At suburban strip mall, business is bad and good as pandemic grinds on

Businesses in this Hampton, GA strip mall are experiencing the effects of the pandemic differently. Floyd Johnson, left, works in the kitchen making soup and Chandra Johnson, right, fills a to-go order at Reggae Vybz on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. The family-owned Caribbean restaurant is struggling to keep going without sit-in dining and delivery orders still lagging. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

In portrait of economy, some Hampton stores struggle, others thrive

Sales have soared tenfold at Twisted Vapes, a smoke shop. But at Exquisite Hair Salon next door, business is so slow that the owner worries how much longer she can hang on.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given Twisted Vapes' clientele plenty of free time and federal stimulus checks have put cash in their pockets, said Nancy Bradberry, the store’s manager.

“People are literally trapped at home with nothing to do,” she said as she replenished the shelves with novelty lighters. “Everything has been selling, but mainly hookahs, bongs and rolling trays.”

Twisted Vapes in the Boothe's Crossing strip mall is doing relatively well selling vape juice, CBD flowers, infused lollipops and tobacco products. Nancy Bradberry, the store’s manager, said, “People are literally trapped at home with nothing to do.” (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

At Exquisite Hair Salon, owner Tishonnia Gross has lost stylists who fear catching the virus while cutting or coloring hair. She eliminated walk-in appointments, which reduced bookings. And an unannounced visit by an examiner from the state Board of Cosmetology and Barbers could spell the end.

“They were in here two weeks ago and he said, ‘It’s a good thing you’re wearing a mask,’ because that would have been a fine,” said Gross, wearing a mask and cracking the front door barely open. “If we get a $1,000 fine, that could put us out of business."

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Twisted Vapes and Exquisite Hair Salon are two of the 11 small businesses open in Boothe’s Crossing, a strip mall in Hampton. The shopping center, located halfway between Jonesboro and Griffin, has served the small Henry County community since 1986.

It’s a snapshot of Georgia’s economy half a year into the coronavirus. Two businesses, Excel Cleaners and Classic Cakes Bakery, have closed since the pandemic arrived. Two other storefronts are empty. Some, including a recently opened Jamaican restaurant, aren’t sure they’ll survive. And some, like a pool-supply shop, say business is booming.

In other words, to use a shopping term, business is a mixed bag.

Hampton is not too rich or too poor, with a median household income of about $55,000, in line with Georgia overall. About 20 miles south of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the suburban city is home to the Atlanta Motor Speedway, whose bleachers can be seen from the strip mall’s parking lot.

The family-owned businesses in Boothe’s Crossing run the gamut from a liquor store to a consignment clothing shop to a billiard hall. The shops aren’t fancy, with lower rents than newer strip malls, and there are no national chains. Whether the owners sink or swim is up to them, their customers, and their landlord.

The family-owned businesses in Boothe’s Crossing run the gamut from a liquor store to a consignment clothing shop to a billiard hall. There are no national chains among the stores, leaving each business on its own during the pandemic. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Most tenants employ no more than two or three workers, so owners haven’t faced tough decisions about whether to lay off workers. They have, however, found it necessary to adjust operating hours, restrict the number of in-person customers, and improvise.

For some shop owners, the pandemic impacted their businesses in ways they never would have expected.

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Tammy Tallman planned to open ABP Pool Supply in March, selling vacuums, fountains and water-testing supplies for swimming pools. But the economy’s shutdown forced her to postpone the grand opening until May.

The first thing Tallman thought, she said, was that she’d just spent $8,000 on several dozen buckets of GLB-brand chlorine. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to sell it.”

ABP Pool Supply is doing better than expected building new swimming pools and providing supplies for pool owner. DeeAnne Tallman, left, and Tammy Tallman, right, look over recent projects in the sales office where they have five contracts for new swimming pools signed in the past 10 days. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

She launched an online marketing blitz to tell the Hampton community they didn’t need to drive half an hour to buy swimming pool supplies. She directed cash flow from her existing pool-installation business to cover some of the monthly rent for the new retail shop. And she negotiated a rent concession in exchange for construction upgrades after water leaks caused mold.

Tallman also enjoyed some good luck. With many metro Atlantans focusing on the home and those newly without jobs buoyed by unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, it’s been a “record-breaking” year for the pool industry, she said.

