Small local businesses adapt to COVID economy

A survey of shops in Kalamazoo's downtown business district finds entrepreneurs in various industries keep their doors open by taking the pandemic in stride.

The impact of the two-year-old global pandemic on Kalamazoo area businesses is nearly universal: both scientific and regulatory restrictions have required entrepreneurs to roll with the punches and adapt their business models as they go.

NowKalamazoo asked local entrepreneurs in Kalamazoo’s downtown business district how they stayed open despite an unprecedented disruption to their operations.

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Whether an established retail shop, an arts venue, or a new venture, business decisions had to be deliberate and flexible to overcome the risks of the pandemic and government regulations aimed at keeping people safe.

Pop City Popcorn

“It’s definitely been a think-out-of-the-box last couple of years,” says Becky Bil, who owns Pop City Popcorn, 346 S. Kalamazoo Mall, with her husband, Rick.

“We initiated a lot of things right away,” she says, citing its importance when dealing with food during the pandemic. In fact, employees are still required to wear masks.

“We used to have a sample bar and you could self-serve samples (of the popcorn)” she says.

That was one of the first things to go in an effort to eliminate the potential spread of germs and Bil says she has no plans to resurrect it.

“We just took it down and left it out,” she says, following a recent reconfiguration of the store.

“I kind of hated it anyway,” she says, citing the mess it caused.

Another change that Bil has noticed is in the supplying of popcorn for events, such as weddings, graduation parties, and business network gatherings.

“We do a lot of event-based business,” she says. “That was eliminated immediately when COVID first started.”

Since it resumed, event organizers have gravitated toward individual snack-type bags of popcorn treats rather than the jumbo-sized bags where people would just reach in and help themselves.

“We’re thankful those things (events) are happening again and we hope people can stay healthy and (still) have gatherings,” she says.

Climb Kalamazoo

Phil Grimm stands in front of a climbing wall
Phil Grimm, owner of Climb Kalamazoo, had to focus on keeping climbers socially distanced.

It’s not your stereotypical gym, but the dozens of floor-to-ceiling rock walls were shut down all the same during the first few months of the pandemic in 2020. 

This gave Phil Grimm, owner of Climb Kalamazoo, 136 S. Kalamazoo Mall, time to figure out how to make the unique business compliant with one-size-fits-all regulations. 

He did this by initially focusing on keeping customers and staff socially distanced, and soon realized he could slow things down a bit too. By expanding hours of operation and transitioning to appointment-only, he wouldn’t have several people crowding the climbing walls at the same time. It also allowed him to plan his staffing more efficiently, a cost-saving measure that also enhanced the customers’ experience.

In addition, instead of including a new climbing route in one section each week, thereby drawing a large number of climbers to that section, staff included new routes in all sections so climbers could experience the changes throughout the gym.

During the mandated closure of the gym, Grimm says, he made good use of his time by building a new climbing wall with LED lighting that enables staff to create new routes on that wall with the push of a few buttons on their phones.

When restrictions were lifted, Climb Kalamazoo returned to allowing for drop-in customers rather than appointments-only, but the expansion of route changes is here to stay.

“That’s one thing that we’ll definitely continue,” Grimm says.

Farmers Alley Theatre

Jeremy Kock stands in front of Farmers Alley Theatre
Jeremy Koch, artistic director of Farmers Alley Theatre, says the theater went virtual during the early days of the pandemic.

Creativity is the hallmark of Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, but the pandemic disruption made it a business necessity.

Taking the 2020-21 season off from live indoor productions, Farmers Alley instead concentrated on video-based productions.

“We’ve tried to adapt … virtually,” says Jeremy Koch, artistic director. “We did a lot of things online, especially during the colder months.”

Patrons could get a virtual ticket, and then watch productions from home.

“In the warmer months, we decided to do things outdoors,” Koch says.

Farmers Alley held a Summer Concert Series in 2021 in Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park, Portage’s Celery Flats, and at Parchment’s Kindleberger Park as part of the city’s Kindleberger Summer Festival.

Farmers Alley also offered six children’s theatre productions in Bronson and other parks.

All of those outdoor events were free to the public.

In addition, some of the Farmers Alley performers hired themselves out for a 45-minute musical revue called “Backyard Broadway.” 

“If you can’t come to the theatre, we can bring theatre to you,” was the premise, according to Koch. “All we need is a power source and a table and a few chairs.”

“Even though it was truncated and shrunk down to four singers in your backyard, it was still something kind of fun,” he says.

