Start-Ups In Fight To Survive And Save Jobs: ‘A Horrible Time To Open’

By Joyce Smith The Kansas City Star

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For new business owners, timing couldn't be worse. In many cases, the shelter-in-place order changed everything, leaving entrepreneurs scrambling for survival.

Kansas City

Five years after opening in North Kansas City, Tay's Burger Shack built such a cult following it was ready to expand on the other end of the metro.

While chains tend to snap up the best Johnson County restaurant sites, owner Kent Harrison made a deal for a former Hardee's in Overland Park.

He opened there on March 11, planning to stick with dine-in and carry-out service like his Northland location and easing into drive-thru service by late April. Every day was busier than the day before. Customers packed the dining room on the first Saturday.

Then came the shelter-in-place order, and everything changed.

Harrison shut down his dining room and hurried to get a banner printed with the restaurant's menu items -- grass-fed beef burgers, Nathan's hot dogs, hand-cut fries and Tay's own orange fountain drink. He is using it as a make-shift menu board for the drive-thru.

"It's a horrible time to open. If my customers didn't love my product, I don't know what I would do," he said.

Entrepreneurship -- often dubbed the backbone of the American economy -- can be risky in good times. National survival rates are about 80 percent after the first year, dropping to about 50 percent at year five, according to KCSourceLink, an area resource for aspiring and established entrepreneurs.

But now many new and established businesses are seeing their growing enterprises come to a screeching halt. KCSouceLink's late March survey of 187 area business owners found 78 percent need financial assistance, and the majority were worried about their revenue dropping. About 11 percent of those surveyed were concerned they would have to close.

Respondents noted the pressure to adapt too quickly, the lack of cash flow without clients, and the general financial disruption in clients' lives.

'I'm doing a lot of hand-holding'

Many metro operations have been forced to scramble.

Midtown's The Fix restaurant geared up slowly, opening a day or two a week in December and January and trying out different menu items. By mid-February it was ready to roll, and the response was more than the owner even imagined.

"It was outrageous. We had a line out the door," said owner David Swarts. He took in $3,000 the Saturday before the shutdown. Two weeks later, his Saturday sales for carry-out and pay-what-you-can (offered to people affected by the shutdown) totaled just $33.

"I'm doing a lot of hand-holding. I'm fighting for my employees. This place is nothing without them," he said.

Swarts has gone to a limited menu to cut down on food waste. He has a day job and paid his landlord early.

"He has a screen-printing place and it went to a screeching halt as well," he said. "But he's a good landlord and a good neighbor and I'm still liquid enough."

That's the short-term plan. For the long term, Swarts is worried about the change in customers' habits and whether they will be more likely to desire curbside and delivery services even after fears subside.

"It's the unknown. How will you dine in the future?" he said.

Delayed openings and furloughs Hollie Haskins was set to open her first salon, Session, in Woodside Village in early May. Now she is looking at June or possibly July.

The loan signing was put off because of the shelter-in-place order. She said she's fortunate that rent isn't due until June and she has yet to hire staff. But the tough challenges of the current environment may help prepare her for life as an entrepreneur, she said.

"I was feeling like we need to get this done now. Now I have nothing to do but be patient," she said.

Except for groceries and the like, most retail has moved online. That hasn't kept some businesses from having to furlough employees.

Matt Bramlette bought a do-it-yourself soap kit to make products for his Westport gift shop, Mid Coast Modern. Then he teamed up with his business partner and husband to turn it into a brand -- Bear Soap Co. -- a collection that now includes bath bombs, shower steamers and beard products.

In June, the brand got its own shop, Soap Bar, two doors down from Mid Coast Modern. It also carries other small batch skin care lines.

Bramlette was optimistic on all three companies going into 2020. Then in early March his employees were afraid to come to work. Saturday sales and traffic dropped 50 percent.

With the shelter-in-place order, he had to furlough his four employees. Online orders are keeping him busy but they won't be enough to sustain the businesses long-term.

He has been looking through funding sources to tide him over until the shops can reopen. When the initial shutdown was first announced, he said he was really angry but then figured he could survive for a couple of weeks.

"I'm just thankful it isn't holiday season," he said. "But there's no finality to it. You can't say 'let's get past this' when it is unknown."

'The reality is no one knows' Yardbird, a growing sustainable outdoor furniture brand based in Minneapolis, had planned to open a new Overland Park showroom in March, along with locations in Denver and Detroit. The Denver store did $80,000 in sales in its first six days before it had to temporarily shut down.

The Detroit and Overland Park stores will open when the government lifts the shelter-in-place orders.

Yardbird had several billboards reserved through June. Now it is switching to advertising that can be changed more readily. Online traffic is up in the last couple of weeks as people hunker down in their homes and look to patio season. China factories are geared up to make more furniture for the company.

"We hope to be open by May or June. The reality is no one knows," said Jay Dillon, co-founder of Yardbird with his father, Bob.

At Tay's, Harrison's crew has already seen some repeat customers, a promising sign. But with cars lining up and social distancing in place, it's not a time for chitchat. Harrison misses strolling the dining room, meeting his customers and getting feedback. If something isn't to a drive-thru customer's liking, he might not hear about it.

"I hope they come back so we can fix it," he said.

He's still looking for workers for both locations, and he even hired someone Wednesday.

The North Kansas City location also adapted to current shelter-in-place conditions. Employees take orders at the snow cone trailer and then deliver them to customers' cars, just like in the old-time carhop days, Harrison said. In the rapidly changing restaurant environment under the pandemic, Harrison vows not to be negative and just take the next step.

"We had a grand opening for the dining room, then a grand opening for the drive-thru and then we'll have to have another grand opening for the dining room again," he said. "But I'm full of gratitude for the community supporting us and keeping people employed." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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