On the Rebound: Small Businesses Creatively Pivot in Wake of Pandemic Shutdown

Three businesses with absolutely nothing in common... until they had the very worst thing in common imaginable - a pandemic-induced shutdown

A Chicago southern style restaurant. A Los Angeles based doggy day care. A New Hampshire repertory theater. Three businesses with absolutely nothing in common... until they had the very worst thing in common imaginable - a pandemic-induced shutdown. In part two of our series "Rebound," we hear their struggles of digging in deep and fighting back from the brink. These are their stories of survival.

Every Day It's a Day-to-Day Fight to Survive

Many restaurants will boast that their meals are made with love. In the case of Luella's Southern Kitchen, based in the heart of Chicago, it may very well be true. Darnell Reed, chef and owner of Luella's, opened the restaurant five years ago and named it after his great-grandmother who hailed from Mississippi. Inspired by her joy of southern cooking Reed wanted to bring a taste of that home-style flavor to Chicago. On the menu you can find staples of southern cooking running the gamut from shrimp and grits and salmon croquettes to fried chicken and braised oxtails. The works of Black artists adorned the the walls of the restaurant.

"We just want people to feel at home and we want to bring the taste of the south to Chicago," says Reed, who worked as a hotel chef for 18 years before finally giving in to his entrepreneurial spirit.

Everything was going well. Then COVID-19 hit.

"We were pretty much devastated because it was new to all of us," says Reed. "I don't think any of us living in this lifetime have experienced anything of his sort. You go from full house and you lose all of that." Reed had two restaurants before the pandemic hit and was forced to close one of the eateries to close permanently. "It's a hustle. It's a struggle. Everyday it's a day to day fight to survive."

It Was a Bad Day and It's Been 150 Bad Days In a Row

Ask Brian Kelly, the marketing director of the Seacoast Repertory Theater in Portsmouth, N.H., how COVID-19 has impacted his business and he sums it up in a word, "Brutally." Before the pandemic the non profit regional theater did about 330 performances a year and employed a small legion of artists, technicians, directors, designers, craftspeople and builders. They took up residence in an old brewery that Kelly describes as intimate, where the audiences nuzzled right up next to the actors and vice versa. They performed everything from Broadway classics to original pieces of work. Art Kelly says, "is built into the bones of this place."

"We were a thriving theater with a good clientele. We were on the cusp of our most ambitious season to date," he says. Then, New Hampshire's stay at home order went into effect on March 27 and the lights went out.

"It was a real decimation and it happened almost instantly," says Kelly. "And there's no telling when its going to end." The shutdown forced the actors at the repertory to pivot to online performances. It's not ideal. But Kelly remains optimistic.

"There's a way through the woods and we're finding it," he says. "It's going to hurt. It's going to be smaller. And it's going to take a while to get back to what it was. But it's survivable."

What Are We Going to Do?

When Andrew Rosenthal created LA Dogworks in 2004, he built it specifically with the dogs in mind. He wasn't concerned about the "cutesy" elements that might appeal to the dog owners, but rather the needs of his four-legged guests.

As the first 24-hour full service dog center built in Los Angeles from a health and safety standpoint Rosenthal housed a 2,500 square foot indoor dog park that took pride in cleanliness and safety. "It's like a hospital. We keep it 70 degrees or less to help keep bacteria down and we take pride in our cleaning, " he said.

Since opening his doors the business has weathered a great deal, including a fire that took a year to rebuild from. "We've been through a lot of crazy stuff and always come out OK. But now that the pandemic has hit and most people are keeping their dogs at home. So we're not getting the same attendance that we use to."

Indeed, prior to pandemic they had 40 to 70 dogs a day in daycare and their kennels were close to full all the time. After the pandemic they had a mere fraction of that business. "The initial response," says Rosenthal, was 'What are we going to do?'"

That central question is one Rosenthal, Reed and Kelly and other small business owners across the country are still seeking an answer to. It's their present steps that will decide if any of them has a future.

ABOUT REBOUND: COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives. For small business owners, those impacts are even greater. To better tell those stories, we decided to launch a series about how small businesses are faring throughout the coronavirus. But a raging pandemic presents some obstacles for traditional journalism. Business restrictions, reduced hours of operation, and social distancing guidelines have changed how journalists tell their stories.
So we flipped the script.
We identified six small businesses across America and supplied them with a camera. In REBOUND, these businesses take you behind the scenes during COVID-19, to show you just how much things have changed throughout the pandemic. REBOUND tells the stories of these small businesses and how they are bouncing back from an unforeseen pandemic.