Trying to Make Dough: How Local Oxford Pizzerias are Adapting to the Pandemic.

Fergndan’s Supreme Pizza

OXFORD, Ms. – The demand for pizza delivery has skyrocketed this year. Major franchises like Domino’s Pizza, Inc. have prospered in 2020 – same-store sales increased by 16% during their fiscal second-quarter, according to CNBC.com – because their business model is optimized for delivery and takeout. However, unlike Domino’s, some local pizzerias have adapted their dine-in centric business models to survive during the pandemic.

Since spring break, Square Pizza, located on Van Buren Avenue, has experienced an 85% drop in sales, according to owner Tate Moore. Since it opened in 2007, Square Pizza has traditionally operated from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; however, Moore says he has recently changed his store hours to 4 – 10 p.m. because business has been so slow.

“That business basically stopped from spring break on, to adapt to what’s happened now, I have put some booths in my restaurant hoping that I become more of a dinner place, but that has been a slow go,” Moore said.

Square Pizza has also signed up with Bite Squad, a third-party delivery service. Moore says he hopes this delivery partnership will help. If his numbers continue to fall, Moore says he and many other businesses on the Square won’t be able to sustain their expensive rents. 

“Everybody pays these crazy rents because we make so much money in the fall and spring, and if you’re not going to make money in the fall and spring… well, then what do you do?” Moore said.

Like Square Pizza, Lost Pizza Company, located off of College Hill Road, has also changed its entire business model to weather the COVID-19 storm. The small chain was founded by Brooks Roberts and Preston Lott, who opened their first franchise location in Tupelo, Ms., in 2011. Lost Pizza Co. now has 17 locations across Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida.

General Manager Elizabeth Stripling says that Lost Pizza Co. used to be a fast-casual counter service restaurant, but all of that changed because of the pandemic.

“Now we are full service, so I have had to hire a bunch of servers; we did it at first because we get so busy that we couldn’t have people standing so close to each other in front of the counter, we thought if we do table service at least, they are separated into six feet apart tables,” Stripling said.

In addition to becoming a full-service restaurant, Stripling says Lost Pizza Co. has also closed its upstairs bar to reduce the virus’s spread. Though there is no bar seating, the restaurant still brings drinks to the customer’s tables.

“I’m pretty sure that some people hate the fact that we had to do that and full service because they are just bar people, but I guess that is just out of the question right now,” Stripling said.

Because most of her staff is comprised of university students, Stripling says if Ole Miss closes again, she could lose more than half of her employees.

While local chains like Lost Pizza Co. have hired more staff to accommodate the increase in customers, mom and pop restaurants like Fergndan’s Wood Fired Pizza Café recognize that hiring additional employees in the age of COVID-19 could be extra risky.

“From an operational standpoint we are having to do what we do, but with less people, because we have to recognize that everybody that stands behind this counter or that counter has a circle of friends, that has a circle of friends, and you don’t know who is going to be bringing in what,” Said John Ferguson, owner of Fergndan’s Wood Fired Pizza Cafe. “So, as a family business with my wife, myself, and our three kids, we can pretty much better control our environment.”

Fergndan started in October 2016 as a food truck-only business; two years later, it expanded to a brick and mortar restaurant located on Highway 30 East. With everything that has transpired in the restaurant industry in 2020, Ferguson says he is happy his food truck background influenced his restaurant’s construction.

“The good news for us is that we started as a food truck, so we were already used to being flexible; when we built the restaurant, we built it with flexibility in mind,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson says this built-in flexibility made it easier to change aspects of his business model that didn’t conform to Phase 2 of the city’s “Serving Oxford Safely” recovery plan, which adopts all regulations and findings outlined in Gov. Tate Reeves’ Executive Orders: 1518151615111508. One of the guidelines listed in the plan prohibits self-service drink stations in restaurants. To comply with this guideline, Ferguson moved his point of sale table – which was built with wheels to be moved for catering purposes – in front of the restaurant’s beverage station so guests couldn’t self-serve anymore.

“We have had to adapt and be cautious with what our next steps are going to be, and just kind of let the market dictate, regardless of what the governor says – people are still going to be people,” Ferguson said.

