ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - The day after London Ray-Dykstra obtained a building permit to begin renovations on the boutique fitness studio she planned to open in downtown Roanoke, the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting everything down.
Ray-Dykstra turned to her investors for advice and was urged to move forward. The buildout would take a few months anyway, they reasoned, and the shutdown wouldn’t last forever. They were right, of course, but the effects of the pandemic have been much more far-reaching than anyone could have imagined last spring.
Despite the challenges, which proved insurmountable for some established businesses, entrepreneurs charged ahead and opened their doors in the Roanoke and New River valleys over the last year.
The U.S. Census Bureau tracks applications for employer identification numbers, used by businesses for tax purposes. The data indicate that the number of applications likely to turn into a business with a payroll - defined as high-propensity business applications, and adjusted for seasonality - in Virginia in 2020 increased by 10.5% compared to the previous year.
Though the pandemic didn’t stop new businesses from opening, it forced them to adapt.
When Hustle/Haven, a cycle and yoga studio, opened in August, it looked different than Ray-Dykstra had originally imagined.
“The dream that I had before the pandemic was this bustling place with people in and out of classes and hanging out in the space, enjoying potions from the potion bar and food from the potion bar and really being more of a social hub.”
The need for distance made that impossible. To keep gym-goers 10 feet apart, Hustle/Haven can operate at no more than 50% capacity. As a result, Ray-Dykstra said, classes fill up quickly and clients are forced onto the waitlist, which frustrates them.
It may seem like a good problem to have, but the reality is that fewer clients means less revenue.
“Visually it looks like we’re busy and successful,” she said. “But we are struggling.”
The bright side, Ray-Dykstra said, is she feels Hustle/Haven is serving its purpose: helping clients find a haven from their daily hustle.
“I think what the pandemic has done is make people realize how much they do need to work out,” she said. “Not just for the physical; nobody really has plans to go anywhere. Now people aren’t working out out of vanity, if you will. They’re doing it for their own mental health.”
Ray-Dykstra said she’s excited to eventually invite more people into the building, especially in the yoga space, which can only accommodate six per class right now, and shed the masks the gym requires even while exercising.
“This is all we’ve ever known. If we can power through this, we can probably make it through almost anything,” Ray-Dykstra said. “Everything is now like icing on the cake. If we can have more people and start to take our masks off, it will start to feel a little more like the original image that we had for it.”
The pandemic has taught her to be flexible, how to communicate effectively with staff and clients and be a better leader, Ray-Dykstra said.
“I have said the word pivot more times in this past year than I ever did,” she said. “And I was a dancer, so we pivoted a lot in jazz class.”
‘HOLDING YOUR OWN’
Lisa Garst, owner of the Dilly Dally general store and cafe in Salem, said she’s looking forward to the day when people can do what the business’ name suggests: dilly-dally during their visit.
The pandemic means that customers prioritize efficiency during their visits; they want to get in, get what they came for and get out.
Garst is eager for the Dilly Dally to be the gathering place she intended, with wine tastings and children’s birthday parties - “those things that make a little community store really the heart of the community,” she said.
It seems people are beginning to feel “a little more spur of the moment,” Garst said, noting more people have been coming into the store from the greenway on warm days.
In 2018, Garst and her husband purchased the beloved Dilly Dally in Salem, which had closed in 2011. Finally, after securing a historic designation and making renovations to the building, it was set to open in April 2020. But then the pandemic hit.
The Dilly Dally’s opening was delayed until June, but at that point, Garst said they needed to move forward. Bills were still coming in and her husband had left his job in anticipation of the opening.
“It was an economic decision,” she said. “We had to open.”
Pandemic-induced disruptions to the supply chain were problematic. Garst said they had trouble getting cleaning supplies, paper products and rubber gloves. Many of the store’s vendors sell products in Mason jars - salsa, candles, apple butter - and struggled to find lids after a pandemic surge in at-home canning.
There’s an apartment above the Dilly Dally, but Garst said she opted not to rent it out, instead using the space to stockpile supplies when they were available.
They added picnic tables so customers could take their lunch or ice cream cone outside. Employees used an iPhone to take orders outside for those customers who did not want to enter the building. Cafe staff began making pimiento cheese, chicken salad and potato salad with store products and packaged them for to-go consumption.
