Local businesses survive, some thrive, during COVID

  • Saturday, April 17, 2021 1:30am
  • News

By Mike De Felice

Special to Bainbridge Island Review

People have faced myriad hardships since the COVID-19 pandemic arose in the Pacific Northwest just over a year ago, from job layoffs to reduced work hours, to being housebound and working from a spare bedroom, to being unable to see family and friends to reduce the spread of the virus.

Small businesses also have also been greatly impacted. Faced with ever-evolving health-related restrictions tied to the different phase proclamations issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, businesses were on alert, ready to shift gears on short notice.

Some had to reinvent themselves to keep the doors open. Many had to come up with creative ways to tweak their regular operation. And others had no choice but to stay the course, endure the COVID restrictions and wait until their communities were ready to return to some semblance of normal life.

The following tells how some businesses survived — and in some cases, thrived — during the pandemic.

Pegasus Coffee House, Bainbridge Island

Up to the point when Pegasus Coffee Shop, a 41-year-old specialty coffee shop located in an iconic ivy-covered building, found itself at the cusp of the pandemic, it had been doing stable business, president and co-owner Matt Grady said.

Then, came the mandatory shutdown.

“The retail side of the business disappeared for a month or two. Business was down 60 to 70 percent right out of the gate. Nobody could come into the store. You could order at the front door, and we would make it for you and deliver it out the side door. It was a very different world,” Grady recalled.

Business picked up the second half of last year when restrictions were relaxed, he said.

To help weather the pandemic, the European-style coffee house expanded its online business. For the first time, customers — many locked away at home and not driving to the office — were able to purchase coffee beans online and get them delivered directly to their doorstep for home brewing. Orders came in from across the county, Grady said.

To encourage customers to use the shop’s coffee beans at home, the store started offering coffee coaching classes.

“If you wanted to know how to brew coffee the way your barista does in the coffee shop but you’re working from home and don’t get to your coffee shop as frequently, we started offering fifteen-minute Zoom sessions for folks. They could ask questions ,and we would actually show them how to use different grinders and brewers so they could have great coffee at home.”

Grady sees his business changing in the days ahead.

“We don’t think the world will ever fully go back to the way it was. When companies go back to doing in-person work, there will probably still be a lot of folks working from home. So, we are preparing for that kind of world.

“We are optimistic this summer, once vaccines have been fully distributed and cases decline, that in-person business will continue to improve. But, we are really investing in the online side of things and digital marketing. We really want to build out more content so [our customers] can make great coffee at home.”

Town and County Market, Bainbridge Island

“It was a roller coaster ride” is how director Steve Snyder of Town and County Market on Bainbridge Island described what it was like to run a grocery store during the pandemic.

“There was a lot of ‘filling the pantry’ shopping going on — people buying canned goods and paper products. Our business increased 10 to 20 percent,” Snyder said.

Toilet paper and cleaning products flew off the shelf. With people stuck at home, many got into cooking, so flour and sugar became popular staples, he noted.

While demand for products increased supplies decreased since manufacturers had difficulty staffing production lines, Snyder said. The store had to come up with other sources to obtain products.

For example, when Purell and other cleaning products could not be found, Synder said the market turned to Bainbridge Distillery, which had shifted its operation from producing alcohol spirits to producing sanitizer. Finding a local supplier for such a sought-after item was a relief, he said.

During the shutdown and the months afterward, one of the few places where people would venture out to visit was the grocery store. And for many, store sanitation was a top priority. “We had meetings three days a week to keep tabs on new health regulations,” he said.

Today, the company assigns nearly a full-time position to address COVID regulations in order to maintain the health of customers and staff, Snyder said.

Still, some customers remained reluctant to walk down the aisles. In response, the store developed a system allowing folks to phone in their shopping lists so that staff could gather the items and subsequently place them into the car. The phone-in order system eventually advanced to e-shopping where customers could visit the store’s website and electronically fill out shopping lists. Currently, the store handles about 70 e-orders a day.

