A day in the life of business survivors
Jan. 9 was one more day of the pandemic. With national unemployment hovering at 7 percent and the stock market near all-time highs, 20 World Journalism Institute students sought street-level views of how small businesses in America and beyond were faring
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On Jan. 9 Mark Canty, an Air Force veteran and owner of Eatz in Bristol, Va., taped off five of his tables, leaving six for customers. Two were occupied at lunchtime as Canty pulled six racks of ribs and four half-chickens out of his smoker.
Eatz sits between an antique store on one side and two closed businesses on the other. The restaurant shut down for three months last year but has now climbed back to 45 percent of its pre-pandemic business. Only four of the eight pre-pandemic employees, all family members, are still working. But on the sound system Diana Ross was singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
That same day Larry Faulkner, wearing a camouflage face mask and blue plaid work shirt, punched cash register keys at Green Bay Cycles in suburban Chicago and said business was great: “Huge demand for bikes. People are afraid to go to an enclosed gym.” Faulkner listed hot items: Stationary bike kits. Specialty shoes for Peloton bikes. Teenage boy mountain bikes. He fielded a call about a girl’s bike needing repair: “Bring it in.”
The Eatz diet is more common than the bike shop boom, but our students found a land that makes generalizations hard: some small businesses mostly dead, others slowed down, some speeding up and innovating, others deepening community ties, and most working among thorns and thistles for their daily bread.
Restaurants are hit hard. At PJ’s Coffee in El Dorado, Ark., five customers sat in booths at the back of the narrow shop as a frozen-drink machine whirred behind the counter. A chalkboard high on the wall advertised “Live Music!” in colorful letters but listed only a few faded band names from pre-COVID-19 days, when local bluegrass groups played to standing-room-only crowds. Alonzo Johnson put down the plastic container from which he was eating carrot sticks and prepared a coffee—and then a group of teenagers came in, laughing and filling the room with their chatter and jostling. When their coffees were ready, they fluttered out onto the town square like a flock of birds.
Even with her family business operating at 25 percent capacity, Nancy McClaren at J&J’s Family Restaurant in Pittsburgh considers herself blessed: Business is “not as good as it was, but not as bad as it could be.” Outside, peeling paint and burn marks surround the storefront’s bright green-and-yellow façade, but the look doesn’t much matter because most of the business now is by delivery. McClaren almost gave up during a ban on in-person dining, but then the owners of Shop ’n Save next door said they had $300 to feed employees—what could J&J do with that? McClaren’s team delivered sausage, bacon, home fries, and French toast: “Felt like divine intervention.”
Other enterprises have also had it tough. North Carolina health regulations allow five customers at once inside Unique Highly Favored Beauty Supply Store. That’s more customers than owner Artesa McLean sees on many days. The first black-owned beauty supply store in Whiteville, an eastern North Carolina town of 5,000, has bubblegum-pink walls displaying hairpieces and styling tools. “Black Lives Matter” shirts hang facing windows overlooking Main Street and a set of rusted train tracks. McLean ships specialty hairpieces and skin products to beauty professionals across the country, but they are also suffering, and she hasn’t attracted local customers. If sales don’t improve within two months, McLean plans a move to Lumberton, 35 miles away, in search of “a bigger crowd.”
In Belvidere, N.J., Vincent’s Hair Cuttery Plus faces the only traffic light in town. On Jan. 9 Vincent Carlucci cut one man’s hair. The other seven chairs—four turned toward the wall—were empty. Leafless philodendron vines climbed the salon wall toward the light of an upper window. Taco John’s in Altoona, Iowa, was more lively, although the dining room was empty: All of the fast-food restaurant’s employees now focus on the drive-thru, which prides itself on having a speed eight seconds faster than brand average.
Speed is also essential on Saturday morning in the Stone Ridge suburb of San Antonio: When one high-intensity workout at Orangetheory Fitness ended, Kalista Stephens grabbed the gray plastic utility wagon housing the bottles and wipes she uses to—presumably—remove any stray COVID-19 risk. The medicinal odor of the green disinfectant in her paint sprayer was so pungent that it penetrated her black mask trimmed with orange. As pop music pulsed, she raced under the glow of orange lights to finish before the next group arrived. Classes now feel full at 75 percent. Location is vital for Orangetheory and for Inclusion Coffee, a student hangout close to the University of Texas at Arlington.
SOME BUSINESSES with strong community ties are surviving. Sweet Brown Suga in Grayson, Ga., reported on Dec. 31, “What a Year!!!! Thanks to all our supportive customers, family and friends we worked so hard and give the glory to God for getting us through.” Early in January Fabian and Lindsey Leite, owners of Wesley Owens Coffee & Cafe in Monument, Colo., were still speaking of their success just before Christmas when 180 regulars and locals settled in lawn chairs in front of the café as a traditional Lessons and Carols service began. The Leites, who immigrated from London eight years ago, served free hot chocolate while live sheep, goats, and a donkey became part of a Nativity scene. Magi arrived via llama.
