Facing Toughest Challenge, Small Business Goes on the Offense
When Shantay DeMar founded @VR Virtual Reality last year, he invested in top-notch technology with high-quality graphics with no lag time for a full emersion experience with no motion sickness. “You are literally in the game,” he says. “You are literally in the experience. That is what people really fully appreciate.”
But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic resulting in strict six feet social distancing measures, DeMar had to get creative with how he and his staff were going to help navigate players in one of nine stations along with three PC gaming areas. He went with a decidedly low-cost option—pool noodles.
“I call them ‘social distancing noodles,’” he jokes. “We were so hands-on [before the pandemic], helping folks navigate because we obviously didn’t want folks to run into the wall. … We got noodles so that we can tap folks if they get close to the wall or close to the curtain. We can keep them in the middle of their station.”
DeMar’s company is just one of many area small businesses that have had to get innovative these past several months as they seek to supply goods and services to customers while adhering to strict county, state and federal guidelines to combat the pandemic.
The Frederick company also added a number of safety measures in light of the pandemic, including taking guests by appointment only and adding disposable headset liners to equipment that was already being sanitized after each use.
DeMar, who DJs as a side gig, also frequently hosted Facebook Live online dance parties on the company’s social media page. “I wanted to do that to stay on people’s minds because we were so new,” he says. “Still let folks know about what we have to offer and obviously to entertain and build my social media platform, so when I did open I would have a larger market to be able to present offers. … It was huge for me to stay relevant, stay on people’s minds and also to get other people to support me during that time.”
His company also partnered with Tour de Frederick to offer distance riders a virtual experience of a race through the county that they could complete at home on a stationary bike. “As a small business, obviously you have got to be able to be flexible and adjust with whatever is coming and just find creative ways to stay relevant during a crisis and make people feel comfortable,” DeMar says.
The Kitchen Studio Cooking School was coming off its best year ever in 2019, and 2020 was starting off more than promising with every class selling out in the winter. Its website actually crashed when the spring schedule was released. “We were so thrilled,” says Christine Van Bloem, owner. “We were busy. Our feet hurt but we were working all the time. It was absolutely wonderful.”
The business was forced to shut down due to the pandemic in mid-March. As cases continued to rise across the country, Van Bloem knew reopening for in-person lessons would be impossible. “I had to figure something out to keep us in business or else I would have to shut the doors and walk away,” she says. “I love what I do and I absolutely adore and respect the people that I work with. I love our students so much. I’ve worked so hard. So many people at The Kitchen Studio have worked so hard to make it a success. It was figure something out or just give up.”
After testing online Mother’s Day classes, The Kitchen Studio moved fully to a virtual model in June. Participants purchase items from ingredient lists and log on to their class on a specific date. Usually classes feature an instructor, an assistant and a moderator to type into a virtual chat. Classes are charged by screen, not by participants, so an entire household may participate for one price. “There is that whole ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’” she says. “Right now, we are in adapt or die. Those are the choices. My business doesn’t exist the way it existed six months ago, and I don’t think it will for a year.”
Private classes have become quite popular with families looking to do an activity while talking weekly over Zoom. The online option also allows people from all over the world to partake in the Frederick-based business. Van Bloem has had participants from Idaho and Zambia in some classes. The fall schedule includes classes like hand-shaped fresh pasta, Maryland surf and turf, and ramen. “We are going all-in for the fall,” Van Bloem says. “We are going to have a full schedule. I am excited. I am excited to try it. I am excited to see how it works and I am excited to still have a purpose.”
LifeCYCLE Studio, an indoor cycling business, opened its doors to the public on Jan. 10. Membership was increasing as more people discovered the Frederick facility through outreach and marketing. “Everything was going really well and then the pandemic hit,” says co-owner Emily Harlow. “… One of the things that we knew we had to do is stay connected to [members] for mental support, quite honestly, but also we knew this would be over eventually and we didn’t want to lose anybody that we had worked so hard to get over those first 50-some days. We wanted to stay connected.”
The business focused on being highly visual on its social media platforms as well as reaching out to customers via email and text. It also offered some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes in the early days of lockdown. But, LifeCYCLE, at its core is a cycling studio, Harlow notes, not a HIIT one. Once it was evident the quarantine orders would last for an extended period of time, she decided to rent bikes out to members.