As the pandemic continues to impact the food and restaurant industry, Ferguson says all he can do is make his daily adjustments and keep moving forward.

“There is no luxury that gives you the ability to just stop and wait to see what is going to happen; this train is moving, and if you don’t adjust accordingly, then you are either going to derail it or you are going to overrun your tracks… either way, it’s not going to be good,” Ferguson said. “So, you just adjust to the conditions that day, and you wake up in a new world the next.” 

Art Imitating Life: UM Theatre and Film Department to Produce Play Using Masks, Webcams, and Green Screens.

A set of Larval masks. Photo by Strangeface Masks.

OXFORD, Ms. – The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping the UM Theatre and Film Department from performing shows in front of live audiences this semester, but that is not stopping the department from producing and staging plays virtually. COVID may have closed the curtains on the department’s productions last semester, but this fall… the show must go on(line).

One of the virtual shows currently in production is “Near/Far,” a play that will be recorded live and then released on the department’s website to watch for free on Nov. 6. “Near/Far” will explore themes of isolation, loneliness, loss, and grief, as well as themes of inspiration, connection, and hope. These pandemic-related themes are seen through the lens of The Larval Mask, a large and abstract mask inspired by the carnival masks of Basel in Switzerland.

In “Near/Far”, student actors will use their Larval masks to create creatures who are simple and curious in nature.

“So we were brainstorming about ways we could safely continue to make theater specifically, and I made the suggestion to do a particular kind of mask work and create a play based on the experience of living through the time of a global pandemic and quarantine,” said Lauren Bone Noble, director of “Near/Far” and associate professor of movement for the actor.

Zoom will play an integral role in “Near/Far”. According to Noble, the play’s cast is using the video conferencing platform for rehearsals, and when it’s show time, students will record their performances from home using Zoom. Along with their masks and costumes, members of the cast will also receive a webcam, green screen and lights; they will also be given guidance on how to properly setup those items in their home.

“We wanted to be able… to keep going forward despite what the situation on campus or in our community might be,” Noble said. “We didn’t want to have to stop because of any sort of further quarantining.”

However, Noble says there are disadvantages to rehearsing and performing virtually.

“Well, there is no replacement for the shared energy of people gathered in one place, you cannot replace that in a rehearsal hall, and you cannot replace that in a performance,” Noble said. “It’s a terrible loss.”

Cody Stockstill, Assistant Professor of Scenic Design, says he and his two scenic design students, who are the primary designers of the show, worked with Noble over the summer to create the scenic design of “Near/Far”, which will feature a virtual Zoom-like environment of individual squares. According to Noble, the play’s left behind world was initially inspired by images of the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

Stockstill says his student designers are still finding the best way to create the show’s virtual environment using Zoom and green screen technology.

“What we are doing is we are testing out right now how accurate it is (the green screen virtual backgrounds) via Zoom, and we are finding out that it’s extremely accurate believe it or not with Zoom’s algorithm for their backgrounds,” Stockstill said.

While his student designers create and render three-dimensional models and animations for the show’s virtual environments, Stockstill says he is currently learning more about Zoom’s virtual background technology and troubleshooting for possible technical problems that could happen during the show’s live performance.

Even though the live performance will be edited before it releases, Stockstill says he and his student designers will limit the amount of editing they do because they want the play to feel like a live theatre performance, not a film.

“We are trying to keep that spirit of live theatre alive in the recording process; what we are really trying to do with this is not even add the green screen effects, we are going to record the green screen effects live,” Stockstill said.

The mask work that Noble is incorporating into the play was first popularized by French stage actor and coach Jacques Lecoq, who was best known for his teaching methods, which involved an emphasis on masks, specifically Larval masks used to amplify the actor’s gestures and movement. Noble says her training in Larval Masks and Lecoq-based movement styles comes from her time spent studying with Giovanni Fusetti and other Lecoq proteges.

“He created this style of mask work where the masks are kind of like characters, we have specific characters, and the person who is wearing that mask will sort of have to create with their body a character around that mask,” Noble said. “So then, we will be telling the story as if these creatures have wandered into a never-ending Zoom meeting.”

