Many small businesses in Walker County recently re-opened their doors to customers as some of the restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 virus were lifted by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

And while it’s still not completely “business as usual,” some of those owners who chose to re-open said they were happy to be back in some capacity, even in the face of having to rethink their own business models and strategies.

“What we’ve seen is that business owners have had to pivot,” said Lacey Wilson, president of the Walker County Chamber of Commerce. “They’ve had to figure out what works better for them, especially when they didn’t have people coming into the stores.”

Retail and service businesses

That’s So Mimi Boutique owner Kim Carlock began her business out of her home in April 2018 with online sales before opening up her LaFayette storefront in March 2019, so she said adjusting to the shutdown was simply a matter of returning to her roots.

“We have a website, an app and a Facebook system where you can buy there as well,” she explained. “We just pivoted and went back to our old way of knowing how to do things.”

She said they happily implemented curbside pickup for online orders and, like some other business in the area, plan to keep the practice in place going forward.

Carlock said as far as added safety precautions go, they are providing hand sanitizer and tissues at their front door and encouraging customers to use the provided products as they come into and as they leave the store and that her staff is doing extra cleaning inside the building all day long.

She added that as a small business owner, the shutdown worried her at first.

“Honestly, the first week, (sales) really declined,” she recalled. “I slightly panicked, but you can’t live like that, (so) how do I feed my family and keep my staff here? I figured out that I could be sad for about a week or so, but this is how it was going to be and so we had to figure out new ways.”

For Carlock, that way included having some fun with home deliveries. She said she and a friend, who had a good knowledge of the layout of roads in the area, would take all the addresses from the online orders and map out an efficient route to put packages in customers’ mailboxes during the evenings. She also scored major customer service points by adding a few personalized items along with the deliveries.

“If I knew that (the customer) had kids, we would take sidewalk chalk,” she said. “If I knew that they had dogs, we’d deliver dog bones with their packages as well.”

They also left thank you notes to show appreciation for the support from customers.

Carlock said the deliveries were enjoyable because it gave them a chance to see customers face-to-face at times, at least at a distance, and she added that they received some nice messages of thanks and appreciation in return.

Home delivery wasn’t an option for Carrie Powell who, along with Holly Elliott, co-owns Elixir Hair Salon in Chickamauga, which opened its doors in 2015. Powell said some of her employees sold a few gift cards for future visits and a few retail sales of products to clients during the mandated shutdown, but the vast majority of their sales comes from personal hair and nail services, which were halted for over a month.

Powell said that the staff was happy to be back operating as normally as possible, though still with some guidelines and restrictions in place. Only half of the salon’s staff are allowed to work on any single day to help provide extra distancing between work stations, but, in response, the salon is now open Monday through Friday to help catch up on appointments.

Powell, who reopened her doors on April 24 after being forced to close them on March 26, said everyone who has come in has been super excited to be there.

“It’s definitely been different though with all the regulations and (with) our whole workforce not able to be there and other things,” she said.

Powell said the salon is taking the required steps to keep her clients and the salon’s employees as safe as possible. Those steps aren’t limited to just the governor’s list of regulations for re-opening, but also many of the “several pages” of requirements and recommendations Powell said was provided by the Georgia State Board of Cosmetology.

She said clients are required to remain in their vehicles until they are contacted by their stylist and that clients are asked to wash their hands or sanitize them upon entering the building with sanitizer provided by the salon. The State Board currently requires employees to wear masks, and all work stations and salon instruments are constantly sanitized with a hospital-grade disinfectant called Barbacide between uses.

“We don’t mandate that our clients wear masks,” she said. “We tell them that they are absolutely more than welcome to wear them, whatever makes them feel comfortable. If my client (still) wants to wear a mask two months from now, that’s absolutely fine with me.”

She said the vast majority of the measures in place are things that they were already doing as required by the State Board, whom Powell said stresses sanitation above anything else.

“I think a lot of this is just common sense stuff, but there are some extra steps that we are doing and should be doing because I don’t want to get (the virus) either,” she added.

Wilson said personal service business, such as hair salons, were some of the hardest hit by the mandated shutdown because of the way that they are set up.

“Most of those are 1099 contract employees,” she said. “So when there wasn’t any changes with (unemployment) until recently that even allowed them to be able to file for unemployment. All the paycheck protection programs (and) some of the federal funding programs out there meant for small businesses didn’t necessarily apply to their business structure, so we’re obviously happy to see them be able to get up and running again.”

