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Delaware small businesses share pandemic responses

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Small businesses of all types have had to navigate the rocky waters of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, but many of them are being creative with how to put their best foot forward. Three such businesses shared their experiences during a July 16 webinar sponsored by Delaware Business Times and the Delaware Small Business Development Center.

Paul Campanella, owner of Paul Campanella’s Auto & Tire Center and Pike Creek Automotive, said that he was glad to be deemed an “essential” business by the state during the height of the pandemic, and in return he focused on his customers, employees and community.

“We wanted to give back to these three when they needed it the most, because they helped us build this business over the years and we thank them for that,” he said.

Realizing that customers were uneasy about public services that they wouldn’t have been a year ago, Campanella shifted his operations to a “touchless” service, where vehicles are handed off for repairs and cleanings without interactions with customers. He also began offering a free ozone sanitization service to all customers to help instill that cleanliness confidence.

Campanella said that he’s proud to not have laid off any employees and provided for those at-risk employees who could not work. The company was later able to secure a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to help support its payroll.

“We’re happy we planned for a rainy day,” he said.

Recognizing that there was a need in the community as other small businesses struggled to stay afloat and first responders and health care workers sought to keep safe, Campanella’s team held raffles that benefitted local restaurants, donated dinners to local firehouses, and donated needed supplies to the Little Sisters of the Poor. It also offered free maintenance and oil changes to first responders and frontline medical personnel.

Michelle Scott, owner of Hockessin-based upscale resale boutique Designer Consigner, described how her business was forced to convert to a fully online marketplace in short order after Gov. John Carney closed non-essential businesses, including apparel retail.

Thankfully, Designer Consigner already had a good social media presence on Instagram and Facebook, where it communicated with customers. Using that as a springboard, the shop was able to direct customers to a new Shopify site within eight days of being shut down, Scott recalled.

Michele Scott of Designer Consigner in Hockessin

The switch didn’t come without its challenges though.

“We were taking pictures, hundreds and hundreds of pictures, every day, all day and sometimes all night,” Scott said, noting that her children jumped in to help the effort needed to post items online for sale.

Once she saw that customers were finding the store through its new all-online presence, Scott said she sought to draw more attention. She created a weekly event on Friday nights that began with a 15-minute spoof segment of “Saturday Night Live.”

“We got an overwhelming request from our viewers to extend it longer,” she said of the program that ran for seven weeks and was treated like a happy hour with friends. “My son would literally just film me going around the store showing different new arrivals, different looks for working from home, and items that were on sale.”

The program paid off, as the store’s phones “rang off the hook” after the weekly livestreams, Scott said, noting most, if not all, of the featured items were typically bought up.

For High 5 Hospitality owner Bobby Pancake and marketing manager Lori Ewald, the pandemic has been a continuation for a difficult year that began in April 2019 when a case of hepatitis A was detected in a staff member.

The restaurant group, which operates 11 restaurants in Delaware and Maryland including nine Buffalo Wild Wing franchises, suffered from a blitz of media attention related to the case, resulting in a sales loss of 50% to 75% at its Buffalo Wild Wing locations, Pancake said.

“What we found out is we needed to adjust and react to that situation to trim the fat, to go lean, to decide what’s nice and what’s necessary,” he said, noting the company was eager to exceed 2019’s sales.

The pandemic derailed their plans for a better 2020, as sales dropped 71% amid the state’s closure of dine-in service, Pancake said. With such a dramatic decline in sales yet again, he was forced to lay off non-essential staff members and later furloughed about 70% of his workers as customers were slow to materialize. High 5 also adjusted its hours for its restaurants, dropping from 12 to 15 hours daily to 10 hours and closing its independent restaurants twice a week.

“That hurt because we’re in the people business, but our business model had changed,” he said.

After securing a PPP loan, High 5 was able to bring all of its team members back to work. With dine-in service returning June 1, Pancake said staff were forced to even adjust in-house duties.

“Our guests typically don’t like to see you cleaning. They don’t like to see a broom, they don’t like to see a towel, they don’t like to see a spray bottle,” he said. “Well that’s all changed now. Guests want to see the things that we used to hide, because they want a clean restaurant. So now we show them what we do.”

Ewald noting that High 5’s marketing efforts were also forced to pivot from things like Little League sponsorships and group fundraisers to being entirely online. She took a hard look at their restaurant’s listings on popular platforms like Google and TripAdvisor and improved menu photos on social media. Ewald also joined many Facebook groups all over Delaware to see what customers wanted for meals or deals.

“We used their input from these groups to kind of help guide us a little bit more,” she said, noting they designed family-sized shared meals and smaller brunch boxes from that feedback, and launched online ordering for its independent brands for the first time.

Like Campanella’s, High 5 also sought to support its community. It created the Feed the Frontline program, which allows donors to buy meals for frontline health care workers, law enforcement, firefighters, and military members. To date, that program has raised $18,000 and fed about 400 people with more meals to be planned, she said.


By Jacob Owens

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