CUTLINE: Reimagining Main Street Preserving Small Business in a Pandemic | Connecticut Public

CUTLINE: Reimagining Main Street Preserving Small Business in a Pandemic | Connecticut Public

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- This program is made possible with support from the Connecticut Small Business Development Center. (whimsical piano music) - They say the 2008 recession was all about Wall Street and the pandemic-induced recession of 2020 was all about Main Street. And, while the recession forced some small businesses in Connecticut to close, for many, it was a time to adapt, pivot, and muster the creativity needed to survive.

For Connecticut Public, I'm Ray Hardman and this is CUTLINE. (soft up-tempo music) "Stay at home" was the mantra, a little over a year ago. And, while I quickly shifted to working at home and hunkering down with my family, I couldn't help but wonder about how restaurants and other businesses that relied on foot traffic, for their livelihood, would get by. There is no doubt that small businesses were hit hard by the pandemic. According to the US Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey, 34% of small-business owners in Connecticut say the pandemic has had a "large, negative effect on their business."

That's about 4% higher than the national average. And if you think small businesses aren't important to the vitality of Connecticut's economy, think again. According to 2019 figures from the US Small Business Administration, there were almost 347,000 small businesses in Connecticut, which accounts for over 99% of all businesses in the state. Small business employees account for nearly 50% of all Connecticut workers, according to those 2019 numbers. Although there is no reliable data yet on how many small businesses in Connecticut have folded because of the pandemic, we know it's happening.

Just look at the empty storefronts in your own hometown. Each one, a reminder of how disruptive this pandemic has been to business as usual. But on this edition of CUTLINE, we'll hear from four businesses that have survived. And later, we'll visit one business that decided to open, during the pandemic. Each business tells a unique story of finding a way to hang on and, hopefully, emerge from this pandemic, even stronger than before.

Let's meet them. - My name is Pamela Steele and I'm the owner of Pamela Roose Specialty Hand Knits and Yarn. I am a full-service yarn shop. Besides the yarn and needles, I give lessons and I help people with their projects, as well as, I do a lot of community, give back to the community.

So our community of knitters and crocheters are also active in some of my community projects, as well. I partnered with Knitted Knockers. We make knit and crochet prosthesis for women who have had mastectomies.

Because some women cannot wear the prosthesis, they are provided, free of charge, to any woman who needs or wants one. I also do a lot with veterans. We make hats, mittens, and scarves because I belong to an auxiliary. So the community makes the hats, mittens, and scarves, as well as, we make hats and things for our homeless. I've been in business, 10 years.

Actually, 18. I started a home base but I've had a bricks-and-mortar for 10 years. (uplifting soft rock music) - My name is Rachel DeCavage and I'm the owner of Cinder + Salt.

We're an eco-friendly clothing brand based out of Southington and Middletown, Connecticut. Our name was inspired by the residue of a weekend, well spent; the scent of campfire on your clothes and the taste of salt water on your skin. We primarily make screen-printed apparel for men, women, and kids and all of our designs are my original drawings and they're all inspired by nature, so, animals, plants, life outside, and a sustainable lifestyle. We also sell wholesale. We're carried in about 400 stores, nationwide, right now. And we also do custom screen-printing for other businesses.

Our print shop is located in Southington. We have a very industrial setting, here. And our retail space is in Middletown, we have a storefront on Main Street. (uplifting soft rock music) - I'm Rod Cornish and I'm the owner of Hot Rod Cafe. It's in New London, Connecticut. It's been here for about 15 years, in December.

We've become known for our chicken wings, we've won a lot of awards. I know everyone says this, but it's sort of like a family and it's like our local "Cheers." People come here for all kinds of events: happy events, sad events... And we're kind of a staple to the community, to the whole region, really. We originally started out, down the road a bit, also on Bank Street. And then, we had an opportunity, about three years in, to get this current location, which we just did some renovations on.

We have a roof bar, so you can sit here and look at the water. It's pretty cool. People joke around about what kind of place it is; it's a very eclectic place. You can't really say, just one type of customer we have, across all kinds of races and professions, just everything. It's some place where you can come as they are and just have a good time. It's a real laid-back place where you can bring your family.

Our tagline is "Wings, beer, and atmosphere." And, one of the things I like the best is, oftentimes, women come here and say it's the only place they feel comfortable going to, by themselves, because they know we're always looking out and we don't put up with any nonsense but we have a good time. (relaxing soft rock music) - I'm Rich Martin and I'm the owner of the Telegraph, here in New London, Connecticut. The Telegraph opened about 10 years ago. We're a, largely, vinyl shop. We're an old-school record store.

We do carry CDs and cassettes, we also sell turntables. I'm also a recovering English major, so I have a wall of literature and poetry and plays. So, yeah, we're providing the media for the masses, I guess. It's pretty satisfying, across the range.

