Wrapping up a Crazy Year: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Small Businesses

Still in their first year of business, Boat Drinks has sailed with the ups and downs of the pandemic. (Photo credits to Hannah Carlsward)

Abby Bittner

While this year has been tough for many, small businesses were impacted heavily when the pandemic forced them to close or re-evaluate their business plan.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce detailed the impacts of the pandemic on the over 2.7 million small businesses in the state.

According to the report, 85.1% of small business owners experienced loss of revenue during the pandemic, and 40% of respondents closed their doors because of it.

Boat Drinks, a seafood restaurant and bar on St. George Street, closed twice during the pandemic for a total of five months.

The nautical-themed spot is almost two years old, making the waves of the pandemic seem a little rockier. 

However, owner and Co-Captain Rob Crabtree is thankful for the support despite these unprecedented times.

“We have been fortunate to have the support of our customers, a fantastic and loyal staff, as well as a little extra funds set aside for an emergency like a hurricane,” he said.  “No one was expecting a global pandemic.”

In response to COVID-19, the restaurant has reduced seating capacity to 50% and requires masks to be worn. 

“Our guests have thanked us for enforcing such strict mask and occupancy policies, since it makes them feel comfortable to visit Boat Drinks and hang out without the fear of overcrowding,” Crabtree said.

With pandemic regulations changing constantly, Crabtree understands the importance of acting quickly and effectively to keep customers safe.

“Since no one saw this coming and there was so little government guidance throughout, there was no way to really prepare. In fact, we make adjustments every day as new problems and information arise,” said the owner, who co-captains the restaurant with his partner, Whitney Hobbs.

Despite not being able to offer an only to-go option for the fresh seafood restaurant, Crabtree believes in his employees and customers. 

 “We are always very transparent with our staff, and I truly believe the support of our staff has allowed our business to succeed,” he said.  “We have never sacrificed the quality of our ingredients, despite numerous availability issues with our food and beverage vendors.”

There have been different challenges for Boat Drinks during the pandemic that would not of been seen before, especially with face coverings.

 “The hardest thing about owning a bar and restaurant during the pandemic is dealing with customers that do not respect our mask policy,” Crabtree said.  “Fortunately, 95% of our guests are fantastic, and we’ve been fortunate to connect with many new locals, tourists, and new friends.”

Through the difficulties the pandemic has presented, he hopes that customers realize the hard work that small businesses have faced.

“The government has done nothing to support independent bars and restaurants, nor has it done anything for hospitality workers. Bars and restaurants are entirely reliant on their guests to continue to operate,” the owner said.

Located on San Marco Avenue, Perky Pelican Christmas Shoppe has also had their share of ups and downs related to the pandemic.

Owners Kathy McBride and her husband, Dan, opened the homey Christmas store in 2016 and sell year-round, but see most of their business during high tourist times.

Kathy, who manages the store and controls the inventory in the gift shop, knew the pandemic would bring challenges to the business.

“It was a very rocky road to start. Closing just as the spring breakers normally head to town was rough.  We were closed from March 17 until Memorial Day weekend,” she said.

Aside from a few online sales, the business made barely anything, which posed multiple concerns for McBride.  From January 1 until Memorial Day, they went down 47% in sales.

Kathy McBride and her husband, Dan, have owned the Perky Pelican Christmas Shoppe since 2016.  (Photo from their Facebook Page)

Despite summer sales plummeting 17%, a time when McBride relies on visitors, business has been looking up since.

“I wasn’t sure we’d survive until our busy time, but since Labor Day, business has been very robust and we are delighted,” said the owner, who has a background in accounting.

After seeing business go up and down in drastic ways, McBride was fortunate to receive financial aid for the shop.

“We were approved for a generous Small Business Administration (SBA) loan and that saved the day.  I was able to use the funding to buy inventory, so I’d have something to sell this season,” she said.  “Thanks to a grant from St Johns County, I got caught up on back rent and all the utilities for the shop.”  

Despite the downsides to the pandemic, the owner has noticed an increase in customers supporting small businesses.

“Our loyal customers have been great,” McBride said.  “They’re coming back in huge amounts this year, and we’ve seen more local residents shopping local to keep all of us afloat.”

Normally, McBride purchases her inventory in January, but ended up scaling back her orders by roughly 40%.  However, she adapted to the financial setback, which has since worked well for the shop.

“I was afraid to have a bunch of unsold inventory.  When we started to sell again, I placed smaller orders in an as-needed basis,” the owner said.

Through this experience, she has learned how to modify the business to adjust to future pandemic challenges.

“I learned to be a whole lot more cautious in my ordering.  I don’t want to overextend my credit in case we have to shut down again,” McBride said.  “I don’t have the income to pay for the orders, let alone the fixed costs.”

She is also looking forward to attracting customers in a different way to cater to COVID-19 difficulties.

“I was very fortunate to have just made my online store live two days before we had to close,” McBride said.  “I will be promoting the website a whole lot more in 2021.” 

In light of the challenges that 2020 has brought, Crabtree sees this as a learning experience for the business to grow from.

“We feel confident that if we can learn to succeed through a pandemic in our first year of business,” he said, “then we are only going to come through this stronger as a company.”

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