The locally-owned boutiques, gift shops, and restaurants that comprise the town of Princeton are facing the full economic consequences of COVID-19, as the University students on whom they depend are absent. A community that typically thrives has found itself struggling to survive.
But while students may not be able to frequent their favorite spots on Nassau Street, town businesses aren’t far from their minds. Three University seniors, now alumni, have taken it upon themselves to help.
Shivraj (Sunny) Sandhu ’20, Neel Ajjarapu ’20, and Kevin C. Hou ’20 have been friends throughout their Princeton careers. Before they evacuated campus, the trio gathered to discuss how they could effect positive change while stuck at home. They brought together Sandhu’s consulting background, Hou’s experience in web development, and Ajjarapu’s familiarity with fundraising and alumni relations to create “Tigers for Nassau,” a student-driven initiative to help local restaurants weather the pandemic.
“I immediately reached out to Mayor of Princeton Liz Lempert, and we had a conversation on how students can make a difference,” said Sandhu. “Nassau is near and dear to everyone’s hearts, and we want to make sure the Nassau we all love is the same when students come back.”
Lempert introduced the students to the Municipal Council and the Princeton Merchants Association (PMA), which are already working to help the local business community stay afloat.
Both the Municipal Council and PMA have sought to demystify the economic programs and resources available to small business owners, according to Lempert. Each week, the two groups host calls, allowing business owners to seek answers to their most pressing questions and inviting speakers such as Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.-12), representatives from the N.J. Economic Development Office, and SCORE, a non-profit that provides business owners in Mercer County “free and confidential business mentoring.”
Lempert said that PMA and the Municipal Council welcomed Tigers for Nassau onto their team.
“Even just having a student call up and ask how they can help is super energizing for those of us on the other side of the call,” she said. “Ever since, we’ve been trying to help as matchmakers, helping them find businesses that might be interested in working with them.”
Tigers for Nassau has sought guidance from James C. Steward ’76, a PMA Board Member, who has closely monitored how businesses in town are revising their models to generate revenue. While closed due to COVID-19, shops such as Small World have sold coffee and granola in bulk. More recently, they’ve opened up for coffee orders with contactless pickup.
Labyrinth Bookstore has closed its doors but immediately pivoted to online and phone sales. According to Steward, “a skeleton crew of staff” has kept the business alive.
“There’s a need for consultancy to help revise business plans,” Steward said, “through website development, for example.”
“We’ve received a lot of help in figuring out the whole Princeton ecosystem,” Sandhu said, referring to the initiative’s partnership with Lempert and PMA. The Undergraduate Student Government (USG), the Keller Center for Innovation and Engineering Education, and town councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros, who helps run Restaurant Week, have also served as important resources for the group.
With support from local leaders, the Tigers for Nassau founders launched an application for interested students to join one of four teams: Student Pro-Bono Consulting Team, Alumni Relations & Fundraising, Partnerships Team, and Tech & Design. Nearly 50 students have already signed up.
Thus far, the group’s first clients include Homestead Princeton, a gift, furniture and home décor store, and Small World Coffee.
“Homestead has been a physical store, with physical sales, used to doing things in a more traditional way,” said Hou, who serves as Tech Lead. “They took initiative to say they want to move to an online website where people can make orders. We’re helping them move their physical collection into a digital store.”
With Small World, the group is working to help improve its digital presence — making its online ordering and purchasing process a more customer-friendly experience.
“In the short term, we hope to get some level of capital into the hands of small business owners,” Steward said. “Cash is everything. Once you run out of liquidity, it’s hard to get back.”
In the long term, all involved parties — Tigers for Nassau, Mayor Lempert, and PMA — hope that their efforts will strengthen the Princeton community.
“We hope programs like Tigers for Nassau will help enrich the experience of students when they’re on campus,” Lempert said. “We hope they can have relationships with people in town and know the weight of the decisions they have to make during a crisis.”
“We’re seniors and graduating but we hope this relationship lasts into future academic years,” Sandhu said. He added that while his initiative is a great opportunity for students to gain practical experience, he hopes they will also commit to patronizing Princeton’s local businesses and “recognize how valuable they are.”
On a similar note, Steward pled, “Don’t make Amazon your first go-to. Make it your last go-to when you’ve exhausted your local opportunities.”
Editor’s Note: Along with making contactless purchases from Nassau St. businesses, customers can also purchase gift cards and donate to GoFundMe accounts directly on Tigers for Nassau’s website.