What it’s like opening a business during a pandemic

Local entrepreneurs explain when the world shuts down, it’s hard to keep going.
Deshayne Edmondson works on a pizza at the Grana restaurant in Atlanta, Friday 12, 2020. PHOTO: STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Combined ShapeCaption
Deshayne Edmondson works on a pizza at the Grana restaurant in Atlanta, Friday 12, 2020. PHOTO: STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Imagine all your life you dreamed of throwing the ultimate party. You spent years selecting the top suppliers; you researched your friends’ preferences. You rented a space, hired people to help, spent your life savings and waited anxiously for the big day.

And no one came.

That’s pretty close to what opening a business during a pandemic is like to thousands of entrepreneurs in Atlanta and across the country.

» RELATED: The Jolt: Pity the small businesses caught in the pandemic crossfire

“I literally was supposed to go in front of the city’s liquor licensing board April 21, and it was closed. I was ready,” says Jen Price who plans on opening the Atlanta Beer Boutique in Kirkwood on Bill Kennedy Way. She still doesn’t know when the board and the city’s offices will open.

With an estimated 20 percent of all businesses closing within the first two years, it’s hard enough starting a successful business in the best of times. Having everything ready to defy the odds and succeed with your dream business only to have the world shut down, no one leaving their house and rampant unemployment are unfathomable.

“All these wonderful entrepreneurs had the best-laid plans for their businesses and who could foresee this?” asks Erin Igleheart, program manager for the Goizueta’s Start: Me program at Emory University. “We’ve not had anything like this happen. There are so many complicating factors and fears.”

There is a grieving process, she says. “You invest so much energy into it, and it didn’t happen.”

Pat Pascarella applied for a liquor license for his restaurant, Grana, three days before City Hall shut down. The Italian restaurant, located between Buckhead and Morningside on Piedmont Avenue, should benefit from Pascarella’s reputation as the owner and chef of the Decatur eatery, White Bull.

“We were planning a grand opening in late March. It’s not OK to open during a pandemic, so we did take out and delivery,” he says. “It’s very, very rough opening a new restaurant. No one knows who you are, even though we had a great reputation. It takes a while for people to make that connection.”

After years of research and defining her passion, Julie Stewart decided to open Utopia Foot & Shoulder Massage.“There was no place like it in Kirkwood. It’s like a nail salon but for neck and foot massages.”

She found a location with reasonable rent and rehabbed it, got the city’s permits (“took longer than I expected”) and self-financed along with a small loan. Stewart got her business license March 12. “It’s been very difficult. I wasn’t allowed to get a PPE loan because the payroll hadn’t started. I had customers and employees waiting for me to open. I did everything I could to pay them, but I couldn’t.”

Money issues and loans

Price and Pascarella had issues with money, loans and employees. Price wasn’t eligible for payroll programs either, and her bank and the SBA asked her to redo all of her paperwork. “All I needed was my liquor license, and well, not to have a pandemic,” she says. Her landlord deferred two months’ rent on her BeltLine space.

“I have to open or the bank will take my condo. I’m at the point of no return. I have $40,000 in capital that I don’t have access to because the SBA suspended the loan and may not refund it. There are no other funding options for people like me. I’m in limbo,” she says.

Still, she found a few rainbows. “Having to redo my financials for the SBA loan has given me another chance to look at my numbers again. Had I opened just before the pandemic, I would have had staff, inventory and more bills. I just hope City Hall opens and the board deliberates on my application so I can open.”

» RELATED:  Complete coronavirus coverage on AJC.com

Pascarella estimates he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars by not opening on schedule. He opened the rooftop bar and front patio and, now with his liquor license, finally the inside restaurant. “We are nowhere near where we wanted to be. Instead of seating 300, it’s 140. We had to let go of staff and slowly started bringing them back. Some aren’t coming back because they could make more on unemployment.” Other financial burdens included his insurance for White Bull doubling. “I filed an insurance claim for business interruption and suddenly the insurance company found a pandemic clause. How is that possible? I never turned up the gas the entire time, and I literally got a bill for $380.”

Igleheart calls for a new attitude. “This is the time to bet on yourself. Use this [down] time to develop a good website, communications, learn the backside of your business. Determine if your customers are still there. Search in an honest and open way who your customers are and how to connect with them. A really good business model a few months ago may no longer be that good.”

Mitch Leff, president of Leff & Associates Public Relations, agrees the new business opening marketing plan needs to adjust. “I would encourage companies to use multiple form of marketing. Hiring someone to swirl a sign outside your store won’t work if there’s no drive-by or foot traffic.” Instead of grand opening events, he suggests scaling it down and even doing some virtually.

Community support

Once Price is able to open, she’s confident her social media community will frequent her “coffee house, except we’re selling beer. I have a good community around me, and I’ve been building relationships for a long time. I’m in a tough spot, people know it, and I’m sure they’ll come out.” She plans to have 12 taps and focus on Georgia beers.

Stewart is also counting on community support. She and her husband are active in the Grant Park Memorial Drive/Glenwood Park neighborhood, and she hired Caren West Public Relations for media support.

She posts on social media, uses paid social media and SEO searches, and gave small gift cards to local stylists hoping they would recommend them to clients. She opened May 19 and was “scared to death. We are doing OK. We have to earn the trust of everyone that we are safe. I’m doing everything to protect my customers, employees and myself.”

Pascarella’s business is growing, and he added retail for extra revenue. “Slow and steady wins the race. The first day we accepted reservations about 30 to 40 people called. We don’t take reservations for outside. We’re social distancing between tables,” he says. Adding, “We’re doing a decent business. We’re open and just now telling people. We’re ready.”

Igleheart says that in good times and bad, the “customers are at the center of it all. Locate the intersection of finding the pain point for a customer that you can solve and have it ideally be something you love. Leverage your network; reach out on social media. Pivot your business and adapt to the new norm. Match the new hygiene standards,” she says. “It isn’t inherently a loss. It’s a new world and figure out where you fit in.”

About the Author