Coronavirus prompts Georgia’s small businesses to reinvent

King of Pops Atlanta Territory Operations Manager Alice Diekhoff loads up the car she will use to make her home deliveries at their headquarters on March 23, 2020. King of Pops started home delivery last Wednesday as the coronavirus continued to ravage the state. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

King of Pops Atlanta Territory Operations Manager Alice Diekhoff loads up the car she will use to make her home deliveries at their headquarters on March 23, 2020. King of Pops started home delivery last Wednesday as the coronavirus continued to ravage the state. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Atlanta’s King of Pops was born out of the Great Recession.

Laid off by an insurance company, Steven Carse sold cotton candy at Braves games to scrape together $7,000. With it, he started what would become a wildly successful business selling ice pops made with fresh fruit, re-creations of the frozen treats he enjoyed while traveling in Latin America.

Now the turbulent new coronavirus economy is forcing Carse, once again, to improvise. In addition to frozen desserts, King of Pops is adding vegan chili to its menu. And, like many other metro Atlanta eateries struggling to hold on, the company has started offering free delivery to the housebound multitudes.

Before the virus took hold in Georgia, Carse was set to announce his 10-year-old craft ice pop company had made $10 million in revenue. Last week, Carse furloughed more than half his employees.

The coronavirus has ravaged Georgia’s economy in ways that seemed unfathomable weeks ago. For many small businesses, the pandemic represents a life or death moment.

“We’re literally at a point where every rule that has existed doesn’t really apply,” Carse said. “We’re really just open to lots of things.”

Many other businesses, too, are scrambling to reinvent themselves or come up with new revenue streams that will help them stay afloat.

The Inman Park gastropub Hampton + Hudson announced it was temporarily transforming into an online general store where people could order essentials such as toilet paper, soap, eggs and fresh produce.

Galla’s Pizza in Chamblee has expanded its delivery radius from three to six miles and has started promoting family meals with larger portions of pasta and salad. Owner Kevin Burke is also hoping to set up virtual trivia nights to re-create one of the restaurant’s most popular in-store traditions.

Burke said he’s lucky — nearly three-quarters of his business revolved around delivery before the coronavirus emerged, and he hasn’t yet needed to lay off any of his two dozen employees.

“People think of us when they think of delivery, and pizza is relatively inexpensive,” Burke said. But the virus, he added, “certainly puts the fear of God in you.”

Other local restaurants and food halls have expanded into delivery and curbside pickup for the first time as the city of Atlanta and other nearby municipalities have barred in-person dining.

‘Ground to a halt’

Gyms, which also face mandatory shutdowns across the region, are facing particularly acute challenges.

Many chain studios have begun offering classes that can be streamed online, but it’s been a tougher pivot for smaller establishments that don’t have many employees or a robust internet presence.

The Midtown gym Lion’s Den Fitness has seen 95% of its business dry up over the last three weeks, according to owner Shawn Gingrich, who has posted written workout routines on his Facebook page each day to keep his community engaged.

“We were having the best year we’ve ever had starting this year off, and it’s basically ground to a halt,” he said. “I’m keeping my head up. My members are helping me keep my head. But, at some point, the money will run out and we’ll have to make some decisions.”

The U.S. Senate is debating a stimulus package that would make $350 billion available for small businesses to meet payroll costs.

And Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order allocating $1.5 million in emergency funding to help such businesses last week. At the state level, Gov. Brian Kemp recently announced that small businesses and nonprofits can apply for up to $2 million in low-interest economic injury disaster loans from the federal Small Business Administration to cover fixed debts, payroll and other bills that can't be paid because of the virus' impact. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday that the state would give businesses an extra month to renew their annual registrations with the state government because of the coronavirus.

Yet some local businesses say more action will be needed.

Gingrich recently penned an open letter to Bottoms on social media, urging her to extend the April 1 deadline for business to pay their annual license fees and to take other actions to aid shuttered businesses that lack additional revenue streams.

“We all still have fixed costs to pay such as rent and utilities on buildings that are now empty,” Gingrich wrote in his letter. “More importantly, I want to be able to pay my team and keep them from suffering as much as I can.”

El Ponce, a Mexican restaurant in Poncey-Highland, posted a sample script on its Facebook page encouraging customers to call elected officials to create a special relief program for the restaurant industry and its workers.

“Do not let a bailout happen that only lets giant fast-food companies survive,” the script states. “McDonald’s has deep pockets. Your favorite neighborhood restaurant doesn’t.”

The cascade of new guidance and restrictions has forced many business owners to get creative.

Within a few days, Vinings School of Art manager Kara Kapczynski transitioned from holding language and music lessons in-person to over Zoom. For children’s piano classes, she’s instructed parents to hold their cell phones over their children’s hands as they play so their teachers can get a better view.

Kapczynski isn’t teaching her school’s full courseload this way, but the set-up is working for now. The real fear, Kapczynski said, is if gathering restrictions continue through the summer. Her school makes most of its money on children’s camps and other seasonal programs.

“It would be a big hit in this type of business,” she said. “The big money comes in in the summer, maybe as much as 70% of the profit.”

Carse’s business, King of Pops, relies on large gatherings that begin in the spring, such as street festivals, farmers markets, sporting and corporate events — most of which have been canceled for the foreseeable future.

In addition to selling vegan chili, he's rushing to perfect new products he can sell door-to-door. Carse also launched a GoFundMe account to raise money to give away 10,000 pops to health care workers and is ramping up efforts to recruit people to purchase pops at wholesale prices and sell them in their neighborhoods. King of Pops is also still selling pops near area parks and grocery stores, but the operations are now cashless — a new tweak for the coronavirus era so there's less hand-to-hand contact.

“I do think the flexibility, and the will and resolve of the staff, is going to ultimately get us through this,” Carse said. “I just think like we’re going to look like a completely different company on the other side.”

Staff writers Michael E. Kanell and Ligaya Figueras contributed to this article.