Many businesses were off to a good start in early 2020.
Then — like a sharp curve in the road no one saw coming — everything changed in the span of a few days in March. Businesses were forced to pivot their operations to stay in business. Some have succeeded — others have not. Small businesses continue to struggle.
MediaNews Group revisited some of the business owners we have spoken with over the past year — to find out how they have coped, how the pandemic has changed them as business owners and how they view the future.
HOW HAVE THEY CHANGED AS BUSINESS OWNERS
Just weeks before the pandemic struck, a devastating fire destroyed DJB Specialties Inc. — a custom apparel and promotional products company in Montgomery Township. Owner David Blank set up the office in his home and worked with other facilities to handle production.
He quickly found a new location for the business, at 297A DeKalb Pike, but COVID restrictions delayed work on the new site until September. The company moved in at the end of December — “a long haul” that wasn’t easy, Blank said.
“Between the two events, you realize what is really important to you. My family — both my home family and my work family; being a better person, a better human. The rest of it — the business — will come back. We know that if we make it through to the other side we will be back stronger than before,” Blank said.
Adaptability and resilience have been important skills for business owners this past year.
“There are almost no words to describe how the pandemic has changed us. It has forced us to adapt and while we were adapting we were learning about things we needed to keep and things we should have been doing,” said Laura Vernola, co-owner of Steel City Coffeehouse and Brewery in Phoenixville.
Known for its live music events — Vernola put those events on hold at Steel City to comply with COVID restrictions and looked for new ideas.
Pottstown’s J.J. Ratigan Brewing Co. was a new business — opening in December 2019. It was just starting to build a following when the pandemic struck.
“The one thing I think a lot of us have done through this whole pandemic is we’ve learned a lot. Now we know — we established the right methodologies, we’ve put the right processes in place so that if it happened again we could quickly improvise and quickly adapt to the situation,” said Keith Costello, co-owner.
Literally overnight, the restaurant/brewery added takeout — something it had planned for but hadn’t yet implemented.
Bryn Mawr Running Co. was getting ready for its busiest time of year when the pandemic struck. Owner Bob Schwelm’s four brick-and-mortar stores in West Chester, Bryn Mawr, Media and Emmaus, were closed from March 15 through June 5 — with sales dropping by about 80%. The regional chain supplies the footwear needs of the running community.
“I think you started to think about employees a little bit more, about how much risk they are willing to take on, the things you are asking of them,” Schwelm said. “That’s the most I’ve changed as an owner.”
Jill Schadler launched her new business — Off the Leash Dog Truck — in September. The mobile, retail dog treat truck, features locally-made treats.
She faced challenges in getting her truck ready and the cancellation of many community events.
“The pandemic was making me see events are not going to be happening. So where else would I be going?” Schadler said.
HOW THEY COPED
Schadler said things “took off” right away for her new business.
She is regularly invited to condominium apartment communities, where property managers bring food trucks in for their residents. In addition, two area dog day care facilities — Canine Cottage in Limerick and Miss Drew’s Doggy Day Care in Spring City — asked her to bring the truck to the facilities, to give their clients a chance to make purchases for their pets.
“They have had me back every month now,” she said.
In January, Schadler added a third local vendor to the truck — Ebony Maxwell’s Dog Cookies & Treats. The truck is fully booked for March.
Blank said DJB Specialties Inc. is operating at about 50% to 60% of where is had been. The company’s core business — events, schools and youth sports — “stopped dead for the last year.”
“We have done a lot of pivoting to find products that are needed for going back to work or working from home,” he said, including employee appreciation gifts, clothing and virtual Zoom backgrounds and logo banners.
He was able to obtain PPP loans in both rounds of the program, which helped him keep his employees.
DJB Specialties has added Personal Protective Equipment, including hand sanitizer, masks and other new products. Another “pivot” was the addition of in-house fulfillment of orders.
“I would like to think we have become a kinder gentler company. We have done a lot more charity events and worked to try to help our local community,” he said.
Vernola was also successful in obtaining PPP loans for Steel City Coffeehouse.
“When we lost the music we started to think ‘what can we bring in,’” Vernola said in September when she unveiled the Steel City Pantry — which sells items including eggs, milk, butter, granola, jams and spreads.
She said the $2,000 investment in the pantry paid off quickly, with the average check increasing about $4 per purchase.
Steel City also added curbside pickup — one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic, Vernola said.
“We didn’t realize how many people wanted to order a cup of coffee online and then have us run it out to their car,” she said.
The Live From Steel City Podcast was launched in October and resumed Feb. 26 after a hiatus. Open Mic night, which has been online via Zoom returns to the stage March 25.
Friday night live music is also back at Steel City, with social distancing and mask-wearing, Vernola added.
“The goal is to bring music back slowly. It will be free on Friday nights with social distancing and mask wearing,” Vernola added.
Takeout at J.J Ratigan continues to be strong, according to Costello. The business also added delivery — using its own employees rather than a third-party delivery service.
“We would rather give the money to our employees than give it to a big corporation,” he said.
Live music on Friday and Saturday nights continues, featuring local performers, according to Costello.
“Because they have suffered as well. They’re not getting the gigs and the concert deals and the venues they were used to getting,” he said, adding that customers look forward to it.
During the pandemic, J.J. Ratigan Brewing supported the Pottstown community, through a Facebook Live “Give Back” concert series and the creation of a light lager beer to benefit Pottstown first responders.
While Schwelm’s stores were closed, he launched something new — an online store. He also began curbside pickup and delivery service.
Schwelm felt there was pent-up demand for his products, and within three weeks of reopening, sales were up. Between June 5 and the end of December 2020, Schwelm said sales were up about 10% over the same period in 2019.
“Looking at the year as a whole, we were down due to losing those three months of business during the spring,” he said.
Schwelm was also successful in obtaining two rounds of PPP loans, which assisted in paying his 40 employees.
For each business owner, some of their new business practices will remain permanent when things get back “to normal.”
Blank said the in-house fulfillment option is now a permanent part of DJB Specialties’ operation, as is the sale of masks.
Vernola said the pantry the Live From Steel City Podcast, takeout and curbside delivery will also remain.
At J.J. Ratigan, takeout and delivery are now a permanent part of daily operations.
Schwelm said the online store is a small but important part of the business and will remain a permanent feature.
Like the food service businesses, Schwelm plans to keep curbside pickup and delivery.
“It is part of the game now, and we can’t avoid it,” he said.
Despite the financial challenges of the past year, Vernola is not saying “woe is me.”
“We are definitely going to survive this, there’s no doubt we will survive this. There is also no doubt we will open a second location within the next three years,” she said.
Costello is “cautiously optimistic.”
“I like to look at 2020 as a ‘pause’ and now we can push ‘play’ and just pick up where we left off in this great town,” he said, adding that he and the rest of the ownership team of J.J. Ratigan Brewing are “through the moon grateful” for the staff.
“Without them, we probably would not even be a business right now,” he said.
In June, Schwelm acquired the Delaware Running Co. in Wilmington, the chain’s fifth location.
“We wouldn’t have bought another store if we weren’t optimistic,” Schwelm said.
Blank said his optimism is “guarded.”
“The longer it takes to get back to some kind of normal the harder it is to survive. We are anticipating things to get back to normal but it will be a new normal. It will never be what it was,” he said.