On Saturday morning, Jan. 9, Fabian Leite wore a face shield while shuttling freshly baked scones. Nine of the 10 socially distanced tables were full, and a drop box labeled “Prayer” may have been full as well. Two teenagers in leather club chairs tapped on laptops, and Lindsey ushered a group of women into the separate meeting room. To survive pandemic restrictions, the Leites baked whole quiches and boxes of muffins for customers to take home, and later launched online cooking classes.
Many businesses, including Landscape Concepts of Fairfax (Virginia), received initial help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but they’re now wading within a river still cresting.
Owner Dale Sykes faces the cancellation of home and garden shows this winter: They normally stream thousands of potential customers past landscape designers, interior decorators, and builders. Last year Sykes already had his leads when COVID-19 hit, but this year, “I’ll be looking for new ways of marketing.”
Other businesses have prospered in COVID-19 time. On Jan. 9 Gil Lohr sat in front of his white-stoned house overlooking the hills of northwest Austin and said his luxury home business is “booming.” He adjusted the mask over his salt-and-pepper beard and explained: High-tech workers, thriving in the COVID-19 economy, want spacious houses with offices at home. They want larger yards and pools for children. Many, moving to Texas from California and other expensive areas, bought homes after only a virtual tour. South Carolina real estate agent Michelle Zawacki has also been busy, but pandemic uncertainty remains: “Even though business is booming, I’m still anxious.”
Business has been steady for Little Red Stool Organizing in Augusta, Ga., which seeks to help people declutter and organize their homes. Shannon Simoneau says “people are ready to get rid of things,” and more time at home has meant more time to declutter. Some have cleaned out junk rooms. Others have finally purged years of possessions, at times burying dreams of having children that never came true. Simoneau says “beauty comes from ashes. I see lives transformed.”
WJI STUDENTS ALSO VISITED businesses in Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico. In Brampton, Ontario, a quiet Toronto suburb, Epic Pita at the corner of a strip mall had no customers. Owner Aminul Hogue, wearing a black face mask underneath reddened eyes, was chipping chicken from the grill. His revenue is 60-90 percent below pre-lockdown results. Canada has some tax exemption and wage subsidy plans for employers, but Hogue has depended on personal loans to maintain his restaurant and house. His wife and daughter, who work at the restaurant, have added part-time jobs. In his Bangladeshi accent, Hogue said, “Maybe we can survive six months. But if the lockdowns and restrictions continue past that, we will close the restaurant.”
In Chichicastenango, Guatemala, the pandemic almost forced a closedown of Tziguan Tinamit, a restaurant in a two-story yellow building squished between a car parts store and a law office. But Paolo Tol has spent the last 14 years in this mountain town baking pizzas and making meals: He wasn’t ready to give up. Tol gave deliveries a try and certified his restaurant through the health center and national police. Then his phone started ringing. People were hungry.
The first day, Tol loaded a meal into his 1998 brown Chevy Blazer and drove through the empty streets. Eight times police pulled him over and checked his paperwork before waving him onward. But when he arrived at customers’ houses and gave a friendly beep on his horn, they came out—sometimes in pajamas and socks—and gratefully received food through the window. Then Tol headed back to the kitchen where his wife, Gabriela, was packing up his next delivery. The empty streets made him sad, Tol said, but delivering food is important, and he thanked God for the work.
In Jerez, Mexico, a municipality in the north-central state of Zacatecas, COVID-19 life has been hard. Day laborer Leobardo Rosales lost his work when the Mexican economy closed last March. The cost of a kilo of eggs jumped from $1.68 to $3.68. A ramen noodles foam cup went from 50 cents to 90. No one wanted to buy Rosales’ 19 sheep. For three months his family survived with help from friends in the United States. He found his first few jobs in September when the government removed fines for working.
On Jan. 9 Rosales fed alfalfa to the sheep in his corral with its 12-foot walls of cinder block. He lost a newborn lamb after he put it in the camper to keep warm. The lamb soaked itself in urine and died in the cold. Its mother had no milk because Rosales had no feed. He hated entering the corral to the constant bleating of hungry sheep. But early in January Rosales found construction work: With his first full week of pay since March he was able to pay for utilities and buy feed for his sheep.
—with reporting by Helen Lowe, Don Thompson, Julie Spencer, Heather Frank, Diana Matthews, Amy Lewis, Dave Aelts, Amy Morgan, Harriet Ramos, Akilah Clarke, Bill Denham, Rich Gaffin, Taylor Farrar, Ivan Mesa, Samuel Sey, Michael Shead, Todd Schierkolk, Matt Connally, and Judy Whaling
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