We have young kids, up to old geezers, like me, I guess and beyond (laughs) who are getting back into it. I was just talking to somebody about this, this morning, about how it really is, every age group is getting into this resurgence and finding their niche in it. Anybody can join the game, so it's a fun audience to work for (chuckles) (uplifting soft rock music) - Joining me, by Skype, is a panel of folks who will help us better understand what small businesses are up against and what needs to be done to get Main Street back on solid footing. Joining me is Fran Pastore.

She is the CEO of the Stanford-based Women's Business Development Council. Felix Reyes is the Director of Economic Development and Planning for the City of New London. And Joe Ercolano is the State Director of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center.

Welcome, everyone. So we chose four unique businesses for this show, all with a significant presence in their downtown areas. Panel, let's first talk about the challenges for small, brick-and-mortar businesses in a downtown area, during this pandemic. - One of the things that we are seeing in our downtowns: obviously, donwtown's a lot more dense, it's not spread apart. And, through COVID, the narrative is, stay away, six feet apart.

So that consumer confidence, and rebuilding that, has been one of the biggest challenges that we've seen with our downtown, bricks-and-mortar stores. - Absolutely, Felix, well said. Because we have an office in Downtown Stanford, we saw foot traffic, all but shrivel up. Then, we started seeing a lot of creativity, right? A lot of pick-up. Most of the businesses, in the downtown area, are restaurants.

They were hit the hardest. So we have witnessed a lot of creativity and a lot of innovation in trying to get folks... get some foot traffic, back downtown. So I was really happy to see a lot of communities, over Saint Patrick's Day, especially the restaurant industry, really take that to another level. - Joe Ercolano, I want to get you involved. And let's go with what Fran was talking about.

Let's talk about the ways these small mom and pops are vital to the vibrancy of a downtown area. - Absolutely. There's employment; they employ people, they put money into the economy by buying from other suppliers, local businesses, mostly. The market is always, both on the supply side and the demand side, a local market, so the money has stayed in the community.

I think I've seen a statistic where 67 cents on the dollar will stay in the community when it's spent with a local business. - Felix Reyes, talk to me a little bit about the relationship that your local businesses have with the community, at large. - Absolutely. The livelihood of our neighborhoods, or the center of that, is our local businesses. We had mentioned about employment, that the supply chain that's connected to it and the interaction. And Fran hit on it: the collaboration that we're seeing between businesses is really special to see.

A lot of the dollars are, now, being kept locally. I think businesses are being more sensitive to understanding what other businesses are doing, what they can provide, and collaborating with them and using them as a supply chain. As in the past, they may have not done so. So we're seeing a lot of that.

And that really builds a rich and strong neighborhood and resiliency, within our communities. - Let's move on to our next segment. On March 23rd, 2020, Governor Lamont, by executive order, directed all non-essential businesses to close at 8 p.m. It was part of a stay safe, stay at home order. Now, for everyone, business owner or not, it was a pretty scary time.

Rich Martin, owner of the Telegraph in New London, says the writing was on the wall, way before the 23rd. - You know, it hadn't been normal for a while. There was a build-up, it wasn't just that date that really changed things. So, I felt it coming. I also promote a lot of shows, I put on musical events, and I had seen dipping attendances there, as well as in my shop. So, I knew it was coming.

I was very nervous. It had been a slow growth, over the 10 years that the business has been going. I feel like we're still growing and still finding our sea legs. And we're still paying down initial investments, and debt, and all of that.

I'd been working other jobs, besides this, to help sustain the business and that support was going away. So yeah, there was a lot of variables that were frightening, at best. I also saw it as an opportunity to plow through it. And, having come through difficult times before, with recessions or whatever, if you can make it through, you come out stronger, the other side. I was hopeful about the opportunity that came with the fear (laughs) I guess of the shutdown, itself. When we first shut down, I immediately shifted to a messaging of being available.

If you need anything, I'm willing to drive it to you, if you want to drive up, out front or, we can ship it to you. I also hadn't had a lot of online presence, prior to that. And I, immediately, set to work, trying to solve that problem.

So I... (inhales) took a couple weeks to get a website going so people could order new releases, so that they wouldn't be missing out on the new releases that were coming out, during the shutdown. So there was a lot of reconfiguring. I also put up some fabric and closed off all the windows, so it was clear we were shut down. And I did a lot of projects in the shop that I had been putting off, forever, because there just wasn't time and space to move records around and build some shelving or fix some shelving and do that kind of stuff. Yeah, it was an interesting time.

But I was able to do some stuff that made the business better, for the work I was able to do. - My reaction? Well... it was not surprising. But... also, I was a little disheartened because, during that time, is still in the middle of my busy season so, naturally, there was a little bit of a panic, like, what do I do now? But most of us, most business owners, we adapt and figure something out.

- Were you afraid this would be the end of your business? - Actually, no. I was not afraid it would be the end of the business because, actually, with people now being shut in, I figured they would need something to do. And a lot of crafts businesses picked up again because people needed an activity. So I wasn't too concerned about it being the end. Knitters and crocheters are going to knit and crochet, no matter what's going on.

