About the series
The "Auburn voices from the pandemic" series is an oral history from The Plainsman of COVID-19 and how people are being affected by the disease.
As told to Tim Nail
William Andrews, owner of The Auburn Popcorn Company, shared his perspective as a local business owner on what operating in a mostly shuttered Auburn is like. While many shops have closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, Andrews has kept his open in a time of economic concern.
The transcript from that interview has been slightly edited for clarity and rearranged for structure to produce the following piece.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
I’ve never seen College Street in my almost 50 years of life this dead, ever — not even over the summers. We’ve run Auburn Popcorn Company for three years, but I grew up here. It’s never been like this. It’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing I can do until the government opens things back up. Most of all of my customers that are coming in are thankful that we’re still open. I’m shipping orders, too. I’ve had people all over the Southeast ordering, trying to support us. I’m very grateful for everyone that’s done it and people that still come back in.
My initial reaction was I felt the University closing was a little premature because not that much was known about the virus, but I understood that they were trying to protect the student body. I get that. Me as a person, I don’t want anybody to die – I realize that’s part of life. I thought, "Maybe they’re just going to have them out for another week, bring them back and we go back to normal." Then they made a quick determination thereafter that they were closing it down.
When the University announced that they were closing until June 30, I have a son that’s an incoming freshman, so I got insight again early that they weren’t going to do Camp War Eagle. I don’t think it’s fair for incoming freshmen because that’s an experience where you get to learn about the campus, a little bit about where things are. Now they’re going to come in blind.
Doing it virtually is not the same. Parents don’t get to walk the town, they don’t get to see what this is all about. Obviously, I get zero tourism. I’m not trying to be selfish, but I feel like they jumped the gun on everything way too far. A lot of us survive off of tourism that comes off of that. During those camps, they bring people downtown; parents that are staying in town for the camps, they’ll come visit downtown.
What people don’t realize about me as a business downtown is it’s not that I necessarily cater to students. That’s not my predominant customer base; my customer base is all the visitors that come to Auburn, and that has stopped and won’t continue probably until the fall.
I’m open because I can be, number one; I’m food. Number two, obviously whether I’m here or not, I’m not getting paid. I own this establishment with my wife, so me being here is not costing the company anything. Anything I can bring is going to limit whatever loans I have to take and whatever money I have to borrow. From what my understanding is, the City is doing a small business loan for businesses of Auburn where the City’s going to cover the interest of the loans for up to three years. Yes, I’ve investigated it, and yes, I'll probably take advantage of it if I can.
Right now, we’re trying to figure out what exactly is going to happen. The students that were here had to go home because one lived on campus, and I believe the other’s parents either wanted her home or didn’t want her working. I have a full-time employee who’s not a student, and he’s still working. My wife and I still work, and I have kids of my own that are old enough to work here that do from time to time.
Restaurants and food establishments like myself can do takeout, we can do curbside, we can do delivery. We’re allowed to be open, but my stools are stuck underneath the table; we don’t allow people to sit in here. We try to limit the amount of people that come in. I’ll let a family in, but typically there won’t be more than four people. A family’s a family, but if a group of 10 students came up, I wouldn’t allow them in.
I contracted with TigerTownToGo, FetchMe and GrubHub, and I also set up a website. I do deliveries for people that request it just as a value-added thing. I’m going to take every dollar I can make. We always did limited deliveries; we would do campus deliveries and especially for holidays, parents that wanted to send a gift to their children. As far as having it on a website, that’s new. Setting up with those delivery services is all new.
We get a fair amount of deliveries, but we’re still getting a lot of people. When it’s light out, Samford Lawn’s still getting filled with people even though it’s supposed to be closed. There are still people that are going out there every day and people are still walking around so we are still doing walk-in orders. The campus probably doesn’t want them on there, but the police aren’t doing anything about it. “Stay-at-home” does not mean “cooped up inside,” it basically means all nonessential businesses are shut down. To be honest, my business is down 70%, and we’ll try to take measures to bring in money wherever we can, but it hurts.
I haven’t had anybody that’s in my immediate family or anybody I know personally, know closely, that has gotten sick. No one’s told me. I’m a self-employed person; I have two small businesses in town – that's where I'm affected. I have lots of clients in my other business. I know the virus is out there and several people have contracted it but nobody I personally know.
As far as the stay-at-home order, I don’t feel it’s necessary. I think we need to get the economy back open. All these restaurants are struggling, they don’t make money with empty restaurants, and they’re not making money on takeout. Most of them that are open are open just to keep people on the payroll paid. If we all close down and let our staff go, we wouldn’t be able to get staff back when we needed them. People are going to have to survive. The jobs that are here aren’t high-paying jobs, but for some people it’s what they do.
Read previous stories from The Plainsman's oral history series:
- As business operations come to a stand still and entertainment venues close, local drag shows and LGBTQ activities including Pride have been put on hold.
- While essential businesses like grocery stores remain open during the pandemic, some workers who interact with customers are concerned for their health and the health of others.
- Sadok Aounallah, an RA for the village dorms, talks about living alone in Auburn and his fears about COVID-19.
- Dr. Fred Kam, medical director at the Auburn University Medical Clinic, on what a day in the office entails during the pandemic.
- Jarious Avery, freshman in biomedical sciences, is one of many first-generation college students returning home after experiencing a sliver of college life.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman