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Women who own small businesses tell how they're surviving, even thriving

Women who own small businesses tell how they're surviving, even thriving

Pandemic 'roller coaster' requires adaptability in the service and retail sectors, 'where we see many women-owned businesses' in Nebraska

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Ask a female small-business owner about her experiences during the coronavirus pandemic and the word you hear most is "roller coaster."

Many have gone from fear in the early months, when they worried about what a shutdown meant for their future, to excitement when the economy started to open up over the summer, to distress as worsening numbers further threaten success into fall and the holidays.

It's left them searching for answers on how to keep their businesses afloat.

"We lay in bed and think about it day and night," said Camille Garza, who owns Camille's Bakery in Countryside Village with husband James Nimitz. "With coronavirus, it's what if, how, how can we, are we doing this right, or are we doing it wrong. There are so many questions every day."

Just over 99% of businesses in Nebraska are classified as small, with 500 employees or fewer. They account for 49.5% of the workforce.

The U.S. Small Business Administration doesn't break down how many women in Nebraska own their business. But on a national level, 33% of businesses are owned by women.

They and minority businesses are the most affected by the coronavirus.

"The sectors that are still hardest hit are service and retail, where we see many women-owned businesses,'' said the SBA's Nebraska district director, Leon Milobar. "These businesses tend to be smaller and are often specialty businesses like boutiques.''

Businesses that didn't shift or modify their delivery models have been the hardest hit.

But studies of past economic trials show that small-business owners could potentially lead the country out of the crisis, said Lori Lothringer, dean of business at Metropolitan Community College.

Unlike much bigger companies, they are in a better position to adapt and possibly thrive.

"They can be very nimble and resilient and change their business overnight,'' Lothringer said. "They can add services and whatever they need to do to support their clients.''

As October — Women's Small Business Month — draws to a close, here's a look at how the segment is adapting, sometimes even thriving, during the pandemic.

BAD TIMING FOR NEW RESTAURANT

Nina Sodji didn't plan, of course, to introduce West African cuisine to Omaha in the middle of a pandemic.

It was just a coincidence that Okra African Grill opened in mid March, right as the coronavirus was shutting down the city. She'd taken over the location at 1303 S. 72nd St. in December and had been outfitting the former Korean restaurant there to fit her specifications.

"It just happened to be a bad timeline,'' she said.

It's been a crazy ride since then, she says. Takeout Tuesday and Black Lives Matter promotions gave her business a boost, and she had high hopes in June, when the city started to open up. But then came the mask mandate and growing numbers of COVID-19 cases.

"Who wants to come in the restaurant?'' she asked.

She has spaced her tables 6 feet apart, but she said there's not enough people eating in to even worry about it being unsafe. Her business is entirely takeout, and even that is slow.

"The rent is still going, the electricity is still going. It's quite hard on business at this time,'' she said.

Sodji came to the United States from Togo in West Africa 26 years ago, looking to escape civil war and to find a better life. She earned a culinary degree and planned to change the perplexed looks on people's faces when she mentions West African cuisine.

She's based her menu on recognizable dishes from her homeland, with endless variations. "It's kind of like going to Subway, but an African version,'' she said.

Sodji said she's been reaching out to anybody and everyone to stay afloat. Providing meals for nonprofits has brought in some income. She's trying to connect with more people on social media, so they know she's open for business.

She hasn't lost her sense of humor. When asked about her location, she laughed.

"I'm right across the street from Dr. John,'' she said of the lingerie and novelty boutique. "I know. It's weird. But when you say that, everyone knows where that is.''

Although things are hard, she's not giving up.

"I don't really have a choice,'' she said. "I have employees, a sick father at home and teenagers going to school. I am really hopeful. I believe in this dream.''

CAUTION IS HER BUSINESS PLAN

Esther's has been around for so long that owner Trish Lonergan isn't positive what year it started.

Fifty years ago is her best guess. Her late mother, for whom the store is named, opened the consignment clothing boutique at 805 S. 75th St., and Trish joined the staff in 1990.

Esther's had built a steady clientele and the business was thriving.

"It's been a huge change,'' Lonergan said. "We're trying really hard to keep our head above water.''

People's needs have evolved, she said. They are working from home and want casual clothing. Money is tight, and many plan to hunker down for the winter with coronavirus cases rising.

