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Perseverance in a Pandemic: Holding on Downtown

On the brink of retirement, Ray Huff is 'shocked' his c-store chain is still open for business
Photograph by Matt Nager

CSP collects stories of the men and women of convenience retail who put their lives and livelihoods on the line when their communities needed them.

DENVER — Business was booming for Raymond Huff as 2019 ended. The self-made president of HJB Convenience and its Russell’s stores was preparing to sell his business and happily retire.

Huff had built a small but profitable empire of convenience stores in high-rise buildings catering to office workers from Detroit to Denver and Southern California. He had even converted a few locations into autonomous, self-serve units where customers could grab items and check out themselves. Sales were up 19% at the start of 2020, and his buyers were “licking their chops” in anticipation of acquiring the business, says Huff.

Then came March 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and Huff ’s sunny retirement plans suddenly went dark. “As soon as COVID came along, I said, ‘We need to close this [sale],’ ” Huff says he told his buyers. They countered that they did not know how to manage the company through this crisis without him, and they walked away from the deal. “I just lost a couple million bucks,” he remembers thinking at the time.

From there, Huff did everything he could to keep his business alive as office workers began to work from home and foot traffic plummeted in almost every single location overnight. Los Angeles was hit especially hard as cases spiked there, says Huff. Even working with Uber Eats to make deliveries in the City of Angels came up dry. “We did like nine orders,” says Huff. “That’s a reflection of the number of people who were actually in downtown.” Huff says sales in LA stores used to range from $3,000 to $5,000 per day per store. That number is closer to $200 since the latest lockdown.

“I’m talking to landlords and I’m converting stores over to self-serve where it makes sense, because I don’t expect that the office tenancy’s going to recover. I think it’s going to be a very different thing for the next two, three or four years until people are comfortable being around each other again,” says Huff.

One reason Huff is pessimistic about downtown Denver tenancy specifically is because of the Colorado state government, which is reducing government facilities in Denver by 1 million square feet. The state government intends to move 20% to 30% of the state workforce to permanent work-from-home status, according to the Denver Business Journal. “Oh, my Jesus Christ, this is not good for me,” Huff recalls saying when he learned the state was pulling so many of its employees out of downtown.

“You’ve just got to persevere. You’ve just got to get up every day and keep trying.”

The lack of foot traffic is not the only hit Huff ’s stores have taken during the pandemic. According to the Colorado Sun, downtown Denver changed drastically during the spring and summer of 2020. First, the streets were regularly filled with people protesting racial injustice and police wielding rubber bullets and pepper spray. Fewer people ventured downtown to avoid the clash. That vacuum of space was filled with camps of homeless people, one of which grew to 200 tents before it was swept by city police in July.

“Unfortunately, Denver’s lost a lot of its shine because of the protests and the way they boarded up the buildings,” says Huff , who spoke with CSP after the riots at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., but before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. “They’re boarding up the buildings again right now. You know why? Because the new president’s going to come in and every state has been threatened with their capitol being assaulted. This is crazy. What country are we in?”

Despite it all, HJB Convenience is still standing. “I’m shocked that I’m still here because I really expected to be gone around September. But my people stepped up,” he says.

Huff was forced to pay his store staff out of his own pocket to keep them employed, and he was unable to pay his executive staff for five months. “I didn’t expect them to show up to work. The next day they all showed up,” he says. “ ‘You’ll figure this out’,” Huff remembers his employees telling him at the time. “I was shocked. I was shocked.”

Thankfully, says Huff, the second Paycheck Protection Program gave HJB enough funds to allow Huff to start paying his staff with company funds again. “It actually saved my company,” Huff says of the loan. Accessing other loan and assistance programs has been more difficult. “We made too much money in 2019, so there’s no freaking way,” he says. Huff hopes things will change after HJB files its 2020 taxes in March, establishing a new bottom line.

Despite the hardships of 2020 and the uncertainty of the year ahead, Huff has retained his infectious sense of humor and dogged optimism. It may take years, but he is confident he will eventually sell his business and enjoy his retirement.

“You’ve just got to persevere,” he says. “You’ve just got to get up every day and keep trying.”

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