Learn stories from 3 SBOs about how they were able to start or grow their business during COVID-19.
Photo: Toyish Labs in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by CEO/founder Assaf Eshet.
The pandemic has forced many brick-and-mortar businesses to pivot to a virtual model. Operating an existing brick-and-mortar business is challenging enough without the need to keep staff and customers safe and follow social distancing guidelines. Despite the recent difficulties, new businesses and new locations of existing businesses continue popping up across the country.
These 3 businesses operate in various parts of the country, so their local regulations may be different from each other or those in your area. But they all share a few common traits: grit, ingenuity, and the drive to connect with customers in new ways.
Current Wellness in Raleigh, North Carolina
Brit Guerin, cofounder and owner of Current Wellness, signed a commercial lease in July 2019. The 3,000-square foot building needed to be completely gutted before the fitness and wellness space could open, so Guerin planned to open in the summer of 2020.
Construction delays, including delays in materials, postponed the opening. But as Guerin pointed out, completely gutting the building was a blessing because it meant all new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and air filtration systems. The space was already planned to be open and airy, so Guerin said they didn’t need to alter their construction plans to allow for social distancing. They’re also making sure to disinfect equipment.
“When we opened our physical location, members knew us, trusted us, came in the first day. That was a huge bonus that we really didn’t anticipate.”
In April, as other fitness studios pivoted to online and outdoor classes and the building was still being gutted, Current Wellness began offering online and outdoor classes, too. Online classes required some equipment purchases to ensure good quality audio and video; Guerin said that helped attract members before their space was ready. “That was incredibly beneficial because we had members before we were even open,” she said. “When we opened our physical location, members knew us, trusted us, came in the first day. That was a huge bonus that we really didn’t anticipate.”
Opening in accordance with mandates
Come early December, they soft-opened at 30% capacity with masks required in accordance with the state mandate. Online and outdoor classes are still available for those who don’t want to work out with a mask or don’t want to attend class indoors. In-person classes are livestreamed and videos are available to members on demand. As the weather cools down, they’re focusing on high-intensity workouts outdoors, since few people want to do a slow yoga practice when it’s 30 degrees.
They’re still waiting on a few more items (including yoga props, since workout equipment has been in high demand this year) before they host a grand opening. Guerin said they’ll likely wait until the vaccine is widely available so they can celebrate on a grander scale.
Toyish Labs in Brooklyn, New York
“It opened our eyes to do something that is more local and share the love with our neighbors.”Toyish Labs opened its first retail and workshop space in November. The toy company already had a design office in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, and CEO/founder Assaf Eshet said he actually got the inspiration for a more community-oriented space during the pandemic. “It opened our eyes to do something that is more local and share the love with our neighbors,” he said. While out walking his dog, he spotted that location and “felt the magic of this corner.”
They took over the space in July and spent 2 months renovating, including adding an advanced air filtration system. The space features Clixo, a twisting and interlocking building toy made of reinforced paper and durable magnets. There’s even a car covered with Clixo that kids and families can interact with and make the lights flash.
For safety’s sake, glass separates the design and retail spaces. Kids can watch the designers and see how they make new toys from a safe distance. The designers can also see how the kids interact with their toys.
One family at a time, kids and their parents can enter the space and try out Clixo. Employees sanitize all pieces with alcohol and open the doors multiple times a day to reduce any viral load.
Even with these added challenges, Eshet said the community is already reacting positively to their new space and the opportunity for kids to create. “There was a kid here that was building a chandelier and we showcased the chandelier,” he said. “They see it in the store and they feel proud.”
Juliet Italian Kitchen in Austin, Texas
“We did record numbers September, October, and November, because we didn’t have a lot of competition.
Dan and Donna Wilkins, owners of Juliet Italian Kitchen, opened the restaurant’s first location in 2015. In late spring 2020, they looked at a potential second location in northwest Austin that another large Italian chain restaurant occupied. Even with restaurant dining rooms then closed across Texas, Dan Wilkins said it was “too good a chance to pass up.”
At that time, the original Juliet location was only doing takeout with limited staff. Still, Wilkins knew that negotiating with the leasing company and renovating the space would take time, so he figured it wouldn’t open until the pandemic was more under control. Getting construction approval from local government agencies did take more with those staff members working from home instead of in an office. A few light fixtures and tiles made in Europe were in short supply, but they were able to source them from United States warehouses. They are tentatively planning to open the new location next March.
“One of the benefits that location has is a very large patio,” Wilkin said. They are planning to build an outdoor bar as well. “Because we have the patio, we just need to have the distancing between all the tables,” he added.
The table configuration on the patio of the other location already allowed the required amount of distance, so they didn’t need to adjust the layout once outdoor dining resumed. Like many other restaurants, they shifted the menus to QR codes rather than printing paper menus. “We did record numbers September, October, and November, because we didn’t have a lot of competition [with neighborhood bars closed],” Wilkins said. “It’s worked really well for us.” Wilkins said he’s also scouting additional locations for the future.