"Even with the holidays coming, and dressing up — that's not going to happen,'' Lonergan said.

It was terrifying for Lonergan to temporarily close the store when a pandemic was declared in March, especially with the amount of spring inventory on hand.

A PPE loan allowed her to reopen in June. She was still scared, but Lonergan said she started to get a handle on a way forward.

She's been developing the online side of the business and focusing even more on "athleisure" wear from places like Lululemon. She's not accepting as many items and she's trimmed hours to minimize payroll, her largest expense.

She sees some hope in the success of her website and from the number of women who still enjoy coming in and shopping with enhanced safety. She's grateful for the support and flexibility of her staff.

Caution is now hermantra. She's taking it season by season, and will take stock at the end of the year.

"I have to wait and see how things go,'' she said. "If we had to close again, I'm not sure if we would come out on the other side.''

PIZZERIA STILL GROWS

The pandemic put Mary Joseph's expansion plans for Tasty Pizza on hold.

She had noticed that the former Boyd & Charlies restaurant on 60th between Pacific and Center Streets was empty and thought it would be a good second location.

"Then when things shut down, we decided to wait a bit before proceeding,'' she said.

That wait is over. While most small businesses are concerned with just staying afloat during the pandemic, Joseph has grown instead.

She's been operating her first restaurant at 5423 Leavenworth St. for several years, the last five as a pizzeria. She offers traditional pizzas like pepperoni, hamburger and sausage but also combinations such as spinach and feta and bacon with Gouda cheese.

Those "weird'' ones, as she calls them, have been a hit.

"The neighborhood has been very supportive always,'' she said. "The neighbors keep coming back."

Although sales have stayed strong, the last months haven't been easy. Sourcing ingredients became a struggle, resulting in changes to the menu. Cheese prices have risen about 50%.

The virus also forced several changes to her business model. Most pizzas are now to go, meaning more hectic phone sales. An app has helped significantly.

It's all a little nerve-wracking, she said, but not enough to sideline her plans. It's different having a place with ample room for dining, if people feel comfortable eating in.

"I really don't know how it's going to be. It's a mystery,'' Joseph said. "We will adjust accordingly.''

VIRUS STALLS BAKERY PLANS

Business was just starting to take off at Camille's Bakery in Countryside Village.

People loved the French pastries made from scratch by Camille Garza and husband James Nimitz. The catering side was hopping, and they began plans to host birthday parties at the shop, allowing youngsters to decorate their own cakes.

Then the coronavirus turned everything quiet.

"We're just waiting for this whole thing to pass and get back to normal,'' Garza said.

The couple adjusted when its catering business went dry, adding safety precautions and offering individual packaging, deliveries and curbside pickup.

Things started looking up over the summer, a year after the shop had opened.

Then school started. "It got really quiet, and it still is kind of quiet,'' Garza said. "I think everybody is trying to be extra careful. People are getting back on a schedule and not walking around like during the summer.''

Every day the couple bounce ideas off each other about how they can bring in more clientele. One of their answers was to start serving savory lunches. They're also boxing up assortments of pastries for small events.

Regulars, she said, "have been helping us a lot.'' And their landlord has worked with them on the rent.

The couple have three children, ages 2, 6 and 9, and some mornings Garza has to stay home to do online schooling.

Family life grounds them, Garza said. They've stayed strong as a couple and despite all the challenges of the past seven months, they don't regret their decision to open a small shop.

"We're doing fine,'' Garza said.

CHOCOLATE SALES A SWEET SUCCESS

Gaylene Steinbach is plowing forward on making her dream of owning her own store a sweet reality.

After five years of renting the kitchen in a coffee shop, the owner of Lulubee Chocolates will have her own place at 5720 Hidcote Drive in southeast Lincoln.

She can make the move because, thanks to online sales and wholesale customers, Steinbach is one of the success stories of the pandemic.

"Gift-giving and chocolates go hand in hand. You can't hug grandma, you can't wish someone happy birthday in person, so you send them chocolates. My chocolate business is luckily attached to a few other (businesses) that are doing fairly well through this, such as florists,'' Steinbach said.

She also does a lot of business with area wineries, which seem to be doing well, too.

