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How Small Business Owners Are Banding Together to Adapt During the Coronavirus Pandemic

8 minute read

After two years of planning, chef Helen Nguyen was scheduled to open her first restaurant, Saigon Social, in mid-March in downtown New York City. Saigon Social, however, never got the chance for diners to enjoy its Vietnamese comfort food in-person before the coronavirus pandemic hit, bringing with it state and city mandated closures of restaurants and bars.

“As a first-time restaurant owner and being relatively new to the city, there was a lot of hard work and sacrifice that was made just to get to this point,” Nguyen tells TIME. “We had to retract all of the job offers that we had just given because we no longer had a permanent offer or opportunity to provide them. We were so close and then had to take a step back.”

While Nguyen used the initial days following the shutdown to transition her restaurant to takeout only, she soon found that there was a community of restauranteurs in her neighborhood who not only shared her concerns, but wanted to help each other — and for good reason. According to a survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “43% of businesses have temporarily closed and businesses have – on average – reduced their employee counts by 40% relative to January.”

While it’s easy to assume that competition might be the default response during what might be the first global economic depression of our lifetime, some small business owners are leaning on the old adage that they’re stronger together in an effort to keep their businesses and communities healthy and safe.

Some businesses have found they have a better chance to survive with incentives to shop local to support each other. Nguyen was contacted by Sam Yoo, the chef and owner of Golden Diner, a restaurant nearby in Chinatown, to be a part of the “Good Hood Deal,” a $35, now sold-out punch card created by him and Moonlyn Tsai, the chef-owner of Kopitiam, that would encourage their customer base to support local restaurants. Since Nguyen’s restaurant hadn’t opened yet (which also prevents her from being able to receive a PPP loan to help with rent or staffing costs) being one of the five businesses featured as part of the Good Hood Deal not only gave her restaurant visibility, but it also helped her find support among her industry peers when she needed it the most.

“I had never met Sam prior to this pandemic, I had always heard a lot of amazing things about Golden Diner and his team,” Nguyen said. “But him sharing his resources and introducing me to other like-minded people in the community has been such an amazing experience and a huge relief in terms of support. Although we’re going through really tough times right now, it’s also bringing out a lot of great people in the neighborhood that I would have never had the opportunity to meet on this intimate level.”

Nguyen and Yoo aren’t alone. While small businesses have been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic, some owners have found that strength in numbers during these uncertain times can not only aid in keeping their business afloat, but keeping up morale.

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“One of the things about a crisis is that it does bring out creativity and ingenuity and typically, collaboration and incredible generosity,” says Jennifer DaSilva, the founder and director of Start Small Think Big, a small business non-profit in New York City focused on helping entrepreneurs from disadvantaged communities. “When people work together, they’re able to accomplish more, so I think this has changed everybody and brought many of us closer together. People have to pivot, they have to think more creatively, they have to think more collaboratively, so this is forcing people into that space where things that were nice to do before are now imperative.”

For Landon Ferguson, the co-owner of Capitals Ice Cream in Oklahoma City, OK, banding together with other small business owners because of the pandemic resulted in a new business venture altogether. After Ferguson had to shut down his ice cream shops, he and his partners realized that many local retailers, including their own business, might not be as accessible to their normal customers. After some brainstorming, they came up with the City Box, which features different experiences like “Date Night Inside” or “Treat Yo’ Self,” with wares from various local vendors.

Customers nationwide can order the boxes, which feature goods that range from local coffee blends to handmade jewelry, all sourced wholesale from vendors in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, OK. Since they launched the business last month, over 1,500 City Boxes have been sold, which has made Ferguson and his peers consider continuing the venture after the pandemic.

“We wanted to get creative and think about how we could serve the community during this and teaming up with several other local businesses made it easier for the customer to be able to support more than one business at one time,” Ferguson said. “It’s absolutely helped our sales and helping us out while our doors are completely shut right now.”

For others, creating a strong community as small business owners is about providing resources to vulnerable businesses. When the pandemic guidelines hit Denver, Cultura Craft Chocolate founder and owner Damaris Ronkanen had just opened a new café and chocolate factory in the city’s Westwood neighborhood; she chose to close the cafe and her retail side in mid-March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. After speaking to other small business owners in her community, Ronkanen that while her business had a better chance at survival (she recently received a PPP loan), there weren’t adequate resources being directed to truly small, “microbusinesses” (under nine employees) that she knew or for businesses that could no longer work under the new pandemic guidelines, like a local food truck.

She wanted to create a platform that made all of her fellow businesses more accessible and visible, no matter how small, so she created the RISE Westwood Collective, with the help of Re:vision, a local non-profit. The collective gives each of the small businesses a space to sell their goods online for pick-up or delivery, making it easy for a customer to make an order for multiple businesses at once. Re:vision has also started a meal program with the collective that employs some of the small businesses to make free meals for the community, which provides financial support for the businesses and makes healthy food free and accessible during a time when the pandemic has left many people with economic hardship.

“It was really about coming together, relying on each of our own networks that we already had to create more awareness about each other’s businesses, to help drive more support to the whole collective,” Ronkanen said. “We have a really strong local community here in in Westwood and the majority of the businesses that are all part of this are all Latino businesses, so really just wanting to keep money within our community, having our community still feel supported was a top priority.”

And while working together might not solve the long-term issues that many small businesses will face due to COVID-19 (according to a survey released by Facebook last week, one-third of small businesses that are currently closed won’t re-open after the pandemic,) for now, helping one another and others is giving some the morale boost and some capital to hold on for another day.

For Yoo and Nguyen, the Good Hood Deal has also led to working closely with Tsai’s food relief effort, Heart of Dinner, which delivers meals, care packages, and comforting notes to the elderly and vulnerable in Chinatown. Yoo had initially reached out to Tsai to create the Good Hood Deal after seeing her posts about donations for the relief effort and suggested working together to unite the businesses in their neighborhood and to do something for the community. Now, although the Good Hood Deal punch cards have sold out, Yoo, Tsai, Nguyen, and others are still working together, to care for their community, by making meals for Heart of Dinner.

“If this is the silver lining in this grey cloud, I feel like I’ve gotten closer [to them] — we all constantly check in on each other, we’ll drop each other off a family meal and food to each other, making sure that everyone’s okay,” Yoo said. “Now we’re working together through different platforms.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com