For the past six years, Nick Bilotta, 29, of East Rockaway has opened his business the same way every day. Come rain or sleet, Final Touch Auto Collision on Merrick Road in Seaford unlocks its doors and welcomes in customers, sometimes to the scent of biscotti but always to the aroma of coffee. Clients old and new could chat with Bilotta’s welcoming Italian-American family, including brother Raffaelle and father Pasquale.
The weather has been mostly sleet-free of late. In fact, the weather has been quite warm for March. But Final Touch is seeing a major drop in the number of its patrons. Walk outside of the once-warm arena of water-cooler chatter and the same will show for the rest of Seaford’s locally owned businesses. They are struggling.
This is new territory for Bilotta. He has done well since his opening in 2014. He has been a generous donor in the Seaford and Wantagh communities for more than five years, including support for the John Theissen Children’s Foundation, the Seaford-based Long Island Broncos youth football and cheerleading organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Seaford Lions Club and Seaford schools. Now, Bilotta’s input and say in the Seaford community holds a lot more weight since his swearing-in as the new President of the Seaford Chamber of Commerce on March 5, succeeding Ken Jacobsen.
“I’ve been in business in Seaford for six years and I knew from the first year how great of a community this is,” Bilotta said. “I’m in Seaford more than I’m at my house, so I consider it my home. This year, someone needed to step up, so I wanted to take the job as president. I wanted to keep this community great. I like to give back.”
Most Seaford businesses were forced to close or severely change their business models shortly after Bilotta was sworn in.
“Right before this all happened, before it became more serious in Nassau County, I was elected and sworn in,” Bilotta said. “We started talking about different projects.”
He had to pivot those project plans a bit. Some will have to wait until after this period of social distancing subsides, including a downtown beautification project.
“We want to make Seaford beautiful and make it stand out,” Bilotta said. “We want people that are driving through to stop, shop and stay. I think that is a good way to get people to shop local after this is all over.”
The beautification project, Bilotta said, will look to attract drivers coming down Merrick Road to stop for food, shop at local stores and spend time in the community — to make it a known destination to attract more travelers and stimulate business growth.
He recognizes that this is a global problem, but as the new leader of business in the Seaford community, he wants to focus on how to stimulate the local small-business economy during this unsure time.
“We sent out emails yesterday, giving local restaurants opportunities to work with us and provide meals to nursing homes, hospitals and medical facilities,” Bilotta said. “We want to donate, to help food get to these places, and we want to do whatever we can to get our local businesses involved.”
Seaford is home to many restaurants, which are considered essential. Bilotta’s own company, Final Touch, is considered essential, though he cautioned that just because a business is permitted to remain open doesn’t it is stable.
“My business is struggling, nobody is driving” Bilotta said. “As of tomorrow [March 27] and Monday [March 30] our doors will be locked. It will just be me in the office, no one else. We will take appointments and maintain emergency business operations. I have people on call to come in if needed, but we will remain open and we are considered essential.”
He trailed off slightly, and in a moment of candor, said: “I kind of wish we were considered nonessential.”
Bilotta said that this is a time where many businesses, whether currently open or closed, are losing money quickly. He, as the new president, is devising strategies now with his Chamber of Commerce board to address those losses.
“Success, to me, in three-to-six months after this ends is that every business has made it through this, is doing well and is making money,” Bilotta said.
He claims being focused on Seaford’s business sector is more important now than it ever has been.
“Right now, everyone is quarantined. Every business is hurting. When everybody reopens, we need people to stay local and support our businesses in Seaford, and we are pushing that,” Bilotta said. “Right now, we are communicating via email and phone calls.”
He said he has no regrets about taking this job. “I like challenges, not specifically this one,” he said with a wary chuckle. “But my board and I, we won’t sleep on the job.”
Bilotta said that he is willing to speak on the phone with any and all business owners in Seaford. He wants to give guidance and point business owners in the direction of anything that will keep their businesses afloat, including government assistance.
“I would guide any struggling business in the right direction,” Bilotta said. “I would advise them towards any realistic financial or disaster loan assistance that is available.”
Lastly, Bilotta wants business owners and community members to keep their spirits as high as they can. “We are all going to struggle together, but we will all come back strong together,” he said.