Now Reading
No More “Business as Usual”

No More “Business as Usual”

View Gallery

The Covid-19 pandemic creates a permanent impact on businesses in Urbino

URBINO, Italy—Giovanni Garbugli darts between tables and the bar, picking up empty coffee cups and stacking them on his tray as he chats with customers and takes orders.

“Giovanni!” shouts one customer, with a wave and smile. Garbugli breaks away from his fast-paced work to chat with the customer, greeting him by name.

This same interaction unfolds over and over again—everyone knows Garbugli and he knows them. He knows their orders without even asking—he just appears with a cappuccino or a plate of locally-made pasta.

A storefront door on Via Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi is fastened closed with a padlock. Many of Urbino’s stores have closed due to the economic impacts of the pandemic

There’s always something in his hand, a steaming cup of coffee, a flaky jam-filled pastry, a tray of cups, or a box of assorted wines. Even so, he floats energetically around the cafe, his movements seemingly weightless.

Cups clatter against their saucers and the coffee machine whirs. Groups of people fill the small cafe tables, which spill out into the alleyway next to the Sugar Cafe storefront. They fill the air with conversation.

The once-overwhelming pandemic feels distant, disconnected from this busy reality. On the surface, it looks like a typical busy weekday in June at a popular cafe. But lurking around the shop are a few subtle reminders of the hardship of the past two years. Six or so hand-sanitizer bottles are placed throughout the cafe—on the countertops and tables, one placed prominently right outside the door.

Normally, Garbugli has an enthusiastic and optimistic demeanor, but when he talks about the pandemic, he becomes quieter and more reserved. He explained that the town felt empty, especially at the beginning of the pandemic.

Now, Sugar Cafe is busy and full of life, but the impacts of the pandemic linger.

This is true for the town of Urbino too. These days it’s bustling with groups of tourists stopping to check their maps as they stroll between the Raffaello house and the Ducal Palace. University students hurry down cobblestone streets, some in starched white lab coats, others carrying backpacks and books. In the evenings, the students flood the town square, sipping drinks by the central fountain or playing foosball at a nearby bar. On Saturdays, the market comes to town and the street fills with booths selling discounted clothing, handmade goods, and freshly farmed produce.

Yet, there are still discarded masks crumpled on the side of the streets, “For Rent” signs hung over empty storefronts, and social distancing markers on the floor of each store. Many people continue to wear masks inside and they are required on public transportation. But the consequences of the pandemic go beyond this.

“Guest and customer behavior during the pandemic period affected their behavior forever – nowadays and on,” Garbugli said.
According to Garbugli, people had to experiment with new routines and behaviors.

“No one was around,” Garbugli said, explaining that people used to stop into Sugar Cafe for a coffee before work or a sandwich at lunch. But with most people working from home, business stalled. This meant that he had to adapt his business.

Garbugli’s strategy was based on a simple question: “What would I want if I was at home?”

Garbugli and his team improved their delivery systems and even started WhatsApp groups to communicate directly with customers. He encouraged take-out and began doing curb-side delivery.

Like signs on many former shop doors in Urbino these days, this one reads “Affittasi Negozio,” meaning “shop for rent.”

His strategy was based on a simple question: “What would I want if I was at home?”

With this in mind, they created new recipes and products, like seasonal soups. Garbugli explained that during the Christmas season, they cooked special food and created boxes filled with two or three kinds of wine, cheese, salami, and sweets.

There are many cafes in and around the city of Urbino, but Garbugli believes he is successful because of his ability to make all of his customers happy, even during times of turmoil.

Still, Garbuli said, the fundamental difficulty was that business stalled suddenly but costs stayed about the same. Rent still had to be paid and vendors expected their products to be sold.

Not only were fewer locals coming into the cafe, but the students and tourists were almost completely gone. Local monuments, museums, and cultural sites were closed to the public. Garbugli said this brought less business to the doors of businesses like Sugar Cafe.

As the pandemic waxed and waned, Garbugli explained, the flow of tourists and students in and out of the town was unpredictable, which made running a business even more difficult.

Giorgio Calcagnini, Chancellor of the University of Urbino and an economics professor, explained that many small businesses went bankrupt during this time. Those that survived, like Garbugli, had to adapt.

Another such business owner is Margherita Mari, who operates Daisy in the Book, an artisan book bindery.