“[This] wasn’t the easiest decision, to be quite honest,” Harlow says. “We went back and forth on it a thousand times just because our bikes are top-of-the-line bikes. They are brand-new bikes. They had only been used for a few months. Putting that huge expense out there was a big liability to us but we felt like the alternative was probably worse and we knew that our riders needed us.”
Harlow and co-owner Alyssa MacFawn drove around in MacFawn’s husband’s pickup truck and a U-Haul and delivered 25 bikes to members who rented them. Then they started streaming all of their classes over Zoom and members showed up hungry for the workouts. “Exercise is a great way to get that frustration out,” she says. “It boosts those endorphins. It really can get you out of a slump sometimes. A lot of times people don’t like doing it. They can’t get into it but I always tell people once you get past those first three songs or those first 10 minutes of working out, you hit a groove and you are like, ‘I am here. I am in and this is feeling really, really great.’”
Reopening the studio in mid-June at half capacity, Harlow and MacFawn decided to keep the virtual option for riders who wanted to participate at home. “We were able to leave some of our bikes out and people are still continuing to rent them,” Harlow says. “… We felt it was a huge advantage for us to keep doing virtual so these people had something to use for their workouts. It is proving to be really successful. We have tons of people on every single class virtually.” In-person classes are also quite popular with a wait listing days in advance.
CLEANING AND EDUCATING
As an essential service, Lee Building Maintenance was able to stay open during the pandemic closures. Because cleaning is a large portion of the busines, owner Jason Lee has aimed to make sure his clients are well educated on practices to combat the spread of the virus.
Remember going to a restaurant and seeing tables cleared and reset as fast as possible before the virus? “We were always used to a world of spray, spray and wipe,” Lee says. “All we were doing was wiping something. We weren’t killing anything, per se. Now the education is whatever you are spraying down, know what [type of disinfectant] you are spraying. Follow the disinfectant time whether that is five or 10 minutes of wet time. … Things may take a little bit more time because you have to allow a kill time to happen.”
The Frederick business has seen an uptick in disinfectant services and also implemented a “trace cleaning” if a client reports a positive case. Lee’s business will target where the infected individual would go in the building, clean those areas and trace for 15 days to make sure no one else got sick. So instead of cleaning an entire 200,000-square-foot warehouse or office space, his business maybe only has to clean 12,000 square feet. “I know we saved our customers money and we gave them an education, and those customers didn’t have any more outbreaks,” he says. “No one else got sick. It is educating everybody about what is happening with the virus.”
CHANGE IS BREWING
More than just a place to get a cuppa joe, Dublin Roasters Coffee has served as a community gathering spot just outside of Downtown Frederick. So, when customers were unable to procure their favorite brew onsite, owner Serina Roy delivered—literally.
In March, she started a Coffee Club as a way for patrons to enjoy coffee and coffee culture from around the world in the comfort of their own home. Each month, a new country and coffee is chosen with patrons picking the grind, roast preference, amount and frequency. Each bag gives some information about the country and coffee as Roy travels to many of the locations to personally meet with the farmers.
“I was just terrified to push the on button for [the Coffee Club] because new stuff, I like to go slow and test it out and troubleshoot the problems ahead of time before I throw it out to the public,” Roy says. “We weren’t able to do that, so we just went live with it and asked for people’s patience. … This is a new time where you don’t necessarily have time to second-guess [an idea] a hundred times. You just go with it. See if it works and if it doesn’t, switch gears or modify. This is definitely a time to be creative and try something new.”
Folks can also pick their favorite coffee and have it either delivered to their door, shipped through the mail or picked up at the store. The 4,000-square-foot business is now divided into three sections for the takeout window, bean processing and coffee roasting. “Now we can safely have three people working in there and not mixing, which is great,” Roy says. “They wear masks and still do all the sanitizing, but it helps me to sleep at night knowing that they devised this plan.”
Roy notes the business has evolved into two different functions—the online sales and the in-person experience. She wants to continue to work on the online platform because “it saved us during this pandemic. It caused us to have an income so that we didn’t have to close our doors.”