(Ray laughs) It could be an apocalypse and somebody will find some yarn, or string, or something (laughs) so... I wasn't too concerned. - Yeah, it was crazy. Like I said, it was right before we geared up for my absolute favorite holiday, which is Saint Patrick's Day. And we usually have a huge party, on all three levels. So, when it happened, that's when we knew the writing was on the wall because they, basically, scaled back how many people you could have.

And then, all of a sudden, as of Monday, nobody's in the restaurant. My first concern was for my employees and my customers. My second concern was, wow, you just spent 300-something thousand dollars (laughs) and the State of Connecticut, saying, nobody can come in your restaurant. I laugh now, but that's more of a nervous laugh. I didn't know what was going to happen. I tried to be that stabilizing factor, for my employees, and try to let them know it's going to be all right.

Some of the employees, on their own, started doing group chats and group emails, help them figure out what's the best way to get unemployment. Because, right away, it was like, unemployment, you couldn't get through but a couple people managed to get through. So the team, the family, really, really came together and it made me proud. - So we were, actually, already closed.

On March 14th, I was planning to head up to Portland, Maine to do a trade show and 10 minutes before I started to pack my car, the show got canceled. And, over the course of the weekend, I was keeping an eye on social media and many of the stores that we sell to. The people that I would be meeting that weekend, were deciding to close their stores. So on Monday, I was like, "Hey team, we're shutting down." So we closed, a week before we were mandated to. I was never afraid that we would never open up again.

I have always had this fear of a zombie apocalypse. Not necessarily The Walking Dead, but a disease that was going to take us all down. So I was like, "Oh, no! It's happening!" So I had this healthy fear.

I guess it was an expectation that something terrible might happen (laughs). I'm an entrepreneur, I was always going to work for myself, and I love what I do, so I'm not going to stop, even if there's a global pandemic and a zombie apocalypse. - (laughs) All right.

So, as we heard, several different reactions to the order to close, from the Governor. Let me ask you each, in turn, what was your reaction? - Well, I was happy (laughs) because we had closed our offices, the week before and were receiving lots and lots of phone calls from small-business owners, wondering what to do. I think that there was a lot of confusion and a lot of...

effort to try to subdue some of that confusion. But, in the end, I really believe that those closures did the right thing, despite all of the... closures that we saw with small businesses and a lot of the financial issues that came up, as a result of that.

But I think, in the end, the right decisions were made, as best they could be, with the resources and knowledge that we had, at the time. - I think Fran made a great point about, we were at the beginning of what, essentially, became, or is, a global pandemic. A lot of people were afraid, they were scared, people were getting sick.

I was on the other side of the coin of that; I had to deal with the small businesses at the mom and pa shops that were scared out of their mind. Their livelihoods were at stake and they called me, as soon as-- so what's the plan? For those first couple weeks, there was no plan. And we've never dealt with anything of this magnitude, when you're having 20-something small businesses call you, every hour, and tell you, "What can the city do? "Is there any money? How do I pay my rent? "How do I get inventory? How do I pay my bills?" So then, we had to triage that. We had to figure out, how do you help these small businesses and create enough programming initiatives, as the federal money started coming in, to help soften that? But we figured it out.

That's the resiliency and that part came and shined. And that's what we're going to remember when all this is done. - Joe Ercolano, what were some of your immediate concerns and what were you advising small business to do, in the short term? - I would say, Ray, that we should keep in mind that the SBA really moved, quickly, to put money on the street. So we were doing webinars with 300 or 400 people, around the Emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loan By March 16th, hundreds of people were tuning in because it was the only available source of emergency funding, prior to the CARES Act, in April. So they access this money; we were amazed at how quickly people moved into that mode of, tell us how to access emergency finance. And that's what we did.

And then, the other important thing, too, was, I think closing things gave people a breather to understand the safety factor because they were scared about their own safety, as well as their clients and their employees. The safety factor was an important thing and closing the shops and restaurants, et cetera, was a chance for people to take stock of, what do I do to assure safety? - Yeah, good point. Felix Reyes, this order was the death knell for some businesses and many folded, pretty quickly. Now, I understand every circumstance is different, but what were some of the typical reasons some small businesses didn't survive? Were they already in trouble, before the pandemic hit? - Well, for every small business, it's takes a while for businesses to generate enough revenue where there's even a profit. It takes years.

Some of the small businesses that were affected were probably in their first six months to a year, just operating. And they just couldn't sustain all the expenses it takes to start a business. You put your life savings up and any equity you can find and, all of a sudden, there's no revenue coming in. That was very difficult.

We did see a lot of businesses, in that first or second year, not be able to remain open. - I do want to point out, if I may, that some industries were hit, much harder than others. We know about the restaurant industry. What doesn't often get talked about, is the childcare industry. Within the first weeks of the pandemic, 70% of the the childcare facilities, in this state, already shut down.

