Gulfport: Helping Businesses, Helping People

Jax Taylor, owner of Jax In And Out, Neighborhood Café located at 4928 Gulfport Blvd. S., is one of several local business owners helping others during the COVID-19 pandemic. During open hours, she has a free pantry, lower left, where people can donate what they can and others can take what they need. In addition, she is offering a free meal to anyone who needs it, no questions asked. “There are so many people in the service industry that haven’t got anything to eat and they don’t have any money until they get their jobs back,” she said. Currently, the café has a limited home-cooked style menu based on food availability and it is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit facebook.com/Jax-In-And-Out-184490384927265. Photo by Debbie Wolfe. 

Gulfport has a history of being a tight knit, community-strong city. This past week, many uncertainties have befallen the residents and businesses that keep Gulfport alive and, well, weird. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped Gulfport from asking, “How can we help?” 

Initially, the concern came from the Gulfport Merchant’s Chamber: How will Gulfport businesses stay afloat during this pandemic?

But from the beginning, businesses weren’t looking inward. They were looking outward, asking, “What can Gulfport businesses do for the people of Gulfport?”

On Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m. Pinellas County declared a Local State of Emergency. 

By the morning of Monday, March 16, owner of Sumitra, Maurice Loeb, and Founder & Creative Director of Carroway and Rose, James Briggs were contacting local grocery chains to figure out a way to bring supplies to seniors and keep the elderly out of highly populated shopping centers and in relative safety. 

Pia’s Trattoria took another approach. 

“We would like to support our Gulfport residents, 65 and older, in these challenging times of social distancing. We know many of you rather don’t go to the grocery store now and probably shouldn’t. To avoid this, you are welcome to pick up a pasta dish for two at no cost between 11 am and 4 pm. Please just call 727-327-2190, leave your name and we bring it outside to your car or in person to pick up. Stay safe and keep smiling,”

That was the announcement on Pia’s Trattoria’s Facebook page on Wednesday, March 18. In just one day, it was reported that over 150 meals were provided to senior residents. 

By Thursday, March 19 more businesses offered more than anyone expected. 

“If you are in need of a hot meal, I would gladly give you something to eat, no questions asked. Spread the love … not the virus,” offered Jax Taylor of Jax In and Out. 

On Friday, March 20, John Riesebeck, owner of Smokin’ J’s Real Texas BBQ – a business owner with a long history of helping communities in times of hardship – began to provide free bagged lunches for children, via a drive-thru setup on the property of Smokin’ J’s, no questions asked.

“This is an incredibly tough time for our small local businesses,” said founder of LocalShops1, Ester Venouziou. “And I’m inspired seeing so many put people over profits, once again, as they typically do in time of crisis as well as in the good times. And now during this world pandemic, at a time when many local businesses themselves are barely scraping by, they are choosing to help the community.” 

However, businesses are not alone. The Gulfport Merchant’s Chamber (GMC) is looking to help businesses now and when the dust finally settles. 

“Our message from the chamber to the other businesses, over the next couple of weeks, is that we need to be creative on how we are doing business,” said President Barbara Banno. “It’s a moving target; anytime businesses shift, the state makes a new ruling and that’s what’s making things difficult.”

The GMC says they’re in it for the long haul. 

“Over the next couple of weeks, the chamber board is going to stay focused on what businesses can do currently and any time there is news we’ll push that out via email and Facebook,” said Banno. After this crisis passes, Banno says the GMC will “figure out how to get the people back into town and back into our small businesses.”

“Once the pandemic is over and we start getting life into our new-normal, I hope the community remembers these and so many others who are helping,” said Venouziou. “And in turn, help them rebuild their businesses and their lives.”

In the meantime, Venouziou has also offered some ideas on the LocalShops1 Facebook page of how residents can help local business, while still observing smart social distancing rules. Ideas include ordering online from a local business, getting take-out from local restaurants, and buying gift cards for later use. 

“If they don’t sell them online,” LocalShops1 posted, “call the business. They most likely can do it over the phone.”

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