Mari opened her storefront in Urbino a little over two years before the pandemic began. During the pandemic, she closed her storefront on Via Mazzini and now sells her goods online.

Mari felt lucky that she was able to move her store online.

Mari was on maternity leave when the pandemic began. Now, she juggles childcare, working from home, and running a business through the ever-evolving pandemic. Her workshop is in her home, in the same room that her two-year-old daughter plays in, which she says has added to the difficulty of continuing her work.

However, she also explained that she felt lucky that she was able to move her store online. While closing her store was a difficult decision, it was easier for her than some others.

“Some of the others have been open for twenty, even forty years, so closing, for them, was not an option,” Mari said.

She also noted that it is easier for her to sell online. Because her products are unique, they can’t be found elsewhere. Other stores, like clothing and shoe shops, have to compete with commercial centers and large online retailers.

Mari explained that other stores may have to order their products in advance and items may go out of fashion, which makes the unpredictable nature of the pandemic all the more problematic for business owners.

“I can use materials that I bought two or three years ago,” she said.

Some of her neighboring business owners opted to use social media to advertise and even sold products door-to-door.

According to Mari, many people experienced a lot of fear during the pandemic. The hardships were emotional, not just financial. The constant fear and uncertainty were difficult for everyone, but particularly for those whose livelihood depended on customers. Especially before vaccines, many shopkeepers were worried about getting sick or getting their loved ones sick.

Alessandra Ubaldi, the owner and operator of Guado Urbino, a shop selling handcrafted and naturally dyed goods, echoed this sentiment. “What is more important for me is my dearests’ health.”

Ubaldi also had to close her storefront when the pandemic began and is now running the business online with her daughter. However, she doesn’t attribute the closure of her storefront solely to the pandemic. Rather, she believes it only expedited other problems in the city.

“My shop was in Via Mazzini, which in ancient times was one of the most important streets of Urbino because it was a trade route,” Ubaldi said. “Ever since I opened my shop in 2016, the situation was critical. Lots of shops had been closing and since then it’s getting worse and worse.”

Calcagnini described similar issues. The average age of Urbino residents is rising and the number of people residing in the city is decreasing.

Ubaldi said, “In reality, the pandemic only showed up the real problem Urbino has: the nearly total absence of citizens, businesses, and supporting services.”

The pandemic hurt small businesses everywhere, according to the 2021 Piccola Impresa Small Business Conference. However, the impact on Urbino’s economy was unique because of the way the University of Urbino is intertwined with the local economy.

“This is a town where there are more students—16,000—than residents—14,000,” explained Egidio Cecchini, the Secretary of a local business organization called Confcommercio.

While this can provide business opportunities, it has some clear downsides.

Ubaldi explained one of these downsides: “You have to take into account that the number of people is not stable.”

Many people who work in the city actually live in the outlying areas. Further, people often go to larger towns for shopping or shop online. The impact of this spread beyond stores.

According to Calcagnini, many families live outside the city and make extra income by renting their homes to students. However, with students gone, they faced increasing financial hardship.

The mass departure of students from the town was sudden. Calcagnini explained that within a span of two weeks at the beginning of March 2020, classes were nearly all moved online and most students had returned to their hometowns.

He described this rapid change as a shock. The town was suddenly empty. This had significant effects on the economy, because, according to Calcagnini, Urbino’s entire economy depends on students.

Bars and restaurants were closed during this time. Calcagnini said that this was difficult because businesses like restaurants and bars really depend on cash flow and may have loans or debts. Some, like Sugar Cafe, were able to adapt. Others were not so fortunate.

Even so, many of the business leaders of Urbino remain persistent. Garbugli continues his delivery service and creates specialty dishes. Mari and Ubaldi continue to create their unique goods and sell them online.

While individual businesses adapt to ever-changing conditions, Cecchini and his colleagues work on strategies to help bring together municipalities and businesses. They created a guidebook for tourists that summarizes attractions in the region entitled The Itinerary of Beauty and hosted business fairs. Further, Cecchini explained that he hopes the return of students to fully in-person classes in the fall will help to boost the local economy.

With a smile and a decisive tone, Cecchini said, “I am optimistic, but we have to work.”

Translation of interviews and other language assistance by University of Urbino student Mariateresa Chiovitti.