And those were among some of the industries that were already operating on extraordinarily thin margins, to Felix's earlier point, and did not have the infrastructure, like a lot of other small, mom and pop businesses, to apply for any of the funding. Joe, I think you might agree, the people that really, really, really needed it, did not get it and they were the ones that shuttered; already operating on thin margins, didn't have the infrastructure, in place to apply for a very complex... federal program, that was put on the street with the best intentions, but not everybody could get through that online application process. So that's what we really need to focus on, right now because those are the businesses that really, the economy really needs them so that people can get back to work. - The Federal Government came through with a series of measures to help businesses stay afloat.

The biggest of these programs was the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. It allows certain businesses to apply for low-interest, private loans to retain employees, in the short term, and for other costs. The amount of the PPP loan is supposed to be equal to 2.5 times

the applicant's average monthly payroll costs. Rachel DeCavage, owner of Cinder + Salt in Middletown, applied, right away. - Yes. I was the first person in line at my local bank branch. They were like, what even is this application you're handing us? (Ray chuckles) But I've learned, as a small-business owner and a young person with a young business, that you just need to be first in line and pay attention and be super organized.

So, I was approved for the first round of PPP funding, very quickly. We used the entire amount on payroll. As soon as we received it, I got everybody off unemployment and back to work.

- Mm-hm. Why was the PPP the right choice for your business? - It really allowed me a safety net to get everybody back to work. Because, having to lay off your team is pretty gut-wrenching (laughs). It's not a fun experience. So, having...

just that safety net to be able to do that and get everybody back and not have to worry, too much, about going under if anything happens. COVID and this pandemic have been "unprecedented" and nobody knows what's going to happen, so it makes sense to apply for it, if it's available. - I knew I wanted to, like I said, I really care about my employees, I knew I wanted to keep them employed.

But, when our sales dropped 90% a week, 80% a week... But I was still paying everybody. So that helped, a lot. So we applied for the first PPP. I worked with my local bank, who had lent me the money to buy the building and to do the renovations, so they were very helpful in getting the PPP loan.

Then, I was able to keep people employed, the whole crew, really. I didn't have to let people go, right away. The entire crew was able to continue working, which was good, for however many weeks that was. - Yes, I did apply for the PPP loan.

We received it in the first round. I didn't get a very big loan. I will say, it helped me cover the first couple months of having my employee back and so, it was a benefit.

It did get me in the head space of applying for other loans and grants that were out there. I missed out on the state loans. I heard about it but, by the time I went to apply, and I think this was days later, it was gone. It was not available to me.

That taught me a lesson, to really keep my eye out and make sure I'm hitting deadlines and all of that. I also was very fortunate, I mentioned that I applied for everything that I could find, any of the grants that were out there. And I did receive one, rather significant, grant from Adobe, the software company. So you never know where funds might come from and I feel like it was worth casting my lot, wherever I could and wherever I had time to. - No, I did not apply for a PPP loan.

The first round that came out, because I'm a sole proprietor, really didn't apply to me. And my husband and I discussed it and... rules kept changing and they were unsettling, so we just didn't want to take a chance. And because it's just me, I didn't have to worry about employees, which is a good thing for me.

We felt like we would just set aside and just do what we had to do. - So, three out of our four businesses applied for, and received, a PPP loan. Joe Ercolano, how important was the PPP program to Connecticut businesses? - It was very important.

If you think about last year, in the first draw of the PPP program, six billion dollars entered the state economy, through the PPP program. And then, this year, we're running north of two billion, already, since January 11th. So, incredibly important. It is a forgivable loan, as people know, so it gives the owners, the applicants, a chance to not carry debt that they really can't afford, given their diminished revenues. - Fran Pastore, what is your take on the PPP program? - You know, for lack of a better adjective, really priceless, for so many businesses.

That said, it was priceless for the businesses that were able to access it. 60 thousand PPP loans, I think, were a part of the first traunch in Connecticut. Roughly, I'm not going to get my percentages precise, but roughly 80% of those loans were given to white-owned businesses and nearly 75% were given to white men. Hence, the correction or the dial-back, if you will a couple of weeks ago, where the focus was on the smallest of the small, minority-owned business. We still have a very, very long way to go, in that regard.

So, getting businesses in the hands again, of those most vulnerable, but getting money in the hands of the most vulnerable businesses, is really something that we have to think about. - So PPP wasn't the only resource. The state and some municipalities stepped in, as well with grant and low-interest loan programs.

Felix, did that happen in New London? - Absolutely. One of the things that we have the benefit is, we have Community Development Block Grant office. And if folks don't know what that is, essentially, HUD gives a pool of money to certain distressed municipalities to support the non-profits, our social services, and our residents. So we have an office and we were granted, I believe, about 800 thousand dollars in the CARES Act of COVID aid relief and we were able to distribute that in several sectors. We did small-business grants, we did rental assistance, utility grants, we set up learning pods because families, now kids, moms and dads had to work. We live in an urban city where most of the jobs are service industries.

