COVID dealt a heavy blow to India’s small businesses, but some have used technology and creative thinking to survive.
Minneapolis, Minnesota — Closing up shop never crossed Anna Bloomstrand’s mind, even during the worst days of the COVID-19 crisis and the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd. Her family’s Scandinavian store, Ingebretsen’s Nordic Market Place, has been a fixture on East Lake Street for nearly a century.
“We’ve been in the same space for 99 years,” Bloomstrand told Al Jazeera. “We’re really rooted down.”
Bloomstrand’s store was looted during the unrest this spring but was spared fire and water damage. Her family is also luckier than most; they own the property that houses Ingebretsen’s.
“All of those things about multigenerational wealth and security, it’s all the things we’ve been talking about for so long,” Bloomstrand said.
“There’s the practical aspect of rebuilding and figuring out all of the things it will take to become a store again, then there’s the real responsibility of talking about and understanding the landscape that we’re living in right now. That part of the work is the work,” she added.
Small businesses like Bloomstrand’s make up 99.5 percent of businesses in the US state of Minnesota, and they employ nearly half of Minnesota’s private workforce. But the pandemic hit the state’s 526,350 small businesses hard, and many find themselves closing the books on the least profitable year in their history.
Yet Minnesota is also known for its down-to-earth entrepreneurialism, and many small businesses in the state have not only found original ways to stay afloat through the turbulence of 2020 but have managed to help others do the same.
Adapting to survive
When the coronavirus pandemic began in Minneapolis, many small businesses pivoted their focus to online sales and curbside pick-up to make it through the state’s stay-at-home order, which ended up stretching from March through the end of May.
Lindsey Cason owns a south Minneapolis vintage home goods store called Carousel and Folk with her husband, Mike.
The couple started sourcing larger items with fatter margins like furniture over smaller ones, and paid people either digitally or left envelopes with cash on their suppliers’ doorsteps to keep goods coming.
“As the lockdown kept continuing, it was harder for me to source goods,” Cason told Al Jazeera. “I basically did what I could and dug deep into our backstock of inventory.”
Luckily, her plant supplier who also supplies grocery stores was deemed an essential business, so Cason was able to keep selling plants, which proved to be a popular quarantine purchase with customers looking to cheer up their new home offices.
“There’s a whole chain of companies that people don’t necessarily think of because they’re behind the scenes, but they’re definitely essential,” Cason explained.
She also leaned heavily on photo-sharing app Instagram to engage with customers and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the government to keep her doors open.
“A lot of people are at home right now, so they are more apt to sit on social media and, for me, that’s where my main audience is,” Cason said.
She also hasn’t shied away from revealing how hard it is to be a small business right now – something her Instagram followers have supported.
“Our community of followers is so behind us,” she added. “I think I’ve gained trust through social media by being open and honest about how we run things.”
Ngan Hoang has owned Cali Nails on West Lake Street for 25 years. It’s loyal customers that have kept her salon alive – and she has occasionally bent the rules a bit to accommodate them.
Hoang said that during the spring lockdown, she would sometimes let one client in through the back door for a secret manicure or pedicure. It was a way of seeing the occasional familiar face who was no longer able to sit and chat during a normal appointment.
“I’m so used to my customers coming in, hugging them, asking how they are. We talk and drink coffee or wine together,” Hoang told Al Jazeera.
Hoang spent the state’s lockdown period putting proper safety gear into place so she could be ready for phase two of the state’s reopening plan on June 1.
Our community of followers is so behind us. I think I’ve gained trust through social media by being open and honest about how we run things.
A week before she was set to reopen, a white police officer killed Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Thousands of people took to the streets to denounce police brutality and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Vandals and looters took advantage of the moment, causing widespread damage. In all, civil unrest cost the Twin Cities more than $500m in losses, and nearly 1,500 buildings were damaged, according to Minnesota’s governor.
The majority of the blight coalesced along Minneapolis’ Lake Street corridor that stretches east to west across the city before connecting to St. Paul across the Mississippi River. Following the unrest, small business owners – including many business owners of colour – were left to pick up the pieces.
The protests also cast the region’s long-standing racial and socioeconomic inequities into sharper relief.
In Minnesota, there are large disparities between white people and people of colour when it comes to educational attainment, labour force participation, unemployment rates and poverty levels.
In 2018, the unemployment rate for white people was 2.9 percent, while unemployment among Native Americans and Black people reached 13.9 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively.
Income inequality in Minnesota between people of colour and white people is among the worst in the nation.
There’s the practical aspect of rebuilding and figuring out all of the things it will take to become a store again, then there’s the real responsibility of talking about and understanding the landscape that we’re living in right now. That part of the work is the work.
White Twin Cities households had a median household income of $76,632 in 2016, more than double the median household income of $32,819 for Black families. Median household income was also lower for Latino families ($46,093) and American Indian households ($43,183).
Yet these groups play a major role in the state’s economy, according to research conducted by Bruce Corrie, an economics professor at St Paul’s Concordia University.
Corrie found that businesses owned by Black Minnesotans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans account for 27,000 jobs and $700m in annual payroll in the state. And communities of colour as a whole represent a $60bn economy in Minnesota.
But it’s these businesses that are most at risk of closing amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in May found that just 21 percent of minority-owned businesses expected to last more than six months if current conditions continue, and nearly 6 percent weren’t sure they could keep their doors open beyond 30 days.
As the pandemic worsens and more federal aid takes time to materialise, small business owners in Minneapolis are doing what they do best – looking out for each other.
Lee Wallace, the CEO and owner of Peace Coffee, a roastery dedicated to selling 100 percent organic and fair-trade coffee, has always taken an equity-based approach to her business. But the severity of the COVID-19 crisis spurred her to do more.
After shifting her focus to online orders, at-home subscriptions and grocery store partnerships, she realised she had something to offer the community: physical space.
She has offered up two Peace cafe locations to Coca Butta Futures Food Pantry, a local, volunteer-run food bank that has been feeding about 100 families per week since June.
As Wallace came to realise that it was time for Peace Coffee to get out of the retail cafe business entirely, she was introduced to Carley Kammerer, the executive director of Wildflyer Coffee, a nonprofit dedicated to providing job stability and skills development to youth experiencing homelessness. Peace Coffee will now specially roast a blend Wildflyer can sell at its former cafes, some of which Wildflyer has taken over.
“We’re coming together in a partnership,” Wallace told Al Jazeera. “That feels great, it’s a win-win. We can continue to buy from the same coffee farmers and take the mission of our space to the next level.”
“It’s always been about community, but in an even more direct way,” she added.
This article is part of Al Jazeera Digital’s ongoing series profiling small businesses around the globe that have survived market disruptions from COVID-19 as well as economic challenges unique to their countries.