Restaurants

Greg Cornelison opened his eatery, Greg’s Restaurant, in Chickamauga in 2001, and it didn’t take long for his home-cooked breakfasts and meat-and-threes to become popular with locals and others from outside the city.

But while he and his staff continued to offer to-go orders and curbside pick-up during the county-mandated shutdown of indoor dining, he said his sales still took a major hit without customers being allowed to sit and eat inside.

“It was slow at first, real slow,” he said, adding that he had to shut his doors around March 23 before finally being able to reopen the dining room on April 27. “It picked up a little bit, but nothing like (it was). We were off probably 85%.”

Since the re-opening, the restaurant has been subject to restrictions and regulations handed down from the state, and Cornelison said they are following the “new” normal practices: extra sanitation, masks for all employees, no more than six to a table and temporary limits on how many customers can be in the restaurant at once.

“We’ve always done to-go orders, but curbside service has picked up more,” he said. “We don’t have a drive-thru, but a lot of our loyal customers called to get orders to go, which kept us afloat, so to speak. Curbside has picked up a lot for a lot of folks. Some people still don’t feel comfortable coming in and dining in, and that’s fine. We’ll take it out to their cars, or they can come inside to pay.”

One county restaurant that still hasn’t re-opened its dining room is Pie Slingers in Rock Spring, a popular pizzeria known for its funky, retro decor and vibe as much as its food, and owner Jennifer McSpadden said she still has no idea when they might re-open the dining room to customers.

“The thing of it is, I laid off about seven or eight people,” she said. “I’ve since had to bring on a couple more, and we’ve been so busy with carryout and delivery that if I open the dining room back up (now), I think it’s going to be overwhelming. I’ll probably do it in spurts, and then the governor is supposed to be giving us a mandate about Phase 2 on May 13, so I’m also waiting for that.”

Like many, McSpadden was anxious when she had to close her dining room in mid-March. She was worried by how slow business was the first week after the shelter in place order went into effect, but business bounced back.

“We got to feed Costco employees a couple of times,” she said. “We’ve had several neighborhoods that have asked us to deliver and those kind of things have just been fantastic. The level of support has just been unreal.”

McSpadden said they began selling do-it-yourself pizza kits so families could get their kids involved with making pizza at home and that their take-and-bake option have seen customers buy multiple pizzas at once to take home and freeze for later. In addition, she said home deliveries have gone up over 50%.

To supplement sales, personal protection equipment, such as face masks, latex gloves and sanitizer, are being sold at the store, along with staples, such as toilet paper, paper towels, sugar and dried pasta.

McSpadden said three individual sanitizer stations have been ordered that will be mounted on the walls for customers once the dining room is re-opened and that other safety measures will be put in place.

She said condiments, such as salt and pepper, parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper, and even napkins will have to be handed out individually instead of containers and holders being left on the tables. She added that tables will also have to be spaced further apart and there will have to be designated entrance and exit doors, which she said that along with bathrooms, will require extra cleaning at all times.

“It’s daunting, and I’m a little worried about it honestly,” she said with a nervous laugh.

“Right now, the guidelines say you’re limited to parties of six or less, and I may open the patio first before the dining room,” she added. “Curbside it’s working great now. In fact, I’ve talked to a lot of restauranteurs that really don’t want to open their dining rooms because they’ve kind of hit a niche. But I know people will want to get out because they’ve been cooped up for a long time. I just want to do it gradually and not all at once. I’ve already had people call for parties of 20 or 25 people, and we just can’t do that.”

Wilson said while some area restaurants have re-opened and some plan to re-open soon, others are still evaluating their own situations from an efficiency standpoint and from a financial standpoint.

Coming up with a plan

Wilson said from a financial perspective, many small business owners have had to make their own choices in how best to navigate the past couple of months of being at least partially closed.

Some had to determine whether to seek the paycheck protection program (PPP) or reduce hours for employees, thereby allowing the employees to claim partial unemployment benefits.

“Then, of course, the funding ran out and they had to do another cycle and (then) another cycle. There’s pretty much one main person at each bank around here whose primary focus are the PPP loans. They’ve just been working crazy hours, until 10 or 11 at night sometimes, just to make sure that when additional funding did come through, that their clients and customers would be at the front of the line.”

Wilson also added that she encourages folks that, when they do go out or place an order from home, they buy local to help keep tax dollars in the county.

“I think it’s really been a challenging time (for business owners),” she added. “But I also think it’s been a forward-thinking and strategic time for a lot of them as well.”

Scott Herpst is sports editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.

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