They don't have the luxury of staying home with their children. And then, also, on the humanitarian side, we set up, for food and shelter, our homeless shelter food banks. So we had spread it out, thinly, across the boards but I believe the city did a good job on addressing that. But for our small businesses, in particular, we had grants between 1,000 and 5,000 for those that applied.

The first round, we had about 43 small businesses apply and the second round, that we just finished up, we had about 50 businesses apply. And those, even though they're small, 1,000, 5,000 here, for a small business that's behind on their electrical utilities bill, trying to find money to pay their rent, it just gives them a little bit of hope that they can just keep going. - Felix, I want to say with you because we heard stories of municipalities getting involved in different ways to help their local businesses. Maybe it's a zoning situation or allowing restaurants to open up in a larger area, outside of their restaurants, for more social distancing type of eating. Tell me about some of the ways that New London stepped in to help. - I'm glad you brought that up.

I have an amazing staff, right? And we thought that we had a good process to get people through a zoning application but with the regulations that came down from the state, we were able to expedite it, even more. We're talking sidewalk permits, encroachment permits, so, if no one owns an encroachment permit, essentially, right away, how do you shut down a street so you can put some tables out on an avenue or an alleyway? How do you use the parking space, in front of the sidewalk, to expand out? So we worked together with all the department heads and we created a quick, easy process for two things: whether you wanted to expand your restaurant on private property; say you wanted to put your restaurant on your parking lot, we created an administrative process to improve that, quickly. - Hey, Joe Ercolano, what was your experience, working with municipalities? Were they quick to respond and help out the small businesses? - Oh, absolutely. The City of New Haven,

the City of Hartford, many cities stepped up with programs and there's an ongoing flow of information. Stanford, New London is Felix's address. Many cities have stepped up. And there's a lot of cooperation from smaller towns, particularly on the issue of health and safety. We had a few webinars where we had brought on, a public health expert from the University of Connecticut and state to town or regional health inspectors would join the webinar and talk about the challenges of working with business owners but also the challenges the business owners had with their own customers. - So, we've been talking about what local, state, and federal government has done, and is doing, to preserve these small businesses but what can we do, as consumers, as customers, to help bolster them? - Shop local.

- Buy... Well, exactly. Buy local. Buy local. - Absolutely. And if you can't find it, for some reason, if you can't find it in Connecticut, I actually purchased something from a small business in California, this morning but I went directly to the small business.

So, buy local. And I would also say, respect the rules of the shops that you are going into. Follow the science, right? If you have to wear a mask, you wear a mask. If they're asking you to use hand sanitizer when you're walking in, use the hand sanitizer.

I actually witnessed, the other day, a customer in a coffee shop, not following the protocol and was asked to leave. And that's never fun. But if we all do our part and stick together, we're going to help these small businesses, hopefully, thrive after this pandemic. - So, PPP was only part of the picture for small businesses that have survived the pandemic, so far. So, how did our businesses manage to hang on? Well, each story is a little different. Let's start with our restaurateur, Rod Cornish.

- Yeah, it pivoted, immediately, because... I'm from the mindset that you have to keep going. You can't just lay down, you have to keep it moving forward because the business is almost like a machine; you have to keep it oiled, you have to keep it moving, otherwise, once it seizes up, you have problems. - Right. - One of the first things we did, immediately, is, we switched to more take-out because that's all we were allowed to do. So, fortunately, I just switched over to a new point-of-sale system, which had online ordering, which was a game-changer for us because, right in the beginning, we had take-out lined up because nobody could go anywhere, to sit down.

So the managers who were working with me, they really embraced it and learned the system. And I'll never forget the first day. We were taking orders, the phone was constantly busy, everyone's mad, and Liz was taking the order. And, in the time she took the order from the person on the phone, we had five tickets pop up from online ordering. I was like, wow, this is amazing. And also, we started doing groceries.

We were selling...because a lot of people didn't want to go to the store, so we were selling paper towels, toilet paper (laughs) all kinds of stuff. We put it right in our online ordering system and people were actually ordering other grocery stuff, stuff they couldn't get. Yeast...

It was interesting. We hustle (laughs) so whatever we needed to do, we did. We had customers that came through.

They were leaving big tips for the staff. We were actually building masks for people. We took all our old Hot Rod T-shirts and tank tops and we were selling masks, basically, at cost and people coming in and buying a mask and donating a mask for somebody else who needed it. So the community really came together for us. (R&B music) Welcome to our second show.

I'm Rod. - Carlos. And we actually have a name for our show. We got some good response from the first one.

