Three small business owners found common ground during a panel discussion about the challenges they are facing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Sponsored by the Moore County League of Women Voters, the virtual meeting held Feb. 16 featured guest speakers Katrin Franklin, owner of Bump & Baby and Piggy + Co. boutiques; D’Shawn Russell, CEO of Southern Elegance; and MaryBeth Poplyk, executive director of Sunrise Theater. Laura Bailey, fine dining operations manager at Pinehurst Resort, also participated in the panel discussion.
A Southern Pines native, Franklin also serves as president of Pinehurst Business Partners and said she has watched Moore County grow and evolve as a result of a larger military community and expanding hospitality industry. When the pandemic hit, and visitors stayed home, it was the local residents that kept small businesses afloat.
“There are a lot of buzz words out there but the concept of ‘we are in it together,’ as a small business community, was really hammered home,” she said. “People waited in line outside to support us and we felt the community’s support.”
Franklin called 2020 her most absurd year in business, but not her toughest. When she first developed her business plan for a maternity and dedicated baby boutique in Pinehurst, she said she was laughed out of every single bank.
“They were looking at numbers on a piece of paper and demographics. But we (residents) are boots on the ground and we know our community. I knew they were wrong.”
By the start of the pandemic, she had 11 employees working in her two boutiques; however, all were laid off in the immediate aftermath of the shutdowns, including Franklin herself.
“What challenged me the most is we were so unprepared. The whole white board was erased and you had to figure out in one day how you would survive,” Franklin added.
“It was scary to accept a larger purchase order not knowing if we would be in business in six months. You had to make a decision today that inherently impacts where you will be in the future. But I just went for it and hoped that it would shake out in the end,” Franklin said. “Forty days after the closures, we were able to open at half-mast and we’ve been busy ever since. That recalibrated us.”
MaryBeth Poplyk said when the pandemic hit last March, her team at the Sunrise began scrubbing and painting the facility, thinking it might be a two- or four-week window of time before they reopened.
“But the weeks dragged on...and we were scrambling with anything we could do to keep the community engaged and entertained,” Poplyk said, noting they began using the theater marquee to post humorous, inspiring and personal messages for customers. Later they opened the green space next to the theater for outdoor movie showings and created an outdoor weekend vendor market space on the Sunrise Square.
“The big thing we learned, there was no blueprint to look at what others had done. As a theater, we had to reinvent ourselves. We brainstormed crazy ideas and agreed that we would not be afraid to fail,” Poplyk said.
Sunrise Theater also invested in new equipment including HVAC adjustments, a sanitation fogger, and developed a new routine around private rentals versus their regular business model of public performances.
“The theater has high overhead because it is an old building. Our utilities are astronomical, our insurance is astronomical, so it has been a real balancing act how to keep our employees off unemployment,” she said. “We learned a lot of things and invented things and projects that we will keep doing as long as the community wants them. We are in it for the long haul.”
D’Shawn Russell had built her Raeford-based Southern Elegance Candle Co. business from scratch five years ago, selling primarily to mom-and-pop boutiques across the U.S. prior to the pandemic.
“When COVID hit and all of these boutiques closed, we had to make a pivot,” Russell said. “There was no way that one or two online orders on our website could keep us in business.”
But she recognized that everyone was at home, shopping online, so Russell said she became very active on social media.
“If you quit your job at 45 years old, found a business and survive a business that is located literally in the sticks,” she said, noting her candle operation is located off a dirt road in Hoke County, “if you can do it under these conditions, it is a fascinating story.”
Her brand message about building community and that “we are all in this together” particularly resonated with people interested in supporting Black entrepreneurs following the George Floyd riots.
When a major social media influencer took notice, Russell said sales exploded. She was able to rehire back six employees and added 15 more to keep with demand. Come fall, she is moving into a new 15,000-square-foot building that will include a retail store as well as manufacturing space.
Laura Bailey works for one of Moore County’s largest employers, Pinehurst Resort, but said it was not immune to the same challenges that faced the small business community.
“In early March, we were essentially forced to lay off 1,200 employee partners in one day,” Bailey said. “As a leader in this company, it was a tough day.”
Weekly bags of food and other items were distributed to furloughed staff by the resort, in addition to creating fundraising opportunities to pay for employee health benefits to continue. By the end of May, the resort brought back 400 employees and, ultimately, just over 1,000 employees have returned.
“About 60 percent of our business was groups and we essentially have lost all of that. So we worked hard, had to pivot and step outside our comfort zone and brainstorm how to work around these changes,” Bailey said. “Our business model now is 80 percent social business.”
“The last year has challenged us to rethink how we operate our business and move through daily life as a whole,” Bailey added. “I am proud of our local community and Pinehurst Resort, we all stuck together.”