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Columns, Opinions

Douglas ’20: Thayer Street is struggling. Help before it’s too late.

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 9, 2020

When I first returned to Brown last summer after a several-month break from College Hill, I didn’t first stop at the Main Green, Faunce House or my friend’s off-campus house — I made a beeline for the steak nachos at Baja’s. After the most brutal nights in the CIT, I didn’t go cool off with friends — I ordered pad Thai from Heng and devoured it alone in my dark room. At endless meetings, lectures and seminars, I never looked forward to catered sandwiches or Andrews pizza — I longed for the smell of samosas and chicken tikka masala from Kabob and Curry. When I think of my fondest memories of the last four years, nearly all of them involve Thayer Street and its beloved culinary institutions. 

But now, those very establishments are facing their most serious challenge in a generation — surviving COVID-19 and the corresponding collapse in sales. Like thousands of other shops around the country, Thayer’s businesses are doing anything they can to survive. Spectrum India  and La Creperie have temporarily closed, hoping to ride out the storm without the overhead costs of keeping their shops open. On the other hand, stores like Baja’s and Meeting Street Cafe have shifted to take-out only restaurants, sharply limiting the number of customers allowed inside and resorting to an endless variety of delivery apps to lure customers in, including Snackpass and Grubhub.

In many ways, Thayer’s businesses face an even tougher prospect than other restaurants in Providence and the greater United States. The street’s restaurants and shops rely on spending from the University community — hungry students late at night, professors looking for a quick bite and prospective students in town for a tour, to name a few. With nearly all of Brown’s population gone, Thayer’s customer base has shrunk dramatically. Furthermore, the spring is one of the key times for Thayer’s storefronts — summertime is particularly slow as the University shrinks, leaving businesses to rely on the months of September through May for the lion’s share of their revenues. 

With the loss of their key customer bases at a critical time of the year, Thayer’s businesses stand to be crushed by the coronavirus. Other college eateries in the country have been crushed as well. In Ithaca, Cornell’s favorite restaurants have faced as much as a 90 percent drop-off in business, and restaurants around Harvard have sent a letter to the state pleading for relief

Unfortunately, in recent years Thayer Street has undergone a dramatic transformation, even without the aid of a deadly virus. National chains like Shake Shack and Chipotle have overpowered local institutions, driving up rent prices and forcing existing store owners to shut down or relocate elsewhere in Rhode Island. Parking meters and a reduction of spaces have driven away customers, and relatively expensive options like by CHLOE and Pokeworks have discouraged customers seeking a quick, cheap bite. 

Without intervention, many of Thayer’s storefronts may come to look like this in the coming months. Once home to Durk’s Bar-B-Q, the site is now boarded up after the restaurant closed early this year before the viral outbreak.

As the final vestiges of local business fight for life on those few short blocks, those changes only stand to accelerate. If current trends continue for even a few more weeks, Thayer will only see more national, monolithic, expensive options replace local establishments in the coming years. Thayer’s unique character and charm will be further eroded, leaving just fragments of its original integrity. 

The Brown community must act now to play its part in saving Thayer’s remaining local businesses. If you have the means and are still currently in Providence, consider taking a night or two a week to stop cooking or picking up boxes at the Ratty and trade those options in for a delicious (albeit likely unhealthy) takeout meal from Thayer. Those away from Providence should consider buying a gift card at their favorite stop, providing consistent cash flow for the business and a future meal for the purchaser. 

The initial actions of the University itself to support the local community, outlined in President Christina Paxson’s P’19 April 3 letter to the community, have been a step in the right direction, and should be upheld in the coming months. Brown should continue deferring rent payments for businesses in University-owned buildings — like Blue State Coffee and Bagel Gourmet on Brook Street — and even consider forgiving missed payments in future months. 

The University should also extend its support beyond rent deferral in small but significant ways. Through free ad space in University publications or upfront payments for future catering, the University could muster its vast resources to provide more consistent cash flow and marketing to businesses that so desperately need it. As a gesture of goodwill, Brown should sponsor a meal from a Thayer Street business for the University’s remaining dedicated workers, namely the Department of Facilities Management and Brown Dining Services workers that have remained on campus throughout the pandemic. 

More broadly, University community members should also advocate for relief from the Rhode Island government for small businesses, not just those on Thayer, in addition to any federal programs that have already passed. The state of Rhode Island must do everything in its power to support its thousands of locally employed workers, including introducing loan programs and providing tax relief to local businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The state has supported small loans to businesses with fewer than 10 employees, but the fund is almost entirely composed of contributions from corporations thus far. The state has a strong incentive to expand relief programs — by keeping businesses alive, the state can secure future tax revenue and support long-term financial health despite the short term burden. Other states, including Washington, New York and California, have taken steps in this direction through loans, tax relief and rent forgiveness, and Rhode Island should follow their leads. These actions, in addition to federal legislation already passed, will be crucial to providing on-the-ground support for the state’s storefronts. President Paxson should use her political power in the state to advocate for such programs. 

Thayer has fundamentally shaped my time at Brown, and immediate action is needed to make sure that future students can continue to enjoy all that the street has to offer. Together, community patronage, University rent forgiveness and state funding can give Thayer’s businesses an urgently needed lifeline.

Jonathan Douglas ’20 can be reached at jonathan_douglas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Reynolds Woodcock '13 says:

    I agree – the BDH should offer Free Advertising to all Thayer Street businesses – great idea. Let’s make it happen now!

  2. Excellent article on Thayer Street.
    My husband, Jagdish Sachdev, owns SPECTRUM-INDIA. He and his staff managed to keep the store open with shorter hours until finally having to close it when RI went into lock down. A painful decision after 53 years on Thayer Street.
    They are still doing business from their website spectrumindiastore:
    https://spectrumindiastore.com/shop?olsPage=products

    We appreciate the support of everyone in the Brown and local RI community.

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