The Pandemic Pivot: How Small Businesses Are Staying Afloat
As 2020 draws to a close, small businesses have persevered despite it all ... not only because of SoCal's innovative culture, but because they've figured out how to serve new markets. And, quite frankly, because they've had to.
In March, as stay-at-home orders were put in place, Heathyr Lawrence of Mantrap -- a Costa Mesa-based fashion brand that's been around since 1989 (no small feat in fashion) -- turned a spare bedroom into a studio, seeking a safer way to work from home. It's a cheery white-and-pink space filled with samples and patterns and photos of all the work she's done over the years -- ad styling, costume and shoe design, ready-to-wear lines, she's done it all in fashion. At first, Lawrence gave away elastic and supplies to friends who were making masks and went about her design business as usual. But then, she realized maybe she should jump into the mask game too. Using leftover fabric from previous collections, Lawrence began making runs of masks that quickly sold out. As October approached, she decided to try a bat mask design.
"You know, I didn't really have any expectations to be honest with you," Lawrence said. "And I did it. And it was crazy. Crazy! I couldn't make them all myself."
Until then, Mantrap's customer base had been "very pink and kitty," and -- except for mask sales -- it was looking like it was going to be a slow year. Once her bat masks hit Instagram, though, they went viral. Traffic to Mantrap's online store exploded, bringing in a more diverse clientele than she had ever seen. Now, post-Halloween, still with more orders than she can make at home, Lawrence sends out sewing work to a contractor who completes the work in a local factory. "It was a pretty good season for bats," she joked.
Lawrence has moved on to her next seasonal item: knit Christmas sweater masks and other holiday wear. That said, she's still selling plenty of bat masks: "I feel like [the coronavirus pandemic] totally brought my company back to life in a strange way."
L.A'.s restaurant industry has been hit hard. According to a National Restaurant Association survey, 1 in 6 restaurants that were open in March will be closed by the end of the year. Stay-at-home orders issued in mid-March closed Love Hour's doors to customers. The quarantine left one of the Koreatown bar and restaurant's co-owners, Jimmy Han, with no revenue stream -- for himself or his employees. With the help of federal paycheck protection loans, though, he was able to furlough his employees, then slowly reopen -- with a twist.
He turned the burger joint's unassuming parking lot into a bustling -- but socially-distanced -- outdoor dining space. Han, grateful for the parking lot which gave him the ability to still serve customers under the city's new rules, invested in tents, lights, chairs, branded crates and plants to create a welcoming (and very Instagrammable) al fresco dining "room."
"We're fortunate enough to have a parking lot and a lot of outdoor space so we can still work with what we got," Han said. "But all the other restaurants that don't have an outdoor space? Every first of the month, they're expected to pay rent, loan payments, and any other bills and expenses."
On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, patrons can order online or walk into the lot to get their hands on what TimeOut LA calls one of the "best burgers" in town. Following last week's order to close outdoor dining, however, they'll only be able to get takeout, a "gut punch" for the Love Hour team after finally reopening and gaining momentum. Han points out that without stimulus help from local and federal government, there's only so long any small restaurant can stay afloat under these restrictions.
"I think more than anything, what we need is assistance from the government, whether it's PPP loans again, or disaster loans, or some kind of stimulus. With government assistance, we can afford to be safer, and do what we can to keep the business going. And, at the same time, keep people safe."
Next up to keep the cash coming in at Love Hour? Merch. Skateboard decks, shirts, hoodies -- all branded in their signature yellow, black and red to help make up for the losses of in-person dining sales while they wait out this latest order from the city. "I mean, help us help our staff and help us stay alive. Buy some Love Hour merch for Christmas gifts," Han playfully suggests.
It might not be one of the first industries to come to mind when thinking of what the coronavirus has left reeling, but the pornography business has suffered massive financial losses. Best estimates put annual earnings from porn at around $5 billion worldwide. With shoots shut down for months earlier this year because COVID-19 test kits weren't readily available, the effects on the porn industry and local economy are still undetermined. But Aiden Starr (as she's known in the industry), a veteran performer, director and producer, says she's seen big changes to the business.
"I was directing, really an ungodly amount of pornography, and my company was executive producing pornography ... and then COVID happened, and it just ground to a crazy halt," Starr said.
Her skepticism about testing accuracy and concern about possible exposure on-set brought her back in front of the camera, where she now performs solo on OnlyFans, an online content subscription service popular with sex workers. It was a major career shift for Starr after years of directing and producing for other companies.
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Speaking about the adult industry overall, Starr said: "We test for a million things, and we just added COVID onto that. The test comes out positive, and the shoots get cancelled, and it blows all these resources and time. It's nearly impossible to shoot right now."
In terms of her own comfort levels, she said: "Some people are able to pull it off with certain performers, but it's a risk and it's dangerous. And I just feel more comfortable doing solo stuff right now until it seems like it's leveled out, or a vaccine is available."
Starr's return to on-camera work has been a time for self-reflection too. "I decided to start just doing self-shot content, which is weird, because I'm 41," she said. "And, you know, I have a 41-year-old's body. So it was like a really big adaptation for me, getting to know my body again, as opposed to when I was in my 20s, and I shot a lot of pornography. Becoming the focus of my content was probably the biggest change."
Shooting solo scenes in her brightly lit downtown L.A. studio for fans online, instead of the dozens of films or scenes she would normally produce in a year, has meant a loss of "hundreds of thousands of dollars." But she's making it work while she holds out for a vaccine and a safe return to work as usual.
What does a distiller do when most of the bars and restaurants in the country are closed? Make hand sanitizer. Beautifully-balanced and thoughtfully composed hand sanitizer -- not the simple, mass-produced unscented stuff the other guys crank out. That's what Morgan McLachlan, master distiller at L.A's Amass, did in her spare time stuck at home earlier this year, pandemic looming, and pregnant with an April due date.
"I was pregnant with Arthur, and it was like the very last couple days of February," McLachlan said. "I decided that I was just going to make some hand sanitizer for myself, because I couldn't find it anywhere. It's transformed ... into a significant business unit within our company."
A self-described "hippie princess," McLachlan previously developed a gin for Amass from botanicals native to L.A., including cardamom, reishi mushroom and marigold. She'd also dabbled in perfume for years. So she grabbed some essential oils from around the house to whip up her first batch of sanitizer called "Four Thieves," a spicy earthy scent made with aloe, cinnamon, allspice, clove and more.
"The creative process is really the same building gin and building aroma profiles for perfume," she said. "A lot of it's like flavor pairing, but also creating bass notes, middle notes, top notes -- things that you get at the beginning of the experience, things that you get at the end."
McLachlan said Amass had been talking about expanding into a botanic brand that focuses on personal care products as well as spirits, but the pandemic really pushed their hand. She has since developed two other scents and they're developing a soak to be released for the holidays called "Forest Bath," inspired by her Canadian roots.
"It really came from me wanting to go home to the Pacific Northwest," McLachlan said. "I developed a fragrance out of essential oils that smelled like where I'm from, because I can't go there right now."
Necessity and nostalgia helped Amass find a new product and way forward in the pandemic, adding 15 new full-time jobs to keep up. The company has also donated sanitizer to frontline workers and Dig Deep, an organization that delivers clean water to Navajo reservations. As for the future, McLachlan hopes people recognize the importance of hospitality. "All of those little things that we just sort of took for granted," she noted, "I think we're gonna really savor more on the other end of this."