Several doors down, Chandra and Floyd Johnson opened Reggae Vybz around the same time. The Johnsons make hot dishes like curry goat, cow feet with beans, and oxtails and rice, while Chandra’s sister, Rhonda King, takes care of the bakery counter, where she makes key lime cupcakes and peach cobbler.

Floyd and Chandra Johnson opened their Caribbean restaurant Reggae Vybz in February and work to keep going without sit-in dining and delivery orders still lagging behind expectations. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Johnsons closed the restaurant for about a week in March, then shifted to takeout. The spacious dining room remains mostly empty, though they’ve rented out the space for gatherings.

Chandra converted the back of the dining room to a play area for young children. While the Johnsons took takeout orders on a recent day, their infant son slept in a bouncy seat and their two older sons and King’s daughter took a break from virtual learning to make lunch in the restaurant’s kitchen and eat among the empty tables.

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“April was really slow and we started seeing a little more traffic in June,” she said. “But it’s still slow. You might have some days when you don’t get hardly any traffic.”

The restaurant didn’t qualify for a federal relief loan through the Paycheck Protection Program because it opened after the Feb. 15 cutoff date. The Johnsons say the landlord, Mickey Boothe, has been “awesome” and gave them a discount on rent for two months, but since has asked for full payment.

To pay their full rent, the Johnsons have dipped into their personal savings, but aren’t sure they can keep up if business doesn’t pick up. “I’m going to keep fighting for as long as I can,” said Chandra.

Boothe declined to comment for this article.

Exquisite Hair Salon, at left, is open for business but the neighboring suite, once home to Hampton Family Practice, is now vacant. Exquisite owner Tishonnia Gross says that she has lost stylists who fear catching the virus while cutting or coloring hair. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Some of the strip mall’s stores had been open long enough to establish community name recognition and a solid customer base.

Cheers Liquor, the largest shop in Boothe’s Crossing, has been open since 2017. Other than reducing operating hours for a couple of weeks, Cheers has made few changes, said co-owner Mohindar Yadav. It’s helped that liquor stores were deemed essential businesses, he said.

Next door, at the pool hall Sticks, business was way off for weeks, said manager Chris Bowman. Regulars were worried about contracting COVID-19 and state regulators made Sticks limit to 35 the number of people allowed inside, a rule it still follows.

“That’s been a pain in the butt,” Bowman said.

The landlord cut Sticks’ rent in half for a month, when “we were pretty much just surviving,” he said, adding business has picked up since it restarted its leagues last month.

Amanda Saxton recently decided to forgo a long commute to her accounting job to open a consignment clothing store. Less time on the road would give her more time with her two-year-old daughter, Amelia.

The timing wasn’t great. Amelia’s Boutique Bargains opened on Feb. 1, but was closed for half of March and all of April, she said.

Affirmations and encouragement decorate the Reggae Vybz restaurant. Co-owner Chandra Johnson says, “April was really slow and we started seeing a little more traffic in June. But it’s still slow. You might have some days when you don’t get hardly any traffic.” (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Wearing a T-shirt that says “Messy Hair Don’t Care #momlife,” Saxton entered details on a laptop about a stack of baby clothes, adding items to her online shop. Stimulus checks sustained her through May and June, as people had extra money to spend. Lately, moms have been buying more infant clothes.

She doesn’t pay for day care, since Amelia stays in a small side room watching TV and playing with toys while Saxton works. “Ready to watch ‘Frozen’?” Saxton asked as her daughter clung to her ankles.

Saxton said she cashed out half her retirement savings and has relied on her husband’s salary to stay afloat until business reaches a sustainable level.

“I’m going to keep fighting for as long as I can.”

- Candra Johnson, co-owner of Reggae Vybz Caribbean restaurant

Like Reggae Vybz, the two other restaurants at Boothe’s Crossing have also limited business to takeout. But both had the benefit of being at the location for years.

Finish Line Café has been open about 10 years. Owner Insook Anderson said she obtained a federal relief loan to pay rent and taped off access to tables to prevent people from sitting down.

“I’m doing OK. People have got to eat,” Anderson said as a steady stream of customers entered to order hot wings, fried rice and burgers on a recent Friday.

