As the pandemic ravaged small businesses across America, some were surprised — and conflicted — about their success.
Small businesses were devastated in 2020. They have pivoted so frequently to deal with state-mandated shutdowns, new customer needs and pandemic safety protocols that many aren’t sure what direction they’re facing anymore. Nine months into the coronavirus crisis, more than a quarter remain closed, at least temporarily, according to data from Opportunity Insights, a research group at Harvard University.
But for some industries, it has been a banner year. Small-business owners serving customers who are trapped at home, shopping online and seeking outdoor adventures have tallied record sales.
Success during a crisis can be uncomfortable. “I can’t say enough that it’s bittersweet,” said Sunshine Foss, the owner of Happy Cork, a Brooklyn wine shop whose sales soared as other businesses in her neighborhood closed down.
Here are five small businesses that beat the pandemic odds and are thriving — and even hiring — as they move into 2021.
When Ms. Foss and her husband, Remo, opened their wine store in March 2019 on a lightly trafficked side street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, hours would sometimes pass without a sale.
“We would stand on the street and beg people to come in and try our stuff,” she said.
The pandemic changed that. As the city locked down in the spring, customers streamed in for wine by the bottle and by the case. In April, sales doubled. Sales jumped again in the summer: As protests over police brutality and systemic racism rocked the city and nation, demand for products from Black-owned businesses — Happy Cork’s specialty — increased.
“I couldn’t keep Black Girl Magic on the shelves,” Ms. Foss said, referring to a California wine collection created by two sisters. “I’m so happy now that there’s huge customer demand, but it’s bittersweet that it took all of this to get attention on these brands.”
Esrever Wines, a label created by three longtime friends from Queens, has been one of the beneficiaries. The pandemic complicated production for the company, because the California winery that produces its blends is short on staff, but demand has soared and Happy Cork is among the business’s top retail locations, said Tyshemia Ladson, one of Esrever’s founders.
A loan of $1,875 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program helped the shop through the pandemic’s early days. Ms. Foss doubled her staff this year, to eight employees, and she has been happily surprised to have shoppers from all over the country stopping by, often drawn in by her prolific social media posts. Her business has now blown past the sales projections she mapped out when it opened.
“A lot of stores that open in our neighborhoods have bulletproof glass; you can’t touch the bottles,” Ms. Foss said. “I wanted something that was an intimate shopping experience; I wanted the store to smell really good and look really pretty and be comfortable. We have pricing that works for everyone. You can get a great bottle for $8 from a brand you would never have known about.”
The phones at ePlastics started ringing nonstop in late March with calls from customers seeking masks, plexiglass dividers and other protective devices. The deluge hasn’t let up.
“Nobody was prepared for this,” said John Short, the general manager of the 106-year-old plastics manufacturing business. “Everyone was typing into Google search terms for ‘barriers’ and ‘shields,’ and we got calls from all over the world.”
EPlastics had to close its retail showroom, which stocks plastic products ranging from building supplies to wine glasses, for about a month as it navigated California’s shutdown rules and figured out how to protect its employees. In its workshop, though, fabrication continued nearly around the clock. Sourcing raw materials like acrylic and polycarbonate sheets was a constant challenge, Mr. Short said, because of global supply-chain disruptions.
Sales were 30 percent higher this year than in any previous year, and the company’s 52 workers put in plenty of overtime to keep up with demand, Mr. Short said. It has churned out more than 10,000 plastic barriers this year.
EPlastics devised some popular new products of its own, like a portable barrier for shops that cashiers can pass money through and a plastic box with holes that doctors can place over patients’ heads to reduce air exchange. But much of its work went into custom projects for clients including hospitals, universities, banks, and retailers like supermarkets and liquor stores. The Navy has been a big customer, buying dividers for the meal halls on its ships.
Mr. Short was particularly delighted that ePlastics played a role in the coronavirus relief efforts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project, which sponsors competitions for high schoolers, had its scientists team up with students to design and produce face shields using polycarbonate sheets from ePlastics. The shields are being sold online and donated to medical professionals.
“We were finding little 4-by-8 pieces of plastic all around the country, but it was really hard for the machines to digest those,” said Lucien Junkin, a NASA robotics engineer. “EPlastics had one of their suppliers make a bunch of 750-foot rolls that the machine could just gobble up. Then we were spitting out thousands of face shields left and right.”
Katie and Wes Lyon, along with their college friend and business partner, Max Berry, quit their corporate jobs in March to work full time at their start-up, selling American-made American flags.
“We’ve seen exponential growth this year,” Mr. Berry said.
How much growth? “It’s not a number anyone believes when we say it, it’s so crazy,” Ms. Lyon said. She paused before answering: “4,000 percent.”
A year earlier, they weren’t sure their e-commerce business would fly. They started the company in late 2018 to “crickets,” Mr. Berry said. “We’re not one of those companies that turned our website on and orders flowed in.”
He and the Lyons originally thought handmade American flags sewn by American workers using materials sourced in America would be an easy sell. That’s what they had personally looked for, and couldn’t find.