Although live, indoor productions are back this season, Koch says he can see Farmers Alley broadening its horizons with what has been learned during COVID.

“We would be better equipped for virtual opportunities,” he says. “We have more knowledge and skills on how to do that.”

And although Farmers Alley didn’t do any live-streaming of productions during the down year, that’s also a possibility in the future.

“Through the pandemic and learning the virtual skills, we think if we chose to do it we’d be better equipped to do it,” he says.

And more outdoor productions? That’s a strong possibility.

“I can see that continuing even in less scary times,” Koch says.

MRC Artworks

a wall with dozens of paintings hung on it
MRC artWorks didn’t just have to think of customers, but also its artists.

At MRC artWorks, 330 S. Kalamazoo Mall, which offers job skill building through art instruction to adults living with developmental disabilities, the pandemic required some imaginative thinking in order to maintain opportunities for its artists to continue with their artistry.

“Every piece of artwork they sell is a source of income for them,” says Amy Thill, artWorks unit manager.

Having to shut down the studio to the artists was difficult, so MRC Industries was relieved when it was able to reopen, although not to the extent that it had operated previously.

“We serve less artists on site right now,” Thill says.

But that is only temporary. “We are almost back up to our before numbers.”

A program to offer art instruction and skill-building virtually was a temporary response to the pandemic, but it has been discontinued because staff is able to support artists in person now at a secondary, temporary location, Thill says.

She says MRC artWorks is continuing to emphasize positivity and proper health and wellness among its artists to offset the negative effects of the pandemic.

In an effort to provide a more individualized setting, artists now have their own work tables rather than working at group tables.

The artists, she says, have been receptive to that change.

In addition, customers are asked to remain in the gallery in the front of the store instead of walking into the studio when the artists are working.

Since the pandemic began, MRC artWorks has expanded the number of places that its artists’ works can be viewed and purchased, in addition to the downtown gallery.

Taco Bob’s and Imperial Beverage Co. joined the businesses that were already displaying the artwork: One Well Brewing, Resilience Chiropractic, the Vicksburg District Library, and Friendship Village Rehabilitation Care.

In addition, Water Street Coffee, Rio, and Bookbug have begun purchasing artwork wholesale to sell in their businesses.

All those moves are intended to have the same end result.

“The main goal of our program is (for artists) to be embedded in our community,” Thill says.

Gazelle Sports

Joe Trupp stands in front of a wall of shoes
Joe Trupp, manager of Gazelle Sports, says the store moved to simplify pick-up processes.

Gazelle Sports, 214 S. Kalamazoo Mall, had already taken steps to improve their service before the pandemic began, store manager Joe Trupp says. It just so happened that those changes helped the store through the difficult times.

“We had just updated our website,” Trupp says. The update included simplifying online purchases for pickup at the store, which smoothly transitioned into a curbside pickup service.

“Being able to do that was a lifeline for us,” Trupp says.

“That’s something that we’re not going to stop.”

In addition, the store layout was rearranged to allow for more room for shoe fittings, which also helped in the transition to pandemic protocols.

“It’s actually just a comfortable distance for people,” says Trupp, who said the previous layout didn’t lend itself to allowing customers and employees to have personal space.

When the store reopened after the pandemic-required closure, there was enough room to space the chairs even farther apart to meet social-distancing requirements.

Since then, the store has eliminated the six-foot spacing, but there is still plenty of room for customers to maintain their personal space.

“It’s just about feeling as comfortable as possible,” Trupp says.

Mason Jar Plant Shop

the front of mason jar plant shop
Mason Jar Plant Shop actually opened in the midst of the pandemic. That provided unique challenges.

The Mason Jar Plant Shop, 116 W. South St., got its start in September 2020, offering a haven for plant-lovers in the middle of the pandemic.

Dianna Nance’s mother had died earlier in the year and left each of her children some money with the stipulation that they do something meaningful with it. Nance decided to honor her mother, an avid gardener, by opening the plant shop.

She was joined by her daughter, Jill Nance, operations manager, and sister-in-law, Joanie Stephens, who is the curator.

“We’re having fun with it,” Stephens says.

Launching the business during a pandemic had its own set of issues, particularly with regard to classes that they wanted to offer. They were eventually able to start the classes, such as kokedama, the Japanese art of creating potless plants; repotting plants; pot painting; and Plant Care 101.

As the pandemic worsened, they limited the number of participants in the classes in order to create better distancing among participants.

With the omicron variant raging, classes are now on hold, Stephens says, but they will be starting up again in the future.

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