Miguel Pires, the owner of Zandra’s Taqueria in Haymarket, said he was confused at first why so many customers were flocking to his restaurant in mid-November.
“Then the management team basically told me I was getting all these vouchers coming in,” Pires said.
In early November, the town printed and mailed four $25 vouchers to each of its 460 residences as part of its financial assistance program called “Helping Haymarket” – or just over 1,800 vouchers altogether. The program, which ended Dec. 5, allowed residents to use the vouchers like cash at any of 20 participating town businesses.
Haymarket Town Manager Chris Coons said that although he won’t have final numbers for another few weeks, he believes the program was successful.
“There are certain businesses who indicated that they have at least $1,000 worth of vouchers,” said Coons. “And, you know, everybody seemed pretty excited about it.”
Funding for the program came from the federal government’s CARES Act, which authorized states to distribute money to counties, cities, and towns based on their population. Coons said Haymarket received $295,452 from Prince William County.
Among items for which the town used the money was $46,000 for the vouchers, $100,000 to provide grants to local businesses, and $65,000 for nonprofits that provided COVID-19 related aid to residents.
Coons noted that “Helping Haymarket” was modeled after similar programs across Northern Virginia, such as one in Middleburg that issued free vouchers to residents to spend at local food providers.
“We liked that the programs were equitable to residents and businesses,” Coons wrote in an email. “We didn’t want to make residents or business owners in need jump through unnecessary hurdles, and the voucher program seemed like one of the easiest ways to prevent that.”
Shelby Lofton, who lives in Haymarket with her husband, said that although she did not take a hit financially due to the pandemic, she used the $25 vouchers to go to local businesses that were hurting.
“We've definitely enjoyed the program and it's been fun to try out the new restaurants and go back to our old favorites as well,” Lofton said. “So, hopefully, they can do a program like this moving forward because it’s been very beneficial for all the merchants that have participated.”
Zandra’s, which has seen a sharp decline in business since the start of the pandemic, was among the businesses where Lofton and her husband used their vouchers
“Business dropped off about 90% and then slowly, over the summer months, we've gotten back to probably about 50% of where we were when we first started,” Pires said.
Like several other small businesses in Haymarket, Zandra’s has experienced slow growth since the pandemic-induced shutdown ended in late spring. But, the voucher program, Pires says, has brought in revenue and new customers at a critical time.
“As we get into the more winter months, having that money come to us now is very helpful,” he added. “Because I think this is definitely the toughest time.”
Pires also owns and manages two other Zandra’s in Manassas and Fairfax with his wife, Alexandra. But in July, Pires said he closed down both of those locations temporarily to focus on the Zandra’s in Haymarket and applied for a $2,000 “Helping Haymarket” grant to help survive the winter.
“I've pretty much applied for every grant, every opportunity, every assistance that’s out there,” said Pires. “Because honestly, every little bit helps.”
But many business owners turned down grants from the town, Coons said. Only half of the $100,000 budget allocated for business grants was used because of how few businesses applied.
“A lot of businesses said that they were doing OK, and they wanted to save that money for other businesses that were in jeopardy or hurting,” he added. “So, I think it was pretty nice to hear that our businesses were doing good enough that they wanted to have those other businesses try and be helped.”
The Copper Cricket, a consignment store in Haymarket, also participated in the voucher program. Brenda Solomon, one of the three owners, said the store received about 25 vouchers altogether, and the program helped attract some new customers. But she added it’s still not enough to cover the store’s losses during the first two months of the shutdown, and the business has also applied for a “Helping Haymarket” grant.
“Those two months, we basically had no income,” she added. “And so, we were still having to pay our utilities and our rent, which came out of the business.”
Coons said that because the Haymarket town election in May caused a delay in distributing the CARES Act funds, the town will not have time to do another round of vouchers. But he noted that there was a substantial amount of funding left over from the voucher and grant programs, which the town will most likely distribute to nonprofits that provide food and child products and help with things like rent and utilities.
“With Christmas coming up, I feel like there's just going to be an extra need out there,” Coons said.