Americans have been celebrating National Small Business Week the first full week in May since 1963.
In Rome and Floyd County, small business owners are hoping the spring event is a springboard to a return to economic prosperity after one of the most challenging years ever.
Small businesses play a major role in building a strong community. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that more than half of Americans either own or work for a small business. Small businesses create nearly two out of every three new jobs in the country each year.
What is considered a small business varies from one industry to another. The Small Business Administration sets standards based on the type of industry, the number of employees and/or the annual receipts.
To give further context, the SBA reports that small businesses with fewer than 20 employees make up 89.6% of all U.S. business enterprises. Take it another step and the feds claims 23 million businesses across the country have no employees whatsoever, indicative of a sole proprietor operating a business alone.
To be considered a small business by the Rome Floyd Chamber, a company must have no more than 50 employees. Chamber President Jeanne Krueger estimates that as many as 80% of the chamber’s 900-plus members fall into the small business category.
Evie McNiece, a former Rome city commissioner, chairs the chamber’s Small Business Action Council. Her Accounting Solutions Plus has only three employees, McNiece and two others.
The chamber will recognize Armuchee Pharmacy as its Small Business of the Year during its annual meeting, a luncheon at State Mutual Stadium on Thursday. Previous winners in recent years include Rome Cleaners, APEX Direct Care, Greene’s Jewelers, Midian Roofing and Vargo Orthodontics.
Austin Ratliff, who took over the Armuchee Pharmacy from his father four years ago, said being named Small Business of Year is a huge honor.
“Back at the first of the year I was ready to pull my hair out because things were so crazy,” Ratliff said.
He has a total of nine employees, several of them just part-time, in his independent pharmacy at 4334 Martha Berry Highway.
The last six or seven months have been a particular challenge for Ratliff since his was one of the first locations in Floyd County — aside from the hospitals and Department of Public Health — to offer the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Getting everybody together and scheduling appointments for the vaccine has been a real challenge while also trying to manage the pharmacy operations,” he said.
Melanie Morris and Mimi Weed have operated Mel and Mimi, a women’s boutique on East Eighth Street, for close to two decades. It was a nominee for the chamber’s Small Business of the Year award last year.
Weed attributes their success through the years, and specifically the past year, to customer loyalty. The shop took advantage of social media to produce video fashion shows through the heart of the business shutdown, to stay in contact with their clientele.
“Our customers were so gracious to support us through the pandemic,” Weed said. “The use of social media also generated a lot of new customers.”
Krueger said the chamber has spent a lot of energy during the past year actively promoting small businesses.
“We’ve also been connecting them to resources within the chamber where they get added exposure,” Krueger said.
McNiece explained that the SBAC has been a huge networking tool. Through it, business owners and managers can learn from others experiencing similar problems and share solutions.
Not talking to people who have been in a particular business and not asking professionals for guidance are key reasons a lot of small businesses never make it past five years.
The pandemic has been particularly tough on small businesses, but the chamber, Rome’s Community Development Department and the local office of the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center have all worked to help keep local entrepreneurs afloat.
“They are emerging,” Krueger said. “Some were harder hit than others, based on what they do.”
Krueger said that so many people across Rome and Floyd County have been responsive to the situation for local businesses during the past year.
“More than ever, I think people understand this is how we sustain jobs,” Krueger said. “I hope that’s because of the messaging the chamber put out, trying to make sure we were promoting all of our businesses and getting the Shop Rome message out.”
McNiece and Krueger have been on weekly calls with the Recovery Task Force. The group — representatives from the SBDC, Department of Public Health and city and county leaders — gets the most up-to-date, accurate, local information on the pandemic.
Krueger and McNiece said it was special to watch local businesses adapt to the changing conditions. Heritage Sleep Concepts in Armuchee, for example, pivoted from manufacturing mattresses to churning out cloth face masks. And companies like The Season Events shifted from catering to cooking meals to go.
Holly Lynch, owner of The Season Events, said her concept was to create one meal a week, with people placing orders by Tuesday and picking them up on Thursday.
“Our goal was to do 30 orders each week,” Lynch said. “Each meal feeds four — so if we did 30 orders, that was just like cooking for a small event of 120 people.”
The idea worked so well that the Cartersville office of her catering business was picking up orders from Kennesaw, Acworth and Canton.
“We’re just so grateful for the community support, which helped keep us alive,” Lynch said.
In fact, the concept has proven so popular that Lynch has kept it going, even though she believes the catering industry is picking back up again.
“It’s been a whole different year,” McNiece said. “It was nothing that most all of us could have ever imagined, let along live through, but it was done with a spirit of ‘We’re Rome and we can get through this.’ It was just a good feeling, even during a terrible year.”