While virtual performances create new opportunities for technological innovation, it also creates challenges for performing arts students who are not getting the experience of performing in front of a live audience.

“I think it negatively impacts us by not having those live productions because a lot of people in the program have not gotten to experience their first Ole Miss theatre show,” said Jaslyn Nicole Ballansaw, a senior fine arts major and member of the “Near/Far” cast. “So, it’s just a missed opportunity, but I’m glad the department is coming up with other ways to give those opportunities back to us.”

Even though COVID-19 has taken away the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience, theatres across the countryhave found new ways to tell stories through virtual mediums.

“They don’t want to lose touch with their audience, they want to continue telling the important stories that we tell in this industry,” said Michael Barnett, department chair and professor of lighting design. “We think it’s vital that our students have an opportunity to work within those same mediums.”

UM’s SouthTalks Kicks Off With Virtual Q&A on Improving Health in the Delta.

Barnard Observatory

OXFORD, Ms. – The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi began its second annual fall SouthTalks series on Sept. 9 at noon with a live Q&A event featuring four community health experts who discussed how the medical and public health community play a role that is traditionally thought of as economic development and the importance of tailoring programs and policies to meet the unique needs of Delta communities.

The event, entitled “Our Body Tells a Story: A Pathway to Resilience and Wholeness,” was presented by Dr. Jennifer Conner, Dr. Brookshield Laurent, Dr. Anne Cafer, and Dr. Meagen Rosenthal. The group’s conversation expanded upon a prerecorded talk, currently available on the center’s website, in which doctors’ Conner and Laurent discuss how place, time, and health influence our bodies and how those three factors can create a pathway of holistic healing for individuals and communities.  

Laurent is the founding executive director for the DPHI and the founding chairwomen for the department of Clinical Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYIT-COM) at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. Conner serves as deputy director of the DPHI and is an associate professor at the NYIT-COM. 

Both Dr. Cafer and Dr. Rosenthal are UM professors and co-directors of the university’s Community First Research Center for Wellbeing and Creative Achievement (CREW). 

Cafer says CREW is an outgrowth of the Community Wellbeing – Flagship Constellations, an initiative created by Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter that includes participants from every school on campus.

“Crew set out to help communities build their own research capacities so that when they come to a university, and we hope it’s the University of Mississippi, they have their research needs identified,” Cafer said.

During the Q&A, Conner and Laurent of the Delta Population Health Institute (DPHI) explained how they consider different socioeconomic factors when building cultures of health in Delta communities.

“As a public health practioner, we often use the Social-Ecological Model realizing that, again, there are individual behaviors, but those individual behaviors are influenced by peers and social networks,” Conner said. “And that is all influenced by our organizational structures like schools, worksites, hospitals, and clinics; that is impacted more broadly by policy.” 

Conner also said that education must ‘talk to’ economic development because schools and hospitals help recruit new businesses. Additionally, Conner stated that economic growth is important for downtown redevelopment projects in towns and cities. In the Q&A, Conner explained how she killed two birds with one stone by adding edible landscaping to a downtown beautification project.

“We can make it pretty and beautiful for the downtown area and increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables and encourage other growing behaviors as well,” Conner said.

Since its establishment last year, the DPHI has worked to achieve greater health equality and community resilience in the Mississippi River Delta by creating a culture of health through research, education, policy engagement, and community engagement. The DPHI also values holistic thinking and follows the four tenants of osteopathic medicine to advance community and personal health. 

However, sometimes local resistance to the DPHI’s holistic solutions occurs. In the Q&A, Laurent mentioned that problems often arise when community stakeholders feel left out of the conversation or are not entirely on board with the Institute’s terms for improving health in their community. 

“I find that a lot of the time when we are bringing and convening multiple stakeholders to the table to discuss these very complex issues, we have to define the terms, and that will be different for each community,” Laurent said. “And so if we are not on the same page about what the terms are, what we are agreeing our expectations are, and what we agree our benchmarks and success marks are; then we will continue to have this resistance, the word that the questioner was asking for.”

During the Fall semester, SouthTalks explores different aspects of southern culture through panel discussions, performances, film screenings, and lectures. However, because of the pandemic, this year’s lineup of events will be presented virtually for free on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s YouTube channel, but registration is required. 

