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Iowa City business owners reflect on 2020

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The busiest shopping day of the year has been waning for a while, but did the COVID-19 pandemic finally bring it to an end?

USA TODAY

2020 has been a tough year to be a small business owner.

With the ongoing pandemic, corporations like Walmart and Amazon have continued to see profits soar while many locally-owned shops across the country have had to tighten their belts just to get by — if they haven’t been forced to close their doors permanently.

Many are hoping for a boost in sales when shoppers celebrate Small Business Saturday this weekend. First observed in the United States in 2010, the annual holiday encourages shoppers to check out local retailers.

The Iowa City Downtown District has launched a variety of initiatives this year to encourage area residents to shop local. At the moment, the group is not only promoting a new holiday gift card campaign and the downtown Holiday Pop-up Market, but are also operating as a local delivery service through the Downtown Online Holiday Market.

A person wearing a face mask walks past a window at Raygun on Washington Street, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in downtown Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

“The downtown delivery program started at the beginning of September,” Betsy Potter, the group’s director of operations, said Monday. “We started early because we knew there would be a need this fall and we wanted to figure out how it would work.”

The program features over 30 local businesses, listed online, and is expected to run five days a week through the end of the year. Although ICDD isn’t guaranteeing same-day delivery, the organization has largely been able to achieve it so far with an area of delivery including Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Solon, Tiffin and West Branch. Delivery to Marion and Cedar Rapids is available on Fridays.

► More: Project Better Together launches Holiday gift card campaign benefiting local businesses

“The Downtown District staff, we’re all doing the deliveries; it’s definitely increased in demand,” Potter said. “We had over 60 deliveries just today. Before today, it was roughly 100 deliveries in a week.”

In order to drive business downtown, ICDD is also holding many of its seasonal events in socially distanced ways. The annual Ginger Bread House competition, trolly rides through downtown and Santa Saturday’s all have COVID-safe iterations launching this weekend.

The only big annual event not available this year is the Teddy Bear Room, which proved to be too unsafe a proposition to attempt during a pandemic.

“This Saturday should be another great Small Business Saturday,” Potter said. “We’re not going to take our foot off the pedal for helping out local businesses in a year where they’ve suffered a little more.”

A person carries an umbrella while walking onto the holiday light-lined Pedestrian Mall off of Washington Street, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in downtown Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Thompson & Co. Salon Parlor

At a time when many salons and other such businesses have suffered from a lack of in-person traffic, Bobby Thompson says his business has managed to hold on to much of its customer base.

“We shut down a week before we were mandated to and we started to create a plan —to figure out what our non-negotiables were,” Thompson, one of the co-owners of Iowa City’s Thompson & Co. Salon, said of the earliest months of the pandemic in Iowa.

“We’ve had over 7,000 reservations since we re-opened on May 15, with zero incidents so far,” he added.

He attributes the success to his team’s willingness to restrict themselves. Thompson said his team was quick to consult with medical officials at UIHC and Mercy Hospital, and that his staff was wearing masks from the beginning.

Thompson’s staff of 12 was also broken up so that only half would be working at a time. Staff members’ temperatures were taken at the start of their shifts, too. He also had a new air system installed at the salon; the Halo Air Purifier is supposed to purify the air every 30 minutes, hopefully avoiding any potential spread of the virus.

Ahead of the holiday season, the salon is offering a variety of deals this weekend, as well as a “12 days of Giveaway” event starting on Nov. 30.

“We’re pretty blessed that … we’ve tried to communicate and be transparent with our guests,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen a small drop, but the community was able to pick us up and support us.”

Thompson & Co. Salon Parlor:

  • Location: 513 E. Washington St.
  • Phone: 319-499-1041

Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar

Nick Craig, the owner of Iowa City’s Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar, may have been physically kept from facets of the city’s culture and business scene due to the pandemic, but that hasn’t kept him from participating.

Earlier this year, he launched his “Pay it Forward Gift Card Campaign,” during which he matched customers’ purchases up to $10,000 in gift cards to other local venues.

Now, months down the line, he’s still working with other small businesses.

“For Small Business Saturday, I’ve teamed up with Lincoln Wine Bar up in Mount Vernon,” Craig told the Press-Citizen. “If you buy a $100 gift card from Brix, we’ll buy a $20 from Lincoln and give it to you.”

Likewise, customers doing the same at Lincoln Wine Bar, located at 125 1st St., in Mt. Vernon, will receive a $20 gift card to Brix.

The front entrance of Brix wine an cheese restaurant on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. (Photo: Press-Citizen file photo)

Craig also got the business a vehicle this year, to start doing its own deliveries — business that, Craig hopes, will pick up as the weather gets less hospitable for outdoor eating and walk-by traffic.

The new vehicle comes with a special delivery menu, as it tests the waters with this new feature. As with so many businesses’ experiments in 2020, Craig says it’s a service that could stick around after the pandemic’s behind us.

“I think we’re going to keep that program going as long as it’s viable,” he said. “I think you’ll find a lot of changes that are coming about because of this pandemic are going to be long term.”

Craig said Brix has typically seen a small bump in sales on Small Business Saturday — a trend he hopes continues this year, especially as his sales numbers, like those for so many local businesses, have been down this year.

“I’ve joked that every Saturday should be Small Business Saturday,” he told the Press-Citizen. “This year, I think it’s more important than ever to try to spend your money locally.”

Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar:

  • Location: 209 N Linn St.
  • Phone: 319-359-1999

Prairie Kitchen

The Felker family has had to figure out not only how to guide their new business through its first holiday season, but also how to do so in the middle of a global pandemic.

For much of what the family has been able to accomplish so far this year, Susan Felker gives much credit to the Iowa City Downtown District. When Prairie Kitchen opened, she said the ICDD guided her family through the process.

Now that the business is beginning to find its feet in a time where small businesses are in a state of economic strain, Felker continues to be thankful for the local non-profit. Specifically, the Iowa City Online Holiday Market, which ICDD launched in December.

“The Iowa City holiday online market (has already) been a really nice bump for a lot of businesses,” Felker said. “That has been the number one biggest help (for us).”

Prairie Kitchen specializes in cutlery, utensils and other products for the kitchen. Having only opened in June, the Felker family has little to compare the past few months to.

The interior of Prairie Kitchen, 160 N. Linn St., on June 8, 2020. (Photo: Isaac Hamlet/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Outside of the global pandemic, though, what’s surprised Felker maybe the most is how popular sloths have become.

At one point over the past few months, the family decided to try to bank a little on the popularity of the lackadaisical mammals. The business bought sloth ornaments and communicated with the University of Iowa Museum of Natural history to sell stuffed sloths.

“When I first got (the Christmas ornaments), I got 36 and thought, ‘That’s a lot,'” Susan recalled. 

Of course, the store has already sold out of the original order of ornaments, making its way through dozens more stuffed animals since. Continuing to bet on the community’s apparent love of the creatures, the Felkers have sloth cookie cutters on the way, too.

In order to encourage social distancing, the store has made itself available for private appointments in the mornings and evenings for those who want to look around without having to worry about crowds.

“We’re in a hot spot for COVID; it’s hard, when you look at what’s happening, but I feel so hopeful that a holiday miracle is on its way,” Felker said. “I think everyone knows that, with proper social distancing and masks, we can all still experience downtown and engage, as a community, in a very safe way.”

► More from Prairie Kitchen’s June opening: Now open, owners talk about the future

Prairie Kitchen:

  • Location: 160 N Linn St.
  • Phone: 319-519-6414

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Sidekick Coffee & Books

At this point, Katy Herbold has become more accustomed to operating an empty storefront than your standard pre-pandemic business.

“It’s a place where people are meant to be and mingle and talk, so without people here, I usually turn on some music to keep me company,” Herbold, the owner of Sidekick Coffee & Book, lamented. “It’s definitely something I never envisioned.”

The coffee shop and bookstore, which opened in September 2019, has remained closed to in-person patrons since the coronavirus first came to Johnson County — bookshelves and seating for kids have gone unused since March.

Herbold said business has tended to fluctuate between 50% and 70% less than what it was in pre-pandemic times.

To help combat the downturn and create more options for customers, Herbold has not only moved her store’s catalog online for customers to peruse but also partnered with websites Bookshop.org and Libro.fm audiobooks.

A beam of light casts on a section of books near a seating area at Sidekick Coffee & Books, Thursday, Sept., 26, 2019, at 1310 1/2 Melrose Avenue in University Heights, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Though Herbold is also able to ship items like books, toys and puzzles directly to customers through her website, Bookshop provides the shop with another outlet for potential customers, and the website gives 30% of a customer’s purchase back to the local bookstore.

Similarly, 15% of a Libro.fm purchase benefits an applicable local bookstore of choice, like Sidekick.