“E-commerce is here to stay,” Snyder noted, adding surviving the past year provided them valuable lessons: “We learned how nimble and adaptive we could really be.”

Skyhawk Press, Poulsbo

Skyhawk Press is a graphic design business that earns dollars by adhering company names and logos on clothing. The Poulsbo business also happens to be the North American official licensee for Liverpool FC, a soccer team located more than 4,500 miles away in England. The local company designs and prints clothing that sports the team’s name.

When the pandemic struck, the soccer team was on the verge for the first time in 30 years of taking the title in the prestigious Premier League in England. Capturing the championship was expected to lead to a massive demand for team clothing that Skyhawk Press would print.

In anticipation, the Northwest enterprise purchased $20,000 of ink to print team apparel. However, when the pandemic struck, the soccer league curtailed its schedule and prevented the team from capturing the title. As a result, Skyhawk Press was left with gallons of unused ink that had an expiration date.

“All roads led to 2020 being our best year ever,” said Alisha Weiss, CEO and owner of Skyhawk Press. Instead, the company faced a 90 percent drop in business in those first months of the pandemic.

“I was watching something that I had built over ten years just crumble. It was devastating,” she said.

Fortunately, the Poulsbo business was able to turn its ink predicament into a boost for both its business and the city.

“I wanted to be of service to the community, but I didn’t know how to. With the ink, I was, ‘let’s put it to use.’ I didn’t want to pour it down the drain,” she said.

Weiss brainstormed to find a way to use the ink and came up with “Poulsbo Strong.” Her company produced T-shirts sporting that motto. Each shirt sold for $20, and buyers were able to designate a local company to receive $10 of the purchase price.

The program resulted in $54,000 being distributed to local companies, she said. The idea was so successful, it was duplicated in Bainbridge Island, Kingston and Silverdale.

Over the past year, the Poulsbo company has rebounded some, narrowing its drop in business to 20 percent for the year. Still, Weiss is optimistic, saying she learned many lessons from Poulsbo Strong.

“I have found myself so energized and excited to work with local brands and people who want to start a small business and are not deterred by the past twelve months,” she said.

Red Plantation, Poulsbo

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced Stay-at-Home orders, the co-op-like Red Plantation store in Poulsbo was hit hard.

“Our sales the next month were the worst since we opened, down 85 to 90 percent,” owner Gabrielle McGraw-Elliott said.

“I experienced a wide range of emotions. I’m a single mom with two kids. I’m in charge of 15 other people who rely on money going to their families. I think I worked harder and longer those first thirty days than I ever had in order to barely make ends meet.”

McGraw-Elliott rents out shelf space in the store to 15 vendors. “We try to stick to vintage, antique, handcrafted and repurposed items, and focus on home décor, garden, gifts and unique things you won’t find anywhere else.”

With sales lagging, the owner turned to technology for help. “I came up with the concept of doing an online flea market because we weren’t getting anywhere,” she said.

The store went live on Facebook to do shows that spotlighted store items. The programs allowed for interaction with viewers. The first two shows attracted some customers and produced sales.

“By the third show — which we called ‘Girls Night Out’ — we were on for four hours with over 200 people watching and sold out everything,” McGraw-Elliott said.

The Facebook “Live” show ran twice a week, and their success following an alternate path continued.

“People were bored at home watching Netflix. The only places they got to go were Walmart and Home Depot. Our shows were fun. We did funny little intros and skits at the beginning.”

In one live-streaming show, store vendors did a takeoff of “Game of Thrones” and called it “Gnomes of Rolls,” where they sat on a throne made of toilet paper rolls and were surrounded by gnomes.

“We did not even need to be open because we were doing so well,” the owner said, noting that sales during some months were double over 2019. “It was the best year we ever had.”

Running the shop last year was life-changing for McGraw-Elliott. “I don’t know how to describe when you go from feeling like you just lost everything to being on top of the world and knowing now that you can handle anything after that. It was empowering for me.”

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