In assessing how the business is doing financially, Garst recalled the words of the Dilly Dally’s accountant: “You’re holding your own. And if you can hold your own in a pandemic, you’re doing OK.”
BUILDING A CUSTOMER BASE
Christina Tavarez knew she and husband Gustavo Castillo were up against some challenges when they opened their restaurant, Pueblo Chico Mexican Grill, in Roanoke last spring.
As a family-owned business, it lacked the name recognition of a chain, and the couple recently had moved to the area from Tennessee, so they didn’t know many people. But the pandemic was an unforeseen obstacle
“It was a struggle at first,” Tavarez said. “We’ve come a long way, I’ll say that.”
They signed a lease on their space, just off Colonial Avenue near Towers Shopping Center, in December 2019. The couple had planned to open in February or March, Tavarez said, but delayed until May because of COVID-19.
They worried about whether their business would be successful. Times were tough when they first opened. Tavarez said the “saddest day” was one in which not a single order came in.
Promotions on the radio and coupons sent through the mail helped drum up business, Tavarez said. Several customers who came in with a coupon on their first visit have since become regulars and are spreading the word about Pueblo Chico to friends and family.
When the restaurant first opened, it was limited to takeout only. Now that customers can dine in, they have a chance to learn about the family’s story and build connections, Tavarez said.
“It does help, building those relationships with your customers,” she said.
Erryn Barkett, co-owner of 1772 Rooftop on Main, said the fears he had when preparing to open the Fincastle bar and restaurant would be shared by any business owner, pandemic or not: “Are people going to come and find us attractive and fun?”
He said he never considered delaying opening the business, which welcomed its first guests in late August, because of the pandemic.
“We had people hired, we had the liquor ordered, we had the food ordered,” he said. “We had people counting on us. Our staff was counting on us to open.”
Though the number of patrons the business can serve is limited by capacity restrictions, Barkett said the staff has not been slimmed down. The chef, sous chef, hostess and servers are all still needed to operate.
Barkett, a commercial pilot and flight instructor, compared the situation to air travel.
“It’s not like because there’s only five people on the plane you don’t have to have the full crew there,” he said.
But the business received assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program and a grant from Botetourt County, which Barkett said prevented any staff members from being let go. It taught him an important lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help.
He also praised local government officials for allowing the business to add sidewalk tables so it could serve more customers and turn fewer people away during especially busy times.
Barkett said 1772 Rooftop on Main is doing well, which he attributed to loyal local customers. He’s looking forward to a time when customers can sit closer together, hug one another and celebrate their special occasions in larger groups.
‘OUR FIRST STORM’
When Ed & Ethel’s Fine Jewelry opened in Christiansburg in September, many people had grown used to pandemic life. Unlike other businesses forced to adapt overnight, Brooke Brinson said she and husband, Jonathan Brinson, knew what they were getting into and were familiar with the safety guidelines.
Still, the pandemic posed some challenges: Fewer people were out and about, vendors were behind schedule and couldn’t get displays to the store, it was hard to find furniture without a lengthy lead time.
“This has always been a dream of ours. It was a long-term goal to have our own store,” Jonathan Brinson said. “So when we opened our store, was the pandemic concerning? Yes. But we had the long-term goal in mind. I guess we just kind of viewed this as our first storm to weather of many.”
Though the pandemic has been financially devastating for some, others have actually saved money they’d normally spend on travel or other activities and therefore have money to spend on jewelry. Jonathan Brinson said the fine jewelry industry has seen the average ticket increasing.
“People are very resilient and people still want to celebrate, be happy, express their love,” Brooke Brinson said.
Jonathan Brinson said he’s anxious for the day when he can shake a customer’s hand. He’s careful to ask permission before touching a customer when sizing for a ring, or closing the clasp on a piece of jewelry, actions that never warranted a thought before the pandemic.
The couple said they plan to continue offering private appointments for Ed & Ethel’s customers even after the pandemic. Jonathan Brinson said they allow for deeper connections to be built and make it easier for some customers to express the emotion behind their purchase.
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