Amid COVID Closures And Layoffs, Some Local Businesses Thrive
Earlier this month, North Carolina began Phase 1 of reopening. It was welcome news for consumers, and especially so for small business owners following weeks of lockdown to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many were forced to lay off workers or temporarily close their doors due to a lack of business. But others are holding steady, and some are thriving.
Along Reynolda Road in the Winston-Salem neighborhood known as Buena Vista stand several darkened businesses — including an eyeglass store and hair salon — recently closed due to the coronavirus. Less than fifty yards away a very different scene is playing out.
On a cool but sunny spring morning, Mock Orange Bikes is gearing up for another busy day. There’s a UPS driver making a big delivery right out front. Owner Charles von Isenburg is helping unload about half a dozen electric-assist bicycles, each one packed tightly in six-foot-long boxes.
Von Isenburg says the new bikes have really caught on since the pandemic with the adoption of cycling as a new hobby for people, many of whom are riding again for the first time in decades.
“And a lot of these folks are in their 60s, 70s or 80s, and so the electric assist is a great option because you can hop out and take in the fresh air and look at the squirrels and listen to the birds and all that and you’re not dying, you’re immediately having a good time,” says von Isenburg. “So, we love them. They’re great!”
As the weather warms, motivating customers to come out and play, von Isenburg typically stays fairly busy in May with lots of bikes in for repairs. But this year, with what he calls the COVID shut-in, and witnessing businesses across the city struggling to remain viable, he initially feared the worst. He says two months or more without income would have been disastrous for Mock Orange Bikes. But as a store that provides transportation methods, he’s been able to stay open.
“Right now, it’s crazy,” he says. “We’re running two shifts. We are operating the store under normal hours which is about 42 hours a week that we’re open. But really we’re operating now at about 50 with showroom hours and then probably an additional 25-30 behind closed doors hours just trying to keep up with the workload doing repairs and assembly and that type of work.”
Coronavirus lockdown measures have limited the number of outlets available for exercise. Kids home from school and sports programs put on hold have encouraged entire families outside and onto bicycles. Von Isenburg says remaining open and working those long hours has been greatly appreciated by the public. The additional work hours have also translated into increased orders and revenue. He says so far this year’s total sales have easily doubled those from 2019.
Across the parking lot from the bike shop, built-in social distancing is one of the reasons Tommy Priest’s Coffee Park drive-through airstream has remained afloat.
“I’m always hesitant to say this and I was very hesitant early on, but I think that the little trailer is kind of built for the pandemic,” says Priest. “We have about a 35-second face-to-face interaction time with customers, and then they’re on their way.”
He says the grab-and-go model has been the only thing keeping some food and beverage industries in the game. Even with Coffee Park’s advantageous set-up, Priest says compared to last year’s traffic, he’s still about 7 percent down, but given the current climate, he’s not complaining.
Just down the road from Coffee Park, lines are already forming at Bobby Boy Bake Shop and The Caviste wine shop. They share the same building and the recipe for their success during the COVID-19 lockdown has been pretty straightforward according to Caviste owner Russ Anderson.
“I think we’re fortunate. Everybody’s got to keep eating and drinking.”
Anderson moved to this location last fall. He says many of his wine customers are business travelers who used to do a fair amount of dining out. That’s changed.
“And so, instead of being in an out-of-town restaurant they’re at home having a glass of wine and cooking food,” says Anderson. “And I think everybody’s kind of upping the game a little bit and enjoying trying adventuresome recipes and wanting an interesting bottle of wine to go with it as well.”
That interest has translated into a slight business model shift away from the traditional wine bar experience, toward bottle sales. Anderson says after taking a little dip when the coronavirus first broke, bottle sales have actually gone up year over year as they’ve broadened their business. He says the grab-and-go model there and at the bakery have translated well in this new market, but for others, it’s going to take the continued support of this community to get them through.
“We’d encourage everybody to go out and order out as much as you can and tip well because I think most of the restauranteurs are really conscientious in trying to take care of their employees during this time in order to come out and offer, you know, local restaurant options to the community again when we can start serving people,” he says.
Phase 2 of North Carolina’s reopening plan is scheduled to possibly take effect at the end of May.