One local business owner found himself leading a series of socially distant interviews conducted Monday over the internet as part of a very unconventional Democratic National Convention kick-off.
“It was great,” said Swarthmore resident Scott Richardson, co-owner of the Occasionally Yours restaurant. “I got to talk about our business and do it in a non-political fashion.”
Richardson, who has owned the business since 1989 with his wife, Theresa, came about 11 minutes into the broadcast hosted by “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria. Richardson was seen sitting inside the small boutique eatery as he answers Longoria’s question about how his business is doing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been rough,” Richardson told her. “Rough is a nice (way) to say it. My wife and I, 31 years ago, began our business and, quite honestly, over all these years, we’ve faced some adversity and challenges, but … nothing like what we are today.”
Richardson told Longoria that he and Theresa have had to “reinvent” the business several times since the beginning of the year. During that period, they’ve seen revenues drop about 40 percent and their number of employees cut in half.
“Our customers are a little scared, our employees are sometimes a little afraid to come to work because of the COVID and, to be honest with you, I’m just frustrated,” said Richardson Monday. “I don’t understand how we got here. We are the greatest nation in the world and it just seems to me that if maybe we just came together on this one issue alone, maybe as Americans and being untied, we can overcome it.”
Richardson joked that if you know him, there is no way he could contain himself to 45 seconds he was allotted. A slight delay and nervousness toned down his usually upbeat patter, but at closer to a minute and a half, he said he still didn’t say all of what he wanted to.
“No one else knew what I was going to say, but I missed whole sections of what I was going to say,” he said.
For instance, Richardson wanted to follow up the “rough” line with something about how he feels blessed just to still be open, unlike a lot of other small businesses.
“That was me just filling it with words because I had no idea what I was going to say,” he said, laughing. “I wouldn’t make a good politician or something, throwing me in front of a camera, that’s for sure.”
Richardson says he still has no clue how or why he was tapped for the event. He was one of three local business owners to meet with (still presumptive) Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in June, but doesn’t know how that came about either.
“He was a down-to-earth, compassionate (person),” said Richardson. “And he listens. I mean he’s looking right into your eyes. It was amazing. When you meet somebody, it’s a whole different impression than when you listen to them speak or whatever.”
During that meeting with Biden, Richardson said he revealed that he had voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016, which he guessed would get picked up by some news outlet, but he never expected to be talking at the DNC.
“I don’t feel like I’m aligned with any particular party. I vote for the individual,” he said. “I was not a Hillary Clinton fan. I have voted for probably as many Republicans as I have for Democrats. I told people I’ve been registered most of my life as an independent. I’ve been registered as a Republican when I wanted to vote in a primary, then I would re-register as a Democrat.”
When Trump came along, Richardson said he cast his ballot there. When U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5 of Swarthmore, ran for Congress, Richardson changed his registration again to vote for her. He considers Scanlon a friend and initially believed she had gotten him in to see Biden in June, but he said she called him the following day asking how he had pulled that off.
“How I got that invite, I still don’t know,” he said. “But everything has come from that.”
Richardson said he has never really been one to voice his opinion on politics for fear of alienating customers. Sure, there might be a conversation if you wanted one, but he never put up signs or anything.
“But I just feel like we’re at a point now where it’s more than Scott and Theresa Richardson’s store and what effect backing Biden has,” he said. “It’s about our country and where we’re at and where I fear it will go if (Trump) is reelected.”
The turning point for Richardson was Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, he said.
“If his motivation was to get re-elected, he had a sure win by stepping up and saying, ‘We have this issue, it really stinks, this is what we’re going to do and as Americans I’m going to lead you through this,’” Richardson said. “But because he took the reverse stance, people like me – the middle-of-the-road people – I think will probably shift towards Biden.”
Richardson said he initially planned to discuss Trump more in his comments Monday night.
“The very first thing I wanted to say was ‘We’re in a mess right now, but I take some responsibility for it because I voted for Donald Trump,’” he said. “I think one of my statements is, ‘I just don’t know how we got this way.’ Well, my original thought on that was ‘How could Trump allow our country to get in this position?’”
But Richardson said he was told to just talk about the impact on his business, so he had to reshuffle a bit. He assumed others later in the program would be hammering the president and they didn’t want him taking the wind out of their sails.
As for the business itself, Richardson said he had to step up and get creative right away to stay afloat. Before “contactless delivery” or “curbside pickup” entered the lexicon, Occasionally Yours began doing both with an already planned St. Patrick’s Day catering gig for the Swarthmore Library just a few days after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered many businesses in the state shuttered.
The business used to pull about half its income from catering, which has dropped to zero, but has continued doing fundraisers by partnering with local organizations, Richardson said. It doesn’t make money, but it does keep the lights on and the chef employed.
And on Tuesday, he got to say what he had planned to Monday night.
“We’re fortunate that over this period of time, with their help, we’ve been able to do probably close to 2,500 meals since May,” Richardson said. “Without those programs … we would be under right now. I feel really blessed to still be working in the restaurant business. There are thousands of them that are no longer viable.”