It's going to be called, "Winging It! Cooking with Carlos and Rod." We had this time on our hands and Chef Carlos and I had always talked about doing a food show. And, all of a sudden, with all this time on our hands, we had a great social media group helping us, and we decided, this is the time to do the show. So we have a YouTube channel. It's called, "Winging It!" And we'd show people how to cook, at home, some of the things that we are doing, here and we just had a lot of fun with that. Carlos and I still get stopped with people asking us about it and different things, so...

- So, the first thing I did, was make sure that every product we have available in our store, was also available on our website. We started sending out way more emails to encourage people to shop with us. We offered curbside pickup, private shopping experiences for people that could do video chats and Zoom calls. We also started doing Facebook Live events, so we can connect with customers through social media. So, while our retail store was taking a hit, our wholesale accounts were also taking a hit because many stores we sell to, had to close.

But our custom revenue stream was really helpful. We found that a lot of the yoga studios and restaurants that we make custom apparel for, their customers wanted to support them too and they couldn't go in and practice yoga or eat food, but they could buy a T-shirt to support those companies. So we ended up making a lot of merchandise for other small businesses, that they could sell. So that really helped us out when things were looking pretty dark. One of the fun things that we did, once the weather got warmer, last spring, was do sidewalk sales. And I brought a big speaker outside and blasted yacht rock and threw a party outside and people were just passing by.

We couldn't really connect but it was a really fun way to be like, we're still here. We're all still having fun. So we tried a lot of different, weird things to get people, to remind them that we were here and to get people engaged. So really, just trying to have as much fun as we could in really dark times. - One of the things that's, normally, I would place a large order for the season. But what I did was, now, if someone came in and needed a color that I didn't have in stock, I would just order, as needed. I didn't place those big, seasonal orders like I would normally place.

So it was a change and a shift in how things came in. I have to say, my customers were really good and understood that you're not going to walk in and find every color, on the shelf. Also, did a lot more social media marketing than I probably, normally would do; a lot of Instagram, a lot of Facebook-ing, which is extremely time-consuming, taking photos... just putting out, if a vendor sent new information on a new pattern, just doing a lot of social media, which changed, for me, because I wouldn't normally have to do as much. But that was a big change for me; making sure, especially Instagram, I do some Facebook-ing but also putting out there for Instagram because I do have some younger customers, as well.

- Did that work out, for you? Have you gotten more customers or have people appreciated that extra level of communication with you? - Interestingly enough, I have seen a lot of new faces during this time, which is nice. I'm just hoping that, as we open up more, that I will continue to see them. People were placing orders online, as well as, they would call. And during that time, I was doing curbside pickup and in a couple cases, I had to do some actual home deliveries when I was on my way home for the day or before I came in, in the morning. - That's awesome. So you were like a delivery service.

You were like Grubhub for yarn. - (laughs) Yes I was. Like I said, when you're met with an adverse situation, you have to figure out how you're going to adapt and what you have to do to keep going (laughs). - I don't think that I did anything, all that different. I just went with the trends, out there: curbside pickup, offering delivery.

I had set up some private appointments, at one time so that, if somebody wanted to come in and just be here, with me, and flip the stacks, I'd let them do that. We would be masked up and sanitizer, the whole shebang. So I did whatever I could to get through the rough spots at the beginning, where things just weren't happening. This room was a community space for our local bands and a nurturing space for the scene to bring people together, with live music, that was other than clubs.

So I wasn't able to do that. And so, for a lot of COVID, I was trying to find a way to bridge that gap. Our 10th anniversary was in October and I really wanted to do something there to mark the occasion but, at that point, I didn't have my head around it. But in January, we were able to pull together 20 bands and they provided videos of them performing in their spaces or even more creative videos that looked more like old-school MTV. And we put together an online program that was about three hours long; bands from around the region, around the state, a lot from here, in New London, and we had this variety show, online. It was exciting to see.

It helped me do this thing that I used to do for the bands and bring that into the modern, post-COVID year (laughs) or whatever. And yeah, so that was a little out-of-the-box and it worked very well. - So, panel, I'm just floored by how nimbly these businesses changed what they were doing and seemed to make it work.

Fran Pastore, was this something you heard, as well? - Absolutely. We were running, pivoting your business for probably the last six months; doing training sessions, talk session, support groups, all around pivoting. So I do have one really amazing story to share, that I just heard about from one of our clients. We have a woman in Bridgeport who makes the most amazing, and I say delicious, soaps made with natural oil and goats' milk and she... despite...

all of the support and understanding of a good, strategic marketing plan and with the role that social media plays in helping to build a small business, she was very, very resistant to that. When the pandemic hit, her main way of... securing sales was to... spa... trade shows. Right?

And, of course, when the pandemic hit, those trade shows died out. So, finally, she said--and the name of the business is Comfort Zone. And so, finally, she told me the other day, that her revenues increased, by July, 186%. Why? Because she tells me she got out of her comfort zone and, finally, started using social media and... started talking about how, if you can't go to the spa, you create a spa-like environment at home and pushing her products, that way. - Joe Ercolano, what did you hear from your clients? - Well, we had a client who provided driving lessons and all of that was shut down, in-person driving lessons.