“We had two options: We could buy it on Amazon or from a big-box store,” Mr. Lyon said. “And either it was imported from China — which is ridiculous to us — or, if it was made domestically, it is mass produced with cheap materials.”
They set out to create a better flag and found a production house in South Carolina that could make their star-spangled banners.
But then … the crickets. It took them nearly a year to learn how to effectively target customers with digital ads. They realized they couldn’t just sell an American flag; they needed to highlight its quality and their American-made ideals. They adjusted their digital advertising just before the pandemic — fortuitous timing that helped them ride the coronavirus e-commerce boom.
“I think it was because people were spending more time at home and taking care of their home,” Ms. Lyon said. “That mixed with a huge American pride, that we’re all in this together, we have a responsibility to keep each other safe, as Americans.”
They anticipated a pre-election surge as well, but October turned out to be their slowest month of growth. Heavy spending by political campaigns crowded the company out of the digital channels it relies on.
“We were fighting political ads that have millions to spend,” Ms. Lyon said. “It was a hard month for direct-to-consumer businesses.”
Allegiance employs four workers at a distribution center and contracts 20 stitchers in Georgia and South Carolina to sew the flags, which start at $50 for a 12-by-18-inch flag.
“I love it,” said Cindy Packard, who began sewing Allegiance flags in April. “Sometimes when you’re a seamstress, it’s kind of bland. But I love the colors. And I feel patriotic. Every time you tell someone you are making flags, they want to ask you about it.”
When the pandemic took hold in late March, sales at Peter Hurley’s high-end bicycle business collapsed. Mr. Hurley furloughed employees while his management team developed safety protocols and tried to adapt. But the pause turned out to be brief: A month later, after reconfiguring the factory floor and turning conference rooms into production space, the company resumed production.
A $409,000 loan in April from the Paycheck Protection Program helped turn the tide. Mr. Hurley used the cash to bring back and pay his workers, which freed up revenue to increase the direct-sales retailer’s online marketing.
By May, orders were picking up, and a sustained boom began in June. The company’s sales typically peak by July and then taper off; this year, the autumn lull didn’t happen.
The company now has 67 workers — 30 more than before the pandemic — and its highest revenue since Mr. Hurley bought the business 13 years ago. American Bicycle Group specializes in custom-built road, trail and triathlon bikes that start around $2,500; Mr. Hurley attributes the sales spike to customers spending more time outdoors and to passionate riders deciding it was time for an upgrade.
Daniel Medina Díaz, a triathlete who lives in Benton Harbor, Mich., had been coveting a bike from the company’s Quintana Roo line since he encountered the brand at last year’s U.S.A. Triathlon National Championship. A Labor Day sale finally knocked the price down enough for him to take the plunge.
“I love the texture of the carbon fiber, and the way they paint the bikes to look like a racecar,” said Mr. Medina Díaz, who hopes to debut his new bike at a race in Tempe, Ariz., in April.
Mr. Hurley is waiting to see if this year’s sales boost will last. “Is this the new normal? I’ve given that a lot of thought, and I really have no idea,” he said.
Construction and design company
Dolores Guerrero Davis walks into her office each morning and looks at the oversize whiteboard that maps out her company’s pipeline of projects.
“My brain just explodes,” she said. “It’s so much work.”
That isn’t what Ms. Davis expected. Even before the pandemic, national indicators warned that the remodeling business was expected to slow in 2020. So when Austin closed nonessential businesses in March, she prepared for hard times. She got a $641,000 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which ensured that CG&S — started by her parents in 1957 — stayed open and that none of its 35 employees were laid off.
Then the unexpected happened: Homeowners in Austin and across the country realized their homes needed an update, pushing construction firms into overdrive. CG&S received a surge of inquiries, particularly for its design services. And they weren’t from dreamers: Customers were ready to lay out cash.
“I think everyone is spending time at home and recognizing that their space doesn’t work,” Ms. Davis said. “The kids have been home from school since March in our market, and I think it got people thinking about their homes and how they function.”
Today, CG&S has twice as much design business as it ever had, and many of clients are hiring the company’s construction crews. Ms. Davis, who owns the business with her husband, Stewart, hired several new designers and two more project managers.
For Matt and Denise Chumlea, the timing was finally right to redo the kitchen in their 1940s bungalow. They had remodeled the rest of the house, but were putting off the expense of their dream kitchen, with a 300-bottle wine cellar, high-end appliances, a mud room and more.
When Ms. Chumlea learned she was pregnant, they considered making just upgrades — then decided to go big.
“If we’re in for a penny, let’s be pregnant in Covid and do a big kitchen remodel at the same time,” Mr. Chumlea said.
They found CG&S through a sign Ms. Chumlea spotted in a neighbor’s yard. “They were able to take my ideas, the vision in my head, and just bring them out,” Mr. Chumlea said.
Construction is expected to wrap up in February, just in time for the new baby to come home.