Afton Thomas, associate director of programs at the University of Mississippi’s center, said that she is proud she decided to host SouthTalks virtually back in April.

“I didn’t know where we were going to be, but I didn’t want to invite people here and then have to scramble for some plan b,” Thomas said.

While Thomas admits that nothing beats an in-person event, she says presenting SouthTalks virtually has its positives.

“The silver lining is that we can get national attention, our events have always been free and open to the public, but that has been limited to if you’re in Oxford, Mississippi on campus at noon, on a Wednesday,” Thomas said.

SouthTalks’s next event, “Why Dystopia Now? Exploring the Place, Value and Necessity of Speculative and Dystopian Themes in Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s ‘We Cast a Shadow,'” is on Sept. 16 at noon. For more information on future SouthTalks events or the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, visit  https://southernstudies.olemiss.edu/ or contact Thomas at amthoma4@olemiss.edu or 662-915-3363.

Oxford Bicycle Company Shifting Gears Amid Global Bike Shortage.

Oxford Bicycle Company

OXFORD, Ms. – As the threat of Covid-19 continues and Americans spend more time outdoors, biking has re-emerged as a favorite pastime. According to the NDP Group, which tracks cycling sales, adult leisure bike sales in March were up by 121 percent compared to 2019. But, the exponential increase in sales and the decrease in parts, a byproduct of President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports last year, has created a national shortage of new bikes.

Vanessa Gregory, an associate professor of Journalism at Ole Miss, has been cycling for 18 years. Gregory says that cycling is more than just a way to commute to campus; it’s a way to clear her head and relieve stress.

“I definitely believe that exercising and, in this case, cycling, in particular, helps with anxiety, boredom, and depression,” Gregory said. “And everyone that I know that is a cyclist is riding more probably than they have ever ridden in the past four or five years.”

As cycling has risen in popularity over the last few months, Oxford bicycle retailers have struggled to keep up with the demand for new bikes.

“The cheaper bikes went first, and then there was such a demand, for any bike really, that we started selling all the expensive stuff until we ran out,” said Wesley Smith, owner of Oxford Bicycle Company.

Oxford Bicycle Company has been in business since 1990, but Smith says he has never been as busy as when the bicycle boom started several months ago.

“It’s been really busy,” Smith said. “March and April are probably the two busiest months we have ever had until we ran out of bikes.”

When Oxford Bicycle Company ran out of inventory, they turned to repairs as their primary revenue source. Smith says his shop might have gone under if customers weren’t coming in to fix their old bikes.

“People can’t get new bikes, so they get their old bikes fixed, which has helped,” Smith said. “We’ve had 40-50 bikes in the queue for repair for five months now; if we didn’t have that, it would have been hard.”

Oxford Bicycle Company is one of about 2,000 retailers in America that sells Trek bikes. According to Eric Bjorling, Trek’s director of public relations, the global manufacture produces up to 1.5 million bikes per year. The price range for most of the bikes is between $800 -$1,500. 

Between April and May, retailers like Oxford Bicycle Company were having trouble ordering Trek bikes due to a COVID-related industry-wide supply chain breakdown in Southeast Asia, which started in December of 2019 and lasted through February.

“China shut down their manufacturing for a couple months at least, and you can see the effect it’s taking now,” Smith said.

Despite the backups in production of some of Trek’s newer models, Bjorling says things are now returning to normal at the factories, and he expects more shipments to arrive in stores by October.

“We are back up at full capacity, we have been for a little while, and we are running as many bikes on the line as we can,” Bjorling said.

However, most of the bikes arriving in stores by October will not be for sale when they ship to retailers.

“I know that a lot of the bikes that are arriving are going to be sold already,” Bjorling said. “Finding open inventory might be a little bit of a struggle at some locations come October because I think what we are going to be doing is fulfilling backorders for a long time.”

With more people expected to get their hands on handlebars this fall and the pandemic most likely extending into 2021, Bjorling believes cycling will still be just as popular even when the weather turns cold.

“I think you are going to see a cycling season that will last a little bit longer this year, it will go into October and November,” Bjorling said.