JENKINTOWN -- The grandfather with grandkids in college. The six businessmen who came to sit around a table, talking politics and eating bagels. The customers who used to come as kids that now bring their own children.
These are just a few regular patrons Vicki Ard, who co-owns Fill A Bagel with her husband, Charlie, has come to know over the last 26 years of business.
“It’s that community connection,” she said. “[It’s] knowing so-and-so’s dog’s name, and knowing what their kid eats and where their kid goes to college.”
Ard said that for both the Jenkintown store and their five-year-old location in Oreland, they’ve always seen a groundswell of community support that has caused business to thrive, even earning the Reader’s Choice Best of Montco award every year they’ve been in business.
But in March, when the pandemic hit and businesses had to close, she said she worried about whether they –– and other local shops –– would bounce back.
“People are trying to promote small businesses because they know we’re in trouble,” she said. “We’ve never needed help from anybody, we just help everyone else. And now, for the first time ever, we need help.”
Starting on May 7, both the Jenkintown and Oreland locations were able to reopen with a limited menu and invite customers back into the store four days a week thanks to their PPP loan and other grants. Ard even recently won $10,000 worth of advertising from a contest with 97.5 BenFM.
Now, she said they’re making safety precautions their first priority. Only three customers are allowed in the store at a time, and they all must be six feet apart and wear masks. They accommodate curbside and in store order pickups too.
As for staff, vendors and employees also social distance and are screened for temperatures every day. They also sanitize frequently and got Don Rossi, who owns another local business called Rossi Cleaning Services, to thoroughly spray-sanitize the entire store once a week with food-safe sanitizer.
The store’s safety efforts amidst COVID-19 have earned them lots of praise from customers.
“This morning I picked up bagels and had a lovely experience,” one customer wrote on Facebook about her curbside pick-up experience back in April. “Thank you Fill A Bagel for being so thoughtful and kind during this time.”
And while other local businesses have been criticized for their lack of safety precautions upon reopening the store to patrons, another customer reminded everyone that some, like Fill A Bagel, are doing a great job.
“Yay! Fill A Bagel!,” they wrote on another Facebook post that now has over 400 likes and dozens of comments of those in agreement. “In addition to raising awareness of those businesses not keeping their customers and staff safe, let’s celebrate and applaud those who are!”
Though safety is their first priority, Ard loves seeing everyone back in the shop.
While they kept up their connection with their neighbors by donating bagels weekly to the Jenkintown Food Cupboard, she said the worst part of closing was not being able to personally greet the customers who’ve become her friends.
The staff, too, is like a family, with many of them long term, dedicated staff, including executive baker Jason Hill, who is coming up on 21 years of work, and Danny Soto, who has worked at the shop for 19.
“When we closed, I had people come and literally cry at our door...they need that community,” she said. “It’s like a frayed rope or telephone line. You’re getting a connection but it’s just not quite there.”
Whether the fall yields more normalcy or the pandemic continues its destruction, she knows that with their strong community base and devoted staff, they’ll come out on top.
“Some people aren’t going to make it, but we’re tough. We’ve worked hard,” she said. “Someone’s going to survive, it might as well be us!”