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Oct. 27, 2020, 10:30 a.m. EDT

These small-business owners are still making it work, coronavirus and all

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By Andrea Riquier

In the frantic days of late March, as the coronavirus panic burst forth and cities and towns began to impose lockdown orders, MarketWatch spoke to four small-business owners from around the country.

All four were successful, and most were planning some form of expansion in what then seemed like a booming economy. Yet even as early as March, these owners had already tasted some of the new normal and pivoted to other business strategies.

Each knew the hard part still lay ahead.

In early October, we reached out again to to see how they’ve made it through. There have been more downs than ups over the past few months, but amazingly, all four owners expect their 2020 business to be not far off what they’d anticipated before the virus hit.

Each expressed a sense of being lucky, and of watching the disparate economic impact of the virus play out across their circle of contacts, from customers to business partners to employees. All four received money from the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the stimulus package passed in the spring.

They know the story isn’t over yet. Each is located in cold-winter areas, from Vermont to New Jersey to Seattle, and all have the same questions: Will consumers come out? Will heat lamps work? When will things get back to normal?

Earlier coverage : These small-business owners made their dreams come true — and then the coronavirus hit

In March, when MarketWatch talked to John Egan, co-founder of Warren, Vt.-based Mad River Distillers, the company had just started to produce hand sanitizer for the local community. Sanitizer is essentially just alcohol, after all, and when it ran low in the panicky early weeks of the shutdowns, Egan realized Mad River could help. “It was as much a community-building exercise as anything else,” he said in October. 

That pivot didn’t last long, however. As well-meaning companies around the country tried to help with the pandemic efforts by pivoting to producing sanitizer, federal regulators, including the FDA and NIH, got involved.

“There started to be a whole bunch of standards and over a four or five week period, you’d have to check in and make sure your formulation was correct,” Egan said. “There were weekly conference calls and people were attempting to stay up with the regulatory requirements but as each government agency got involved, they added additional things.” 

About six-eight weeks into the crisis, producers started to drop out of the sanitizer effort, “and then the regular supply chain started supplying it,” Egan said. “We still have some available if people want it but It’s really gone back to the normal providers handling that.”

For Mad River’s regular beverage business, it’s been a tough year. “We depend on an in-person experience,” Egan explained. “People want to hear the craft brew story from the bartender. If they don’t get that, they go to the store and buy Jim Beam or Bud Light.”

The company applied for a PPP loan and got a small one “with the help of our local community banker from Montpelier,” Egan said. “It has been helpful to us in bringing everybody back sooner than we might otherwise have been able to.”

In its Burlington, Vt. location, Mad River has a tasting room, which is open at 50% capacity with a reservation, up from 25% over the summer. They’ve also fanned out to farmer’s markets, although they can’t offer customers the chance to taste the alcohol there. 

Egan finds the virus’s economic impact unsettling. “This whole pandemic is a tale of two economies,” he said. “The markets have done well, the professional workers, the people who own stocks, have done well. In Massachusetts,” where Mad River has distribution partners, the unemployment rate is high. “The people who live paycheck to paycheck are most impacted by that.”

How has business been overall? “There was an eight- week period in the spring that felt like we fell off a cliff,” Egan said, but they’ve almost made that up. “This year may be on par with last year, which is extraordinary. We had been hoping to grow but in this environment I’ll take treading water all day long.”

But 2020 may still have some challenges ahead. “For the hospitality industry, everyone’s worried about November and December,” Egan said. “The regulations and the weather are going to conspire against people.” 

Glassboro, N.J.-based Axe and Arrow Brewing had barely been open a year when lockdowns began. “We were just starting to hit our stride,” co-owner Krystle Lockman told MarketWatch last March as she canned beer while watching her twin six-year-olds do their homework in a booth. 

Lockman and her partners sold canned beer and growlers through the spring, and then once they were able to open up for outdoor seating, their landlord granted them an additional patio space. Now, they’ve got more outdoor space than in the original indoor space. And after having to ask her entire part-time staff to stop showing up, and laying off her one full-time employee so that he could collect unemployment, “we’re back with full force,” and even made a few additional hires, she said. 

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