She considered proposals from DoorDash to provide delivery service, but decided their fee was too expensive.

Twisted Vapes is doing relatively well selling vape juice, CBD flowers, infused lollipops and tobacco products. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Wing Ranch has also had years to establish a reputation. It’s been located in Boothe’s Crossing since 2015, after several years in the historic downtown section of Hampton, said co-owner Barry Barfield.

Business hasn’t changed much at Wing Ranch, which was mostly takeout before the pandemic. Barfield never applied for a federal relief loan because he didn’t need the money, and he hasn’t asked for a rent deferral or discount.

“The restaurants where people eat in, like your Hooters, your Longhorns and your Olive Gardens, they’re the ones that’s hurting,” he said. “We’ve been pretty steady.”

Twisted Vapes has had some of the strongest months in its history, Bradberry said. Last fall, the store averaged about $5,000 in monthly sales. Now it’s doing $50,000 per month.

If anything, the store’s owner, Marvin “Dino” Brown, isn’t keeping enough merchandise on hand, Bradberry said. “He needs to be doing three to four trips to Atlanta a week to get stock instead of just once a week.”

Gross, the owner of Exquisite Hair Salon, said things have been anything but steady. Boothe reduced her rent by $250 one month, but has since asked for full payment, she said.

“He said he’s got bills to pay too,” she said.

Her monthly sales have dropped from $5,000 to about $3,500. Something will need to change soon, she said.

“If I can get a few more stylists in here, maybe I can keep it going,” she said. “But it’s a little precarious right now.”

The owner of Exquisite Hair Salon says that landlord Mickey Boothe reduced her rent by $250 one month, but has since asked for full payment. “He said he’s got bills to pay too,” she said. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Businesses at the Boothe’s Crossing strip mall in Hampton:

Reggae Vybz: Owners Chandra and Floyd Johnson opened this Jamaican restaurant in February. They closed for a week in March and have been take-out only since then.

MetroSouth Tax Service: This office, which also includes a residential real estate agency, is open by appointment only.

Wing Ranch: Owner Barry Barfield has run Wing Ranch for about 12 years, first at a space in downtown Hampton and now in Boothe’s Crossing. It’s been take-out only since COVID-19 hit.

Cheers Liquor: Mohindar Yadav opened the Cheers Liquor store in 2017, occupying the largest space in Boothe’s Crossing. The space was previously occupied by a health club.

Sticks pool hall: Sticks restricts customers to no more than 35 at a time, based on CDC guidance. Owner Michael Landrum recently restarted Sticks' popular billiards leagues, hoping to boost business.

Vacant (former location of Last Chance Liquidators): Last Chance Liquidators, which sold discontinued and overstock merchandise, closed in 2018.

D&G Exterminating: This is the main office of D&G Exterminating, a pest control service that also has offices in Forsyth, Monticello and Zebulon.

Twisted Vapes: Twisted Vapes has seen sales skyrocket as customers have had extra cash on hand from stimulus checks, and plenty of time on their hands while stuck at home.

Exquisite Hair Salon: Owner Tishonnia Gross has struggled to stay open as stylists have left, fearful of catching COVID-19 from customers. State restrictions on hairdressers has also concerned Gross about her ability to continue.

Vacant (former location of Hampton Family Practice): Physician Shirin Valiani vacated both this office and a nearby office building about a mile north on U.S. Highway 41.

ABP Pool Supply: Tammy Tallman opened this retail store for pool vacuums and chemicals just before COVID hit. She made significant upgrades to the office space in exchange for a break on rent from the landlord.

Amelia’s Boutique Bargains: Amanda Saxton left a job in accounting to open this consignment store so she could spend more time with her daughter, who stays in the shop while Amanda works.

Finish Line Café: Insook Anderson has run her restaurant for more than a year, building up a regular customer base. They’ve continued to get wings, burgers and fried rice at her shop, even though it’s only take-out now.

Vacant (former location of Classic Cakes Bakery): Owner Chung Nam Cho closed Classic Cakes Bakery and the attached dry cleaner during the pandemic after business declined.

Vacant (former location of Excel Cleaners): Owner Chung Nam Cho closed Excel Cleaners and the attached bakery during the pandemic after business declined.

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