He came to us--we were fortunate to have some UConn students, over the summer, who did a ton of research on this whole topic of learning online, learning driving online, and trying to address any objections that the state regulators might have, on this. And, as a result, they petitioned the state, got permission to do this, across the board, not just for their own business, but for all driving companies in Connecticut, driving schools. It opens up, not just the immediate way to pivot, but it opens up the potential to use technology to further their business goals going forward. - One of the things that Rod Cornish, who owns Hot Rod's Cafe, mentioned-- I don't think it's included in this particular special, but what he talked about was that the pandemic exposed the weaker parts of his business. So I get the sense that, even when things go back to normal, and help me out here, the changes that many of these businesses went through, will remain. Do you get a sense of that, as well? - Absolutely. Oh, absolutely.

Now, there's just different ways of making money. I think that's, probably, small businesses are looking at this, where, this was the traditional way of making money now, okay, let's try this, let's try that, let's try this. And these businesses, collaborating with each other, are helping create ideas of reaching different markets. And that balance, I think, starts protecting people, not only from a pandemic, but maybe you're a seasonal business and now you've found a way to make money in the wintertime, where that wasn't the case anymore.

So we're hoping to see a little bit of that happening. And I think these small businesses, the ones that have survived and have gotten through this, are savvy enough to know that's the new reality, moving forward. - Yeah, absolutely. I think it's adapt or die. You know? Not to make it so cut and dry but adapt or die. And I think that those are some of the silver linings; diversifying your product line, diversifying your access to markets, and that's the intention of this small grant program that WBDC launched, a couple of months ago.

It's not for general operating, it's not to pay your rent, it's to think out-of-the-box, think a little more creatively because we want you to, not only survive, but thrive, post-pandemic. - Hey, Joe, I want to ask you about small businesses that have actually decided to make a go of it, during the pandemic. Is this a good time to do that? - Yes. We've had more people contact us about starting a business than anytime over the last seven years.

And not all of them start but they're contacting and they're interested in doing it. And it is a good time because there will be a pent-up demand in consumer spending that'll hit the streets, so to speak, over the next 6 to 12 months. It's inevitable. So it's a great time. - Are interest rates lower? Is that a good reason? - Interest rates are lower and you could tap some of these special programs that are out there, maybe it's an emergency loan that, you can't start a business with an emergency loan, but, if you start and you get going and you have some traction under your belt, one of these loans might be helpful.

But interest rates are lower, across the board. People are leaving real estate and people are finding deals in real estate. And people know there will be a surge in spending coming, so they're going to take advantage of that. - Yeah. - Well, most entrepreneurs start businesses because they have a passion and there's a need or an opportunity in the marketplace, right? So, absolutely, lots of opportunities right now. But for many, many, many people and I'll keep going back to this because it's something I have a soft spot for, for many, many people, the opportunity has nothing to do with it.

It's about the necessity. And the majority of those people are women and the majority of those people are Black and Brown women. We've seen a 20% increase, over the number of new start-ups, among ethnic minorities, in Connecticut, in women. And that is a trend around the country and we've seen it at the state level. So a lot of women--and again, a lot of Black and Brown women were pushed out of jobs in the industries that were most vulnerable: healthcare, education, retail, hospitality.

They were left with few options and so, coming up with a service-based business is the way they need to survive. Like I said, necessity is sometimes the mother of invention and I think we're seeing a lot of that, as well. - So I had a chance to visit one more business. It opened during the pandemic, back in November and it seemed like a particularly fitting business to profile, given the frustrating year that we've all endured.

Maybe that's why it's been so successful. Let's check out Smash Avenue in West Hartford. - Here we go.

(object smashes, glass breaks) - Yes! (laughing) - This guy's good. (crowd laughs) - My name is Shaun Chambers and this is my pandemic business, Smash Avenue. - First, tell me about yourself. - So, I was born and raised, here, in Hartford Connecticut. Decided, during the COVID pandemic, that people needed a way to de-stress. I mean, we're dealing with a lot; parents were becoming teachers and kids being stuck at home with parents for long periods of time, now, which we've never really had to deal with, not being able to go out and have fun at your usual activities, just not being able to go out, at all.

And there was just so much pent-up frustration. We felt like there had to be a way to unleash that negative energy, in a positive way, in a healthy way, in a judgment-free way. And that's how Smash Avenue was born. - Was it a long conversation that you had with your business partner? Were you like...

- No, it wasn't a very long conversation, at all. - Well, you knew you had the space. - Well, we found the space, later. Actually, I created a makeshift smash room in my garage, first, as a proof of concept.

