Editor's Note: Although the official Small Business Week has been postponed, we at Inc. feel it's always appropriate to recognize the teams and companies that serve the needs of their communities and help keep Main Street humming--and not just for one week!
The streets of Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood have rarely looked so glorious. Garlands of bright balloons drape window boxes, snake down bannisters, and festoon front doors. Residents breaching lockdown to gulp some air have found their stoops bedazzled in color.
"I wanted to present hope in our city," says Jace Florescio, owner of Florescio Events, which is based there. "We are all in this storm together, and when it is over, there will be a rainbow."
As small-business owners struggle to survive the coronavirus crisis, a few are raising the spirits of their customers and neighbors with gestures of beauty, whimsy, or warmth. Some of those actions have produced much-needed revenue. All have generated good will that may translate into business when life normalizes.
Florescio's three-person family business, which decorates events for private and corporate clients, lost virtually all its bookings because of Covid-19. One day in March, she and her two young sons were crafting for a "rainbow hunt," where children hang rainbows in their windows for families on walks to spot them. Inspired, Florescio--whose specialties include balloon installations--strung together 48 balloons in the colors of the spectrum and topped them off with one 32-inch giant for dramatic effect. She hung it in front of her house and posted photos on social media.
People started reaching out: Can you make one for me? For my friend? For my mother? A few ordered balloons for their whole blocks, turning sadly silent streets into riots of color. "A woman wanted to surprise her neighbors with something bright and cheerful," Florescio says. "She sent them handwritten notes that said 'Happy Quarantine Balloons!'"
In the first three weeks Florescio decorated around 200 homes. Most are in her own neighborhood, although she'll venture farther afield in select cases, as she did for the woman who wanted to cheer up a friend who has stage 4 breast cancer. Garlands cost $40, and Florescio will occasionally comp one, as she did for a man who wanted to surprise his fiancée, a registered nurse, when she returned from her shift. "My mother is a registered nurse," Florescio says. "I know how scary it is for them out there."
Treats with a theme
In normal times, Chicago's Vanille is the kind of elegant patisserie whose menu offers cake and frosting "flavor pairings" and where croissants are called Viennoiserie. But these are not normal times. The coronavirus forced owner Sophie Evanoff to close her store in downtown Union Station and the cafe part of her Lincoln Park flagship pastry shop. With business down 65 percent, she laid off four of her 30 employees and furloughed the rest.
Then a macaron promotion generated 250 orders over one weekend--many accompanied by personal "stay strong"-type notes--and Evanoff felt the community coalescing around her. She and her team brainstormed new offerings that would have greater resonance. "We realized they want novelty, they want positivity, and they want comfort," she says.
The result was Quarantine Specials, an ever-expanding array of crisis-themed treats that now account for more than half of Vanille's revenue. First came the toilet paper cake-- fondant icing brushed to resemble the elusive rolls. Then a raspberry-filled lemon cupcake, topped with a flattening curve and coronavirus germ rendered in frosting, followed by a macaron with a portrait of immunologist Anthony Fauci wearing a crown.
Vanille produces nearly a dozen other Quarantine specials, including sets of educational macarons for homebound children, and an Easter cake featuring a bunny with a facemask. Because of its politics-crazed location, the store also offers a Chicago Strong Leadership pack of macarons featuring portraits of Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot. Evanoff bumped into Lightfoot a few weeks ago while delivering lunches at City Hall. The mayor posed for a photo, and Evanoff used it to create a "Springtime with Lori" cake.
The Quarantine Specials have been popular enough that Evanoff has been able to bring back 12 employees. Now that Chicago looks to Vanille to lighten the mood, she feels compelled to keep the novelties coming. "We've just had to change our branding a little bit," she says. "Now we are fancy and fun."
Entertaining homebound hikers
Rebecca Walsh and her husband, both Army veterans, launched Laramie's Basecamp, an outdoor gear and guide shop in Laramie, Wyoming's historic downtown, two years ago. "Our passion is breaking down barriers that keep people from getting outdoors," says Walsh, who also led between four and 20 families on hikes every Friday--rain, snow, or sunshine--through the Little Laramie Hikers Group.
So when the coronavirus forced people indoors, the couple had to recalibrate. Basecamp went from an almost 100 percent in-person business to e-commerce plus a few appointments. Walsh says sales now barely cover the store's rent.
Still, she felt a responsibility toward her Little Laramie Hikers and other families in the area. So she teamed up with her young sons to launch the Basecamp Book Club on Facebook. Every weekday morning the boys choose a favorite book, and at 10 a.m. Walsh reads it aloud on Facebook. Many have an outdoor theme, including Blueberries for Sal, about an encounter with a bear cub on a hill; and When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, about the first woman to solo the Appalachian Trail.
"Right now we can't share a hike with our friends or a hug or a high-five," Walsh says. "But we can share a book."
Walsh also has enlisted her sons to hide dinosaur figures in Basecamp's window and posted PDFs of dinosaur bingo cards for families to print out. Kids passing by on socially distanced family walks can pause for a minute and play the game. Compelled to cancel the Little Laramie Hikers' Easter egg hunt, Walsh coordinated with other merchants to conceal eggs in their windows.
The business has also launched a Daily Distance Challenge, encouraging people to walk one mile or just move for at least 30 minutes every day. Participants submit their accomplishments and, once a week, Walsh randomly awards someone with a coffee mug or basket of chocolates.
"We love kids and we love families and we can't wait to get everyone back out hiking," Walsh says. In the meantime, "we just want to be to our community what we are when we see them in person."