BEHOLD THY DELIVERER: Romano Juric bringing comfort as well as food to isolated residents from desolated restaurants with recently-launched business during coronavirus crisis

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When Romano Juric started his delivery service from Longyearbyen restaurants a few months ago it was the fulfilment of a years-long ambition of doing something nice for the community he enjoyed despite knowing “I’m not going to get rich for sure.” But as with everything that was pretty much unimaginable before the coronavirus pandemic struck a couple of weeks ago, he’s now finding himself something of an unofficial “essential public service” and one of the few (maybe only) businesses booming rather than in complete collapse.

He’s still not likely to get rich, mind you, since his basic rates are roughly equal to a side order of fries, and he’s offering deliveries of critical supplies such as groceries and pharmacy items free or at heavy discounts. But the rewards of doing something positive for the community in a crisis is a payoff that can’t be equated on a balance sheet.

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Romano Juric, left, picks up pizzas for delivery from Svalbar, which is offering 10 percent discounts for such orders, one of many local eateries promoting and offering specials involving Juric’s Svalbard Delivery Service. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Juric, who moved from Croatia to Longyearbyen with his family, is familiar with the unique hardships Svalbard can present having endured more than a year of struggle so his autistic 10-year-son Ivano can attend the public school since, among the many reduced social services compared to the mainland, no special-needs program exists.

Those lack of services are part of the reason the town is now in a near-total lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading to Svalbard, including a 14-day quarantine on residents arriving from the mainland. Combined with a total ban on visitors – since there aren’t facilities to proper accommodate them under quarantine conditions or treatment for a potentially large outbreak – many local eateries have shut down or are at a near-standstill while isolated residents and those exhausted by overworking still need to satisfy their hunger.

While making deliveries with his SUV on what would normally be a bustling Friday evening in pubs and restaurants, Juric said he’s made more than 100 deliveries during the past four days with the Svalbard Delivery Service he started with his girlfriend Zeljka Novokmet, the mother of their two children.

“Before it was maybe one-third that,” he said.

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Romano Juric makes the final exchange of a pizza delivery Friday night. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Juric said so far he’s doing all the deliveries himself and, despite some rushed periods, no significant problems have arisen so far.

“When we get seven or eight at once it of course takes longer,” he said. But it’s generally not a significant delay since “everything here in town is a short drive.”

Juric said he’s not worried about being infected with the virus by delivering to quarantined customers – or thus potentially passing it on the others – because he’s taking extra precautions with sanitizers in his vehicle and at both end of the food exchange process.

Among the many expressing thanks for deliveries is Sólveig Anna Þorvaldsdóttir; the dentist at Longyearbyen Hospital, who is using the service for the first time while staying home this week before hoping to return to work on Monday. On Friday she posted an advisory on a local “info” Facebook page telling residents to avoid sugary junk foods and similar bad habits to prevent dental problems since only medical emergencies are being handled by her and the hospital until further notice (and appointments can take weeks or months under normal circumstances).

But since she’s exercising an abundance of caution to avoid possible virus exposure due to her “critical services” role it was a relief not to have to shop or go out to eat during the evening.

“I’m in semi-isolation,” she said while having pizzas from Kroa delivered to her family.

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Romano Juric, right, takes a break between deliveries Saturday “supporting local businesses” at Stationen with his son Ivano Cafuta, daughter Mihaela Cafuta and the youths’ mother Zeljka Novokmet. Photo courtesy of Romano Juric.

One of the restaurants most frequently promoting delivery of its menu items using Juric’s service is Stationen, the gastropub in Lompensenteret that typically draws large crowds to its large space since it opened less than two years ago. The shopping center is open the same hours, but the restaurant has had to reduce theirs and lay off staff. Customers who do enter experience now-common sights including sanitizer at the door, spaced-out tables and chairs, and an overhead and limited chalkboard menu instead of being handed the usual large laminated ones.

“Obviously he’s helping us because people still want to eat our food, but they can’t go out or they’re just tired during this crisis,” said Linda Åberg, the restaurant’s manager.

She said it’s not surprising Juric, who said his busiest day was about ten orders during the first couple months of his business, is making a point of putting in extra effort while the community is struggling.

“He’s a hard-working person and he needs something to do,” Åberg said.

Juric isn’t the only person doing extra delivery duty during the crisis. Andreas Styrsell, who opened a much-decorated and much-heralded Mexican food truck last year, reopened a couple of days ago after closing down during the initial rush of local restrictions and is offering a rotating menu of dishes made from available items – served cold for reheating and delivered to those unable to arrange in-person pickups.

“I’m just trying to get some money rolling in so I can pay my insurance, electric and storage fees until we are able to open again,” he stated in an online interview, adding he hopes that will be next weekend.

“People have been really happy with home delivery, especially when it has been for free,” Styrsell stated. “So maybe that is something I will try to more in the future.”

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Andreas Styrsell’s Mexican food truck, seen here during its debut last fall, is still in the town square, but no longer open to walk-up service due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But Styrsell – who also works with the ground crew at Svalbard Airport and therefore is still busy with daily flights carrying cargo with its limited passengers – emphasized “at the same time I want Romano with his delivery service to do well,” a message repeated in Styrsell’s public media posts about his truck’s deliveries.

Food deliveries (or, more precisely, the lack of such) have been something of an oddity – and very real public risk – in Svalbard since the end of 2013. Classic Pizza, owned by three Iranian brothers offering the only delivery and late-night food option in town at the time, was forced to close and the immediate result was an outbreak of kitchen smoke/fire incidents due to intoxicated people falling asleep while trying to cook food on their own in the wee hours after pubs closed.

While no major fires resulted, “dry-cooking” fires became the top concern of local fire department officials due to the high risk the town’s close-set homes, dry Arctic desert conditions and frequent high winds posed for a devastating blaze. A couple of fledging efforts at offering late-night and/or delivery food fizzled out, but last summer a stable option finally emerged in a sausage/potato food truck preceding Styrsell’s by several months.

While Juric shares many of the same worrisome disruptions of normal life and uncertainties about the future – to say nothing of a major earthquake that caused widespread devastation in his homeland on Sunday to complicate the coronavirus crisis there – his mentality about his delivery service is remarkably similar to how he felt during the initial startup weeks.

“I’m doing something good for the city, people are comfortable with it and I’m happy with it,” he said.

 

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