COVID pandemic pushes Watertown business owners to make leap from cafe to apothecary | Business

WATERTOWN — Inside their cafe space in the Franklin Building on Public Square, Tarot Cafe co-owners Seth Hill, 31, and Sexton Reece, 24, spent the evening of June 19 hanging new shelves against a bright green wall. The wall had just been painted, symbolizing the couple’s new business venture.

Rows of shelves are dotted with jars of all shapes and sizes, which will soon hold different varieties of herbs, teas, tinctures and other remedies to help locals with simple ailments as Tarot Cafe transitions from a cafe into an apothecary, or pharmacy.

Mr. Hill and Mr. Reece, who have been together for four years, have the COVID-19 pandemic to thank for their business’s transformation. The pandemic forced them to get creative with ways to make money digitally as a result of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s New York State on PAUSE order, which closed all nonessential businesses for three months. The couple’s cafe, which serves various teas and espresso “potions,” turned to curbside pickup, like many other eateries across the north country. But that wasn’t going to cut it.

The move to become an apothecary, which they plan to call The Magik Apothecary, helps cement Mr. Hill’s original vision for the cafe of “providing healthy alternative herbs with a witchy vibe,” he said. But while the business’s growth has come naturally over the last few months, the transition itself was rough for Mr. Hill and Mr. Reece.

“Once the cafe had to be shut down, it gave us some time to just really reflect on the cafe and the business altogether,” Mr. Reece said.

The couple would have to harness their online audience to keep business afloat.

“No one really knew what was going to happen,” Mr. Reece added. “Getting through the lockdown and everything was scary, but we somehow adapted with it…reaching out to an online audience was definitely something we had in mind. The coronavirus kind of just pushed us in that direction. So it was kind of a good thing.”

Mr. Hill, who also goes by Psychic Seth, began doing more online psychic readings worldwide through his wide reach on social media, while Mr. Reece started doing virtual drag shows under his stage name, Berri Wild. To make a profit, the couple would take song requests during the shows, making sure viewers had constant access to their PayPal information in order to complete transactions. Streamed via Facebook Live throughout April, Mr. Reece said he never expected he would be dancing in his living room on a Saturday night for an official show.

“It was crazy,” he said. “More so unreal, because I haven’t done anything like that before.”

Mr. Reece said he thought maybe a few people would buy a song during the first show, but said the couple ended up bringing in more than $300 during one show.

Enhancing their online presence allowed them to renovate the cafe, considering there was no target date for reopening at the time. Mr. Hill and Mr. Reece still knew that the experience of customers lingering in spaces such as restaurants or cafes would never be the same.

The two got to thinking about ways they could help improve the health of the community within their realm of expertise while diverting from the cafe.

“Seth doesn’t want to just be making drinks for years to come,” Mr. Reece said.

Then Mr. Hill found the answer. He could become an herbalist and open an apothecary. This would allow the couple to still sell natural tea, increase their stock of natural herbs and add tinctures. A much broader goal for the couple is to begin selling the products worldwide once the business is fully up and running.

By creating an apothecary, Mr. Hill is mixing an old idea into a modern space. According to Times records, apothecaries in the north country have a sparse history. As early as 1817, two separate apothecaries stood with the name, the “Golden Mortar,” one in Ogdensburg, the other in Sackets Harbor. In Clayton, The Clayton Drug Store was advertised as a “druggist” and apothecary. J. Wallace Knott, a successful druggist, operated a drug store during the mid-1800s in Watertown for 47 years. He was known by his friends as “Doctor Nott.” Whenever residents nearest to Mr. Nott would have an ache or a pain, they would go see him instead of a real doctor and he, “Doctor Nott,” would prescribe a remedy.

While Mr. Hill is transforming his business, he said his goal is to “give people an affordable, healthy, remedy to their ailments and alternative medicine.”

One example of alternative medicine that Mr. Hill hopes to offer is ashwagandha, an adaptogen that can help the body manage stress, including levels of anxiety and depression. Another is his personal favorite, ginkgo biloba, which helps improve eye health, treat certain blood disorders, memory problems and enhances cardiovascular function.

“I’ve kind of had to talk him through things to just do what he wants,” Mr. Reece said of encouraging Mr. Hill to take the plunge into opening an apothecary. “If you want to sell witchy stuff because it’s your passion, you know you need to do it. Don’t let anyone stop you from doing that.”

The tentative opening date for The Magik Apothecary is Aug. 1, but that date hinges on the status of the pandemic and how the north country’s four-phase reopening of nonessential businesses goes.

On June 25, the couple received their official Certificate of Conducting Business for The Magick Apothecary from Jefferson County Clerk Gizelle J. Meeks.

While Mr. Hill is eager about the transformation of his business, he remains wary of the coronavirus and the threat it poses to the community. But the change feels like the right move to make.

“It’s been my vision all along,” Mr. Hill said. “My original vision was going in using herbs in my own potions to help people, and now I can expand that and actually do all these different things together.”

With the exciting change on the horizon, the two are keeping a level head about the possibility of having to wait a little longer to open. For now, Mr. Hill and Mr. Reece are still renovating the cafe, doing research on the best herbs to stock up on and Mr. Hill is getting his certification to be an herbalist, which he hopes to complete in the coming months through an online program.

“I knew I wanted this direction. COVID just forced me to go faster,” he said. “But that’s fine, because I love this direction now.”

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