“The prices are pretty comparable (to other retailers),” Herbold said of the websites. “They’re not going to be Amazon prices, but they are doing great things for local bookstores.”

For Small Business Saturday, the store is partnering with The LENA Project — a local non-profit made-up of children and adults dedicated to reducing waste and promoting greener living.

Over the course of the day, 10% of all sales will benefit the nonprofit.

Herbold said she’s also found a way to start offering pastries and coffee drinks again, through an outdoor booth. On Saturday, she’ll be offering $1 hot cocoa to customers who might be coming around to pick up books from the business this weekend.

“I hope Small Business Saturday brings us more business than we’ve had (this year),” she said. “I’ve just been thankful I’ve had enough to keep going.”

► Last September: Sidekick Coffee & Books now open in University Heights

Sidekick Coffee & Books:

  • Location: 1310 1/2 Melrose Ave., University Heights
  • Phone: 319-569-1010

Finer Streetwear Co.

This time last year, Markeece Johnson had just moved Finer Streetwear Co. out of its physical location in favor of going online and was preparing a Black Friday pop-up shop in the Coral Ridge Mall, unsure of what the future would bring.

Now, though he still doesn’t have a permanent physical storefront, his business has a much firmer footing.

Markeece Johnson, owner of Finer Streetwear Co., in the temporary Coral Ridge Mall Black Friday weekend store front for his business. (Photo: Courtesy of Markeece Johnson)

“Business has been steady and staying afloat through this entire pandemic,” he wrote in an email to the Press-Citizen on Monday. “My brand has been growing daily, and I’m enjoying every bit of the process — we have our highs and lows, but I respect every obstacle because it keeps me going and wanting to go harder.”

With the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, Johnson was one of few local businesses that saw sales go up. At the time, he reported 50% to 70% more business than usual — and those numbers have remained fairly steady ever since.

This year, he had some trepidation about doing the pop-up shop in the Coral Ridge Mall again, due to concerns around the pandemic, but ultimately decided to set up shop there for one day.

From 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, Johnson will be operating his pop-up shop outside the mall’s Bath and Body Works location, featuring a variety of sales throughout the day.

“My main focus right now for my business is putting out more custom pieces that I actually design myself,” he wrote, adding he’s been working on new pieces, such as custom tracksuits, which launched last week. “I’m still not sure about a physical location right now … but I now have a small warehouse where I keep my inventory and use to package and ship my online orders.”

Graceann Boutique

It was almost exactly a year ago when Kerry Prybil opened Graceann Boutique. Since then, she says she’s felt a little guilty.

“We had really great traffic, growing exponentially, and then COVID hit and we didn’t know what we were supposed to do and I just knew that I had employees and I knew that we had to figure out how to make it work,” she told the Press-Citizen. “I always hate to say this, but for us, (right after COVID-19 first hit) was an amazing growth period.”

In the last year, this locally owned women’s apparel boutique has been booming. They’ve already outgrown the warehouse Prybil recently moved into. The one part-time employee she started with is now on full-time, and she’s been able to bring on more new employees, too.

Owner Kerry Prybil in the new Graceann Boutique location at 31 Highway 1 West in Iowa City on Dec. 17, 2019. (Photo: Isaac Hamlet/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Prybil attributes the growth to how the store was able to pivot to an online platform. Though the boutique had always had an online platform — doing things like previewing the store’s inventory on Facebook live — it became much more robust once the pandemic hit.

“We have an app now that a lot of women shop from,” Prybal said. “It’s an easy way for customers to shop … they download it and they’re notified when we add more (items to our inventory).”

The items that have proven popular during the pandemic have also been quite different from what were her usual wares. The store has been stocked less with party dresses and fancy clothing, and more athleisure attire.

“I switched my buying to accommodate what people are wanting,” Prybil said. “We’re doing that for our holiday stuff, too — a lot of it is geared to that cozy stay at home stuff.”

Throughout much of the week, Prybil is taking a cue from larger corporations and offering different deals on different days, spreading out the Black Friday/Small Business Saturday options.

If things continue to go well, Prybil hopes to not only be able to welcome customers back into her current location in full force but at another storefront, as well.

 “I would like to have another location,” Prybil said. “It all depends on what the shoppers want.”

► Black Friday 2019: New Graceann Boutique sets up storefront in Iowa City

Graceann Boutique:

  • Location: 31 Hwy 1 W
  • Phone: 319-540-6635

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at [email protected] or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.

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