The past eight months haven't been without trials. All of her spring, summer and fall in-person events were canceled. One of them, Handmade Omaha, went online and turned out to be very successful.

"It was amazing the amount of support from our community — not just for me but for all of the artists,'' Steinbach said.

She's had to up her game in shipping and delivery. That's why the new place is so important. It will be two-thirds kitchen space and one-third retail space. She'll be able to hire employees and bring in the equipment she needs to expand her line of chocolates.

"The possibilities with chocolate and favors are endless,'' she said.

OPERATING DURING A VIRUS IS AN ADVENTURE

Leigh Neary bought the domain name for her store, Exist Green, 15 years before it opened in Dundee.

"I always knew I was going to have some sort of shop, some sort of business with that name,'' she said.

After 10 years of working as an environmental engineer in San Francisco, Neary purchased the building at 4914 Underwood Ave. and last year began selling items that would allow people to reduce their environmental impact.

"It's been an adventure,'' she said.

Since the arrival of the coronavirus, Neary said, she's learned a lot.

She didn't have her products listed on the website when the virus struck, something she now knows is crucial and is still perfecting.

She needed to have that information available to her customers, especially when she was doing curbside pickup from March to late July. But at that same time, she had to furlough almost all of her staff.

She was able to bring them back in August but has faced increased labor costs because, as a safety measure, the organic dry goods and produce can be handled now only by employees, not customers.

A federal loan helped tide the business over and a Nebraska small-business grant allowed her to buy a second refrigerator, so she can offer more fresh food.

Rent payments from two apartments above the store are plowed back into the business.

"I haven't paid myself this whole time,'' she said. "To this day, we aren't back to where we were last fall.''

That hasn't soured her on retail. Repeat customers, 50% of her business, have kept the store afloat. Online sales are starting to grow.

With lots of items that work well as stocking stuffers, she's eager to see how Exist Green does over the holidays.

"I will do anything I can to not fail at this,'' she said. "We'll stick around for a while.''

ADVERTISING COMPANY LEARNS TO PIVOT

Lyn Wineman's business lost $100,000 in a single day.

KidGlov, a full-service marketing, branding and advertising agency based in both Lincoln and Papillion, had grown 400% the past four years. Then the pandemic hit.

Wineman remembers telling her staff to take their computers home that March weekend, and on Monday they started calling clients to check in.

"Everything had shut down,'' Wineman said.

She felt panicked. Employees started asking what was going to happen to them and the company.

She didn't know. "The only thing I can guarantee is I am going to fight like hell to keep the business together for you and for our clients,'' she told them.

Eight months later, Wineman is grateful that business is up a respectable 10%. Her staff of 14 has mastered creative collaboration through Zoom calls and learned to be nimble and flexible in handling new needs of their clients.

It's all about keeping their eyes and ears open and being ready to pivot. Wineman admits that she's tired of that word, but that's what they've had to do.

One whole campaign they had created had been centered on no football Saturdays. The day it launched, it was announced that the season was back on.

The year is teaching her that there is no such thing as a steady course, she said. "I'm really trying hard as a leader to stay positive but also real. One thing I have said more this year is 'I don't know.' Sometimes I'm saying that to our clients. 'I think this will work well, but let's test it and be ready to change.' "

Her team has a standing 10-minute Zoom call to talk about the day's business. A pulse survey asks them how they are feeling and what they are worried about.

Because they can't be out networking, a podcast has helped introduce the company to new clients. Plans for a 10th anniversary celebration were shifted to give back to the community and support area change-makers. Through KidGlov's "Agency for Change Challenge,'' Omaha's Child Saving Institute and the Lincoln Community Playhouse were awarded $10,000 in creative services to help further their missions during the pandemic.

"Those things have really helped,'' Wineman said.

She got two pieces of advice from trusted friends.

First was to watch the shifting sands. If one core business dries up, look for something else.

The second was to find the smartest people you know and rethink your business and how you can take advantage of the pandemic.

"If the pandemic ends, I can go back to what I was doing, and maybe be in a better position because I have figured out something new to go with it,'' she said. "It really makes me think about, as a business owner, how diversification is important, but I think now more than ever.''

marjie.ducey@owh.com, 402-444-1034 twitter.com/mduceyowh

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