This month, the CUTLINE series on Connecticut Public Television looks at the many ways small, independently owned retail businesses in Connecticut survived the downturn caused by COVID-19.
There is no doubt that small businesses were hit hard by the pandemic. According to the U.S Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey, 34% of small business owners in Connecticut say the pandemic has had a “large negative effect” on their business -- that’s about 4% higher than the national average.
CUTLINE profiles four businesses, each of which was forced to close its doors on March 23, 2020, by executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont. Rod Cornish, owner of Hot Rod Cafe in New London, said for restaurants like his, the writing was on the wall way before March 23.
He said his first concern was for his employees.
“I tried to be that stabilizing factor for my employees and let them know that it’s gonna be all right,” said Cornish. “So helping figure out what’s the best way to get unemployment, because at first my employees couldn’t get through. So the team, the family really, really came together, and it made me proud.”
“Stay at home” orders forced many businesses to close their doors for good. Felix Reyes, New London’s director of economic development and planning, said new businesses were particularly vulnerable.
“It takes a while for businesses to generate enough revenue where there’s even a profit. It could take years,” said Reyes. “So some of the small businesses that were affected were probably kind of in their first six months to a year just operating, and they just couldn’t sustain all the expenses it takes to start a business. You put your life savings in, and all of a sudden, there’s no revenue coming in. That was very difficult.”
Still, many businesses hung on and are trying to make it work. An important factor was loan programs and grants distributed by the state and local municipalities, as well as the federal government.
Rich Martin, who owns The Telegraph vinyl record store in New London, says he applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan. He said applying for that loan inspired him to apply for more loan and grant programs.
“The city of New London set up a program called Surge that provided small grants to businesses here in New London,” Martin said. “I immediately applied for that and they were very generous with me. It really helped me through the darker days of this. I also was very fortunate. I sort of applied for everything that I could find, any of the grants that were out there. I did receive one rather significant grant from Adobe, the software company. So you just never knew where funds might come from.”
Grants and loans were an important lifeline, but the businesses profiled in the new CUTLINE episode had to get creative and change how they operated pre-pandemic to keep their businesses afloat.
Rachel DeCavage owns Cinder + Salt, a retail specialty clothing store and silk-screen printing operation. She said she moved her retail space to a smaller, more affordable storefront and moved her silk-screen operation to a factory space in Southington.
DeCavage said the moves paid off.
“So while our retail store was taking a hit, our custom revenue stream was really helpful,” DeCavage said. “We found that a lot of the yoga studios and restaurants that we make custom apparel for had customers that wanted to support them too. Since those customers couldn't go in and practice yoga or eat food ... they could buy a T-shirt to support those companies. So we ended up making a lot of merchandise for other small businesses that they could sell. That really helped us out when things were looking pretty dark.”
Cornish switched to a new point-of-sale takeout system for his restaurant, which kept a steady stream of customers stopping by. With all of the down time, Cornish planted a vegetable and herb garden for use in the restaurant, and he produced and hosted a series of cooking shows on YouTube called “Wingin It!”
CUTLINE: Reimagining Main Street – Preserving Small Business in a Pandemic airs tonight at 8 o’clock on Connecticut Public Television.