public health restrictions. Lower Manhattan — including NYU’s Washington Square campus — has more retail-sector jobs than any other area of New York City.

Naturalee Cleaners is a dry cleaner located at 46 University Pl. (Photo by Camille Harvell)

Oscar España, who has worked at the dry cleaning business Naturalee Cleaners on University Place since 2015, said Greenwich Village was a ghost town during pandemic lockdowns. He said the business has had trouble finding clients since reopening.

“This business is related to people getting dressed, but there are no vacations, no celebrations and no work,” España said. “There were only a few people that were around and they worked from home, so when they would have a meeting, they would have to have a shirt on. That’s the only business we would get.”

When the pandemic hit, the populations of wealthy neighborhoods like SoHo, Gramercy and the West Village plummeted as residents fled the virus, according to data compiled by The New York Times. This left the retailers in these areas struggling to find customers.

Now, with more than 60% of NYC residents and 99% of on-campus NYU students fully vaccinated, local businesses are slowly beginning to recover.

Joey Healy Eyebrow Studio is an eyebrow bar located at 51 University Pl. (Photo by Camille Harvell)

Joey Healy, the owner of Joey Healy Eyebrow Studio on University Place, said his business closed in mid-March 2020 and reopened on July 6, 2020. But the vast majority of his clients — many of whom are NYU students — did not resume using his services until March 2021.

“Even after re-opening, it took us six months to kind of find our way, especially because we are a full contact service,” Healy said. “[NYU students] are from all over the world. They’re really unique, interesting and diverse. I feel like they all have different eyebrows.” 

Other local businesses, such as Bagel Bob’s, were able to stay open throughout the whole pandemic thanks to the loyalty of their regular customers, according to employee Raouf Ch. Bagel Bob’s was able to stay in business by focusing on deliveries.

Though NYU’s return to campus brought back some business, Ch added that serving college students has its downsides too.

“They’re cool, they’re nice,” Ch said. “But then sometimes they ask for too much and they never tip.”

With NYU fully in person for the 2021-22 academic year, many businesses around campus reported a marked increase in customers and foot traffic.

“Since the students came back here, the whole neighborhood looks a lot better — just more alive,” said John Fuoco, an employee at Devonshire Optical on University Place. 

Students who were on campus last year have also noticed positive changes to the ambience of Greenwich Village. Steinhardt sophomore Grace Moser noted how many businesses are reopening after being closed for the entire year.

“There’s places popping up [now],” Moser said. “I would say most places last year were just very COVID-cautious, so it was hard to create an atmosphere that was friendly.”

Bowllin’ is a Korean BBQ restaurant located at 27 Waverly Pl. (Photo by Camille Harvell)

Xingyang Wu, who works for Bowllin’, a Korean barbecue restaurant on Waverly Place, has already started to form connections with student customers.

“Because our cashier and I are Chinese, and our new cashier is Korean, we talk with Chinese students and Korean students,” Wu said. “We normally ask them if they like our food or if we have to change something in the future.”

Irving Farm New York is a cafe offering breakfast and lunch with multiple locations in New York, the closest one to campus being 78 W 3rd St. (Photo by Camille Harvell)

While serving coffee to students in the morning, Johnny Stuzman, a barista at Irving Farm’s Washington Square location, said he likes that his job allows him to interact with students every day.

“There’s a type of youthful sincerity that comes with college students,” Stuzman said. “Making it in New York City is not easy for everyone, but I feel like there’s just this energy that everyone’s just very friendly and excited to meet people. It always makes my day better at work.”

Contact Api Dhadda at [email protected]