How These LA Small Businesses Pivoted To Survive Coronavirus
Back in March, Frame 2000 owner Sam Moaven was in an unenviable position. Sales were falling off a cliff and, as a non-essential business, his picture-framing store had to close.
"Framing is a luxury item," Moaven said. "So people have to have extra money to spend. It's not a necessity."
He kept the storefront open so customers could pick up previous orders. But then in late April, the police showed up and told them to stop everything.
Moaven began waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning, wondering how his business would survive, and how he could continue to pay his employees.
And then he had an idea: He had been noticing that grocery stores were putting up sneeze guards -- sheets of plexiglass that keep customers from breathing on cashiers and vice versa. He thought, I have plexiglass. I can make those.
Moaven tinkered with the design before finding something that worked, and then he began telling former customers he could make sneeze guards. It made him an essential business and revived his sales.
Now, sneeze guards are pretty much all he sells.
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Moaven, who immigrated from Iran as a teenager, said this entrepreneurial mindset is in his blood.
"It's just the way that my brain is wired," he said. "Find out some way, somehow, a solution to the problem."
It seems to be in the blood of many business owners I've been following since the start of the pandemic.
GOING TOWARDS 100% ONLINE
The last time I spoke with the owner of Fabric Planet, Jack Jacob Sapar, it was late April, and his store was crowded with people buying cotton, elastic and scissors to make masks at home. He was also doing a brisk business selling masks he made in-store.
Since then, in-store sales have leveled off. But online orders of mask-making materials are booming.
"This really showed us that the retail economy is going towards 100% online," Sapar said. "So we're really putting our focus in that direction."
As we talked, two employees cut yards of cotton cloth and stuffed packages with quarter-inch elastic to mail to customers around the country.
It's always been a struggle for Sapar to make rent in pricey Venice, even before the pandemic.
Now, he hopes online sales will help keep his brick-and-mortar store open.
WE DON'T FEEL SAFE OFFERING SAMPLES YET
Down the street, Wanderlust Creamery owner JP Lopez has also made the shift to online sales.
He's been shocked by how many people want to pay $12 plus shipping for hand-packed pints of artisanal ice cream kept cold by dry ice and styrofoam.
"We would create a couple thousand pints in inventory, and we would open up our website and it would sell out in an hour," he said, "which is really cool."
On May 29, Wanderlust began selling ice cream by the scoop again, but he's still not letting customers eat inside, or sample different flavors -- even though those both are now allowed under L.A. County's latest health order.
The idea is to limit the amount of time customers spend inside, and to reduce physical contact with employees. While some people are speedy samplers, Lopez said others will spend upwards of five minutes trying 10 or more flavors.
Occasionally, he told me, customers refuse to wear masks, even though it's a county requirement.
"They'll argue with our employees with regards to whether a mask is an effective means of stopping the virus," he said. "And it's like just not a conversation an employee should be having with a customer."
A NO-WIN SITUATION
Some businesses along Lincoln Blvd. have been less able to pivot or sell their goods online -- such as barbershops, which weren't allowed to reopen until May 29.
But now that they can reopen, business seems to be trickling back.
When I visited the Lincoln Blvd. branch of Manly & Sons earlier this week, there were two men getting haircuts, and the store was loud with buzzing and blow drying.
Trevor Plough rents a barber chair there. We sat six feet apart on empty leather couches where, previously, guys would drink beer and hang out before their appointments.
There are a lot of social distancing rules that barbers are supposed to enforce:
- keep people outside before their appointment;
- ensure they are wearing masks;
- conduct temperature checks;
- no shaves or beard trims.
Sometimes, it can get awkward, Plough said. Customers try to enter the barbershop before their appointment. Or, they really want their beard trimmed. In fact, as we spoke, a maskless man was getting his beard trimmed.
It seemed like a no-win situation: If you're too strict, some customers get mad. If you're too lax, other customers get mad.
"It's just hard to stay on top of everything, because it's only our first week," Plough said. He hoped customers would learn the rules so the responsibility of enforcing them wouldn't fall exclusively to the barbers.
A SLOW REBOUND
When Enrique Catalán bought Globe Cleaners, he thought dry cleaning would be recession-proof. But it turned out to not be coronavirus-induced recession-proof.
In late April, after six weeks of stay-at-home orders, business had fallen more than 70%. Large corporate clients had disappeared. And with most people at home in yoga pants and sweats, no one needed suits or dress clothes cleaned.
Things started to turn around in May, however. Catalán recently got a wave of people bringing in comforters and bed linens to be dry cleaned.
He said business is now down by only half, compared to the pre-coronavirus levels.
The slow rebound is sustainable, for now, Catalán said, because his landlord allowed him to defer paying rent. But he knows he has to pay it all back eventually.