So, everything you see here, the plywood, the bricks, we put it all up in the garage. Had a good friend of mine come in and spray-paint everything to give it the feeling. And we just reached out to a random pool of people to have them come by and ask a few questions. "Hey, how has this pandemic affected you? "How has it affected your family, your job?" And the responses that we got were mind-blowing and there was some tears shed and people were really distraught, which we knew was the case, right? So afterward, we said, "Hey, we got this new business model that we're working on. "We want you to come in and be able to smash some things "to unburden yourself.

"Is that something you'd be interested in?" And they all were interested. We videotaped them smashing all of the items that we put into the space and then, we did a post-interview to ask them how they felt and everybody was like, "Wow, I couldn't believe how much better I feel" or "Now I feel like I can go home "and be around my kids again," stuff like that. - (laughs) Yeah. It's shocking because these are things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, it's just part of life, but you don't understand how much it weighs on people until it's compiled with other things that we really can't control, like COVID. - Yeah. Smash therapy. - Smash therapy. - I like it.

- And it always sounds good, right? Everybody wants to be your first customer until the business is open. Then you see how many people actually patronize the business. - Mm-hm.

- But people actually followed through. And we've been moving about two to three tons of smashed waste out of here, on a weekly basis. So, I'd like to say that things are going pretty good.

(laughs) - When did you open? - We opened November 5th, 2020. So, right in the thick of things, yeah. - We did the panel discussion and I think I asked--I was telling you about this, I think I was asking this small-business expert to open a small business, in this climate, in this pandemic, - Yeah.

- in a recession, you have to be either savvy or crazy. So, which one are you? - Probably both. (Ray laughs) (laughs) Probably both. - Was it a good time to do it? - It feels good, to me. Like I said, there hasn't been smiles in a long time and I'm here, smiling, so...

The smash room is the first one in Connecticut. Aways feels good being the first to market, doing anything. It's a very unique offering. People are really excited about it. We're getting a lot of great reviews and feedback and we're looking to scale the business, fairly soon.

- Mm-hm. Yeah. - So yeah, just a little bit of nuts and bolts about-- you obviously have to purchase this stuff. - Yes.

- You just don't find it. -Ish. - Donations are always welcome. So we try to put ourselves out there, to as many of those communities on Facebook or Goodwills and things like that. Whenever they can't sell something because it's damaged or it's irregular and they don't want to put it out, into the market, then they normally get rid of it.

So we've just become a way for them to save a step. And then, we repurpose. So we smash it, here, and then we recycle everything, anyway. So, for a lot of people who would normally recycle, it's just another stop before it makes its final destination. I'm extremely happy with our community, here, in the greater Hartford area and even outside of the greater Hartford area; people traveling 90 minutes to come and have a 20 to 30 minute experience, here with us, in our little space, you know? If that doesn't tell you, you made the right decision, then I don't know what does. (upbeat rock music) (glass shatters) (footsteps) - As we wrap up this edition of CUTLINE, I asked each of the small-business owners, profiled in this show, what their plans were for the rest of 2021.

I sincerely hope that you learned something about the importance of these businesses to the state's economy and to the quality of life for the communities they serve. This is CUTLINE. For Connecticut Public, I'm Ray Hardman. Thanks for watching. - Being a small-business owner and making my living on my drawings is sort of like a dream come true and I know that we are capable of so much more, here. I have a really, really great team.

We all work really hard, and very efficiently, together and we are ready for growth. I'm very confident that we will keep growing, for sure. - See, I can imagine, once where people are more fully vaccinated, I think there's a lot of pent-up demand and it will never make up for what we lost but it's not like people are going to come here and eat a thousand wings, they're just going to start eating wings again, every week. So, I think next year is going to be our best year ever because every year, for the most part, of the last 15, there has been a steady growth. It just took something like this to kind of put the brakes on. - I feel very confident, just the plans that our city is making.

And I'm part of some of those plans to help restart New London, once things get going again. I think there's going to be a lot of business and we'll all be able to lift up again, here, in New London and, hopefully, throughout the state. I hope to be here, 20, 30 years down the road and just sitting behind the counter, talking music with people.

That's been my goal, all along. So if I can maintain that, this is my retirement plan, so... I'm going to stick with it (laughs).

- My hopes? That I'll be here for a long time, that I'll be able to sustain, that I can still continue to be that... community... that community space. One thing that yarn shops--I always equate us to barber shops and hair salons. My space is community. When you come in, hopefully you feel warm, welcome, comfortable.

I sometimes thought I wanted to grow and be much larger but, as I really thought about it and I said, I like where I'm at, I like my space because I want to have that personal connection with my customers. This is about building relationships. It's not just a business, it's about building those relationships and knowing what's going on in a person's life. And... a lot of things have been shared in these walls.

And some tears have been shed and some laughter. And that's all I hope for, is that this continues to be that sense of community and people feel warm and welcome when they walk in the door. (cheerful up-tempo music) - This program is made possible with support from the Connecticut Small Business Development Center.

2021-04-17 23:44

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