‘One day, it was just dead’: Small business owners talk pandemic after almost a year of COVID

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Nearing the one-year mark in the COVID-19 pandemic, local small business owners reflect on the ups and downs of the last year.

Michael Short, Owner of Artisan’s Village told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that his business has been in downtown Johnson City for nine years.

“As a business, primarily, most of our business is through the brick-and-mortar store. As a result of the pandemic closures and just uncertainty, it has significantly impacted the amount of foot traffic through the door,” Short said.

“Even after this is over with, there’ll be a new normal and we’re going to need to adjust to that as a retailer,” he explained. “The single biggest, most important thing that we’ve gotten out of this is that we really need to listen to our customers, and particularly now because of levels of anxiety, how can we serve them the best? And I think any decisions that we make, have to be grounded in that idea that we really need to be able to hear them and be able to respond to what it is that they’re asking for.”

Short said he is grateful his small business never had to completely close during the pandemic, as they are considered essential, because they sell consumable products.

“For a period of time, while the store was closed, we did curbside service and we also did delivery,” he added.

With a lack of foot traffic, Short said the business was in trouble over the pandemic, but he’s grateful for the community support.

“For a business to be successful, it requires good management, and it requires a sustainable business plan, however, when your operating capital – when that stream of operating capital is essentially eliminated- you’re really defenseless, there’s not really a whole lot you can do, and so trying to figure out how to manage that lack of operating capitol has been probably one of the biggest struggles that we’ve had,” he said.

Short said with festivals in Johnson City being cancelled during the pandemic, his business lost 12-15% of its annual sales.

“In one festival, you would, typically, historically, we would typically sell a month’s worth of retail products in one to two days, so it’s just like taking that 13th month out of the equation for us, which is huge,” he added.

Meanwhile in Elizabethton, Frankie Bailey, Owner of The Coffee Company, told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that though the pandemic caused many headaches, it also taught many lessons.

“One day, it was just dead and you could really feel the eeriness of it and you could really sense that things were going to, things were happening, so we immediately went to curbside, within two days, we transitioned to curbside service,” she explained.

She had to close the restaurant down for about three weeks last year.

“So I think as things really transitioned from a federal level as we saw a lot of concern with the virus and watching other countries, then all of a sudden it was time to shut down, and I think a lot of small businesses in our community, in our area, did, we didn’t really know what else to do and that was what was encouraged as we tried to obviously curb that curve. So then we shut down from middle of March to mid-April, so it was three weeks that we were officially closed down,” Bailey said.

Though she had to close for a while, she explained that she was grateful for the government assistance so that she did not have to carry the burden of her 20 employees’ paychecks on top of maintaining a business that was forced to close.

“It was a huge impact, I mean it was scary. Not only do I have the financial impact of not having folks coming in and the customers coming in for that support but now I’m talking, I have 20 employees, so not having them on payroll, that’s affecting their lives. At that point, I immediately worked with my accountant, my tax lady, who is phenomenal and really helped to understand what was the best option, so I was able to put all of my employees on a temporary unemployment, so they were able to gain some finances and some help during that three-week period, and then I re-hired them all back. So I did what the state really was hoping for in terms of that partial unemployment because I did know we would reopen and of course, it helps with the PPP money coming through all of that would kind of just work out, and it did,” she said.

The food industry was greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think everyone knows that the food industry has probably been one of the hardest hit just because the nature of what we do is just to come, to sit, enjoy, commune with people, eat, fellowship, and that’s all about sitting, that’s all about you can’t eat with your mask on so it’s been a challenge for the Coffee Company and on the front end going to curbside, that was a really easy way to accommodate, to take care of those customers just driving through, and our city was great, they gave us some cones, so we were able to block out the front of the street, so it was an easier process for our staff as well. When we were able to reopen, obviously spacing the tables so we were socially distanced, putting markings on our floors to help encourage people where to go, obviously our staff here, we wear masks, which is great for the safety of not only our employees, but the customers, so we’ve done that. Sanitizing stations, of course, all of those things just to really help promote just a safe experience, and so, it’s been a work in progress. As far as making those physical changes in the shop, we’ve also added on online ordering and so what this is, is it’s a quicker process for our customers so they can go online and order from our menus, which that’s been a huge help because what that has done also is clear up our phone lines because when we went curbside we noticed these phones are off the hook and we’ve got people waiting and no service for them, so we offered that and that’s been a big success for us so we’ll continue to do that from here on out,” Bailey explained.

Bailey said she had to adapt her business style in order to keep her restaurant open. That included offering free WiFi to her customers.

“The reason it’s kind of been something that we’ve held off on is just a number. We’re a restaurant, so we’ve been the nature of what we do is just to get people fed and then move on so we can seat more tables and have that turnover, but now as we see that people want to have a place to do their work, they want to have a place to be safe and work remotely, and we’ve even had parents bring their kids in and do remote learning here, so that’s been a great addition and that was needed, so it’s it’s interesting to see COVID, there’s been a tremendous amount of challenges from a business perspective, but I’ve also seen that we find that silver lining and we find ways to pivot and adjust, and we’ve been thankful to do that and we’ve been super thankful to have a very, very supportive community that are continuing to come in and continuing to support, because we could not have done it without them,” she said.

The Coffee Company also saw a change in the type of customer who would frequent the restaurant as the pandemic droned on.

“We’ve seen a change in our clientele, and rightly so. A lot of our folks typically are in the older age bracket, and because of their need and desire to stay home and stay safe, we’ve lost groups. People that come in every other week, church groups and things like that, and so that’s been hard to not be able to see those customers that we love, but we’ve also seen a resurgence of younger folks and people from the colleges nearby, Milligan and ETSU, of course, so it’s been good to kind of see a different shift too, and see people still trusting and wanting to come out,” Bailey explained.

While both these business remain open, the owners told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that the surge of business over the holiday season really helped out.

Follow News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais on Facebook and Twitter for more updates.

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