As the coronavirus body-checks the U.S. economy, small businesses from coast to coast have been thrown off their feet. Company owners are trying to figure out how to keep doing what they do, how to keep the lights on, and how to shield their workforces from the worst of the downturn ahead.
MarketWatch spoke to four independent operators about how they’re coping and adapting. These owners are very different — but their stories here have universal themes. All took big risks or worked exceptionally hard, or both, to chase their dreams. Many of them have enjoyed just enough success that they recently decided to embark on expansions.
And all of them spoke about finding an unexpected symbiosis with the customers they serve as the crisis affirms how much their services mean to their communities — and how keenly they feel small acts of kindness from neighbors in such an unsettled time.
‘A lot of money and a ton of heart and soul’: Axe and Arrow Brewing, Glassboro, N.J.
Krystle Lockman opened Axe and Arrow Brewing with her husband, Josh, and a partner, Greg Fletcher, in Glassboro, N.J., last April. Josh and Greg were each brewing beer at home as a hobby, but, when they started to “talk crazy” about actually opening a brewery, Krystle, an accountant, crunched the numbers.
Glassboro has, in her words, an “up and coming downtown,” and the trio kicked in about $130,000 of their own money and took a loan for about double that amount from a New Jersey–based community-development financial institution.
Business had been “great,” Lockman said. “It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s something that can be a viable business. We were just starting to hit our stride,” including doing better than anyone had expected in the winter months, which notoriously bring slowdowns.
Axe and Arrow Brewing
Lockman first started to notice foot traffic lightening when the schools closed, about a week ago. Axe and Arrow employed a few part-timers with very limited hours, all of whom had other jobs, and Lockman had to tell them to stop showing up. Axe and Arrow’s assistant brewer, though, is a student, and the brewery represents his only income. Lockman hopes he can make do with accrued sick time, a benefit the state of New Jersey mandated a few years ago. In a few weeks, when that runs out, they’ll lay him off so he can collect benefits.
Since the state is continuing to allow takeout food service, “we just bought 2,500 growlers,” Lockman told MarketWatch as she canned beer and watched over her twin 6-year-old boys at their “home school” in one of the booths.
To Lockman, the best evidence of the brewery’s “strong loyal, loving fan base” is that people are buying more of their “Mug Club Memberships,” which means paying upfront for beer they’ll drink later. “It’s a little more effort to shop at the little guy than just hitting the liquor store, but, at the end of the day, you’re supporting me … and my two kids sitting there studying,” she said with a laugh.
“We’ve poured a lot of money and a ton of heart and soul into this place.”
‘Life is short ... I want to do this before I retire’: The Shop, Seattle
Matt Bell had a successful career in Seattle’s booming tech economy, but an idea for a new kind of business kept gnawing at him. Bell wanted to start a car club, where aficionados could garage their cars and motorcycles, and work on them and enjoy a meal in the company of fellow gearheads.
“Life is short,” Bell said. “My father passed away a few years after he retired, and I thought, I want to do this before I retire. I kind of thought it could work.”
Two and a half years later, The Shop is indeed working, so well that Bell is expanding to other cities. “Well, that was the plan, anyway,” he said — another building is under construction, slated to open in Dallas in June.
For a time, Bell felt like The Shop’s business model was diversified enough to withstand a downturn. Customers can buy club memberships or just enjoy a meal or coffee in the restaurant, which is open to the public. Seattle ordered restaurants closed beginning last Sunday, and Bell had to lay off all the restaurant staff and some of the people who work for the club. He now has 15 employees, less than one-third the number before the virus hit.
The sense of uncertainty was overwhelming, Bell said. “There was no guidance for us business owners. We just had to figure it out.” Initially, he wanted to simply cut back on peoples’ hours — but then learned that would make them ineligible for unemployment benefits. When he tried to pay for an extra month of health insurance for the people he’d just laid off, The Shop’s insurance provider said no. Bell found a way to get one month of coverage for everyone who’d been cut, and can only hope the quarantine doesn’t last much longer than that.
The experience has had a silver lining, Bell said. Just before the restaurant closed, customers began to leave enormous tips: 100% of the bill, or in one case, 500%, on a $50 bill. “People were so generous, it made me feel happy about humanity.”