Since COVID-19 began tearing through the U.S. in mid-March, few have felt the impacts as acutely as small business owners.
So one surprising statistic that has emerged amid the pandemic is the uptick in people starting new businesses in Connecticut.
Between March and September, nearly 23,000 businesses were established in the state, almost a 5% increase from the same period last year, according to Secretary of the State’s office data analyzed by the Connecticut Data Collaborative.
“Nationwide and in Connecticut, new business starts have gone up significantly since the start of the pandemic,” said Joe Ercolano, Connecticut director of the Small Business Development Center. “People are starting businesses either by necessity, … or they see an opportunity.”
Throughout the pandemic, tens of thousands of Connecticut residents have lost jobs or had hours reduced, and some see going into business for themselves as the only realistic option right now.
Angie Ballaro worked as a hair stylist at a Middletown salon, before the owner closed the shop for good. In July she opened her one-woman shop, Visions by Angie, in Rocky Hill.
“I didn’t have a choice,” the first-time business owner said. “It’s a little scary.”
Some others were already well into the process of opening when the pandemic hit, and were too far along to hit the pause button.
Gina Luari, principal owner of The Place 2 Be restaurant, opened a location in downtown Hartford last month and plans to open another in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square. The business environment has actually presented some opportunities (i.e., people still working in downtown Hartford are ordering in more for lunch), Luari said.
But even if she wanted to pull out of expansion plans, it wouldn’t be easy.
“We’re locked into leases,” Luari said. “We can say, ‘COVID,’ and hold up [plans], but we’re still going to have to face the repercussions.”
With a still uncertain environment, here’s how a few business owners are handling the challenges of setting up shop during a pandemic:
Business: Visions by Angie
Owner: Angie Ballaro
Type: Hair salon
Town: Rocky Hill
When the salon she worked at initially shut down early in the pandemic, Ballaro, like many, figured it would last a couple weeks to a month.
Instead it was permanent — The Iron Scissors Salon and Spa officially closed about two months later, Ballaro said.
Location is important to hair stylists. When a stylist moves, their regular customers are more likely to find another salon in the same area rather than drive a distance to continue patronizing a specific hairdresser. A big part of what led Ballaro to go out on her own was a desire to hang onto as many customers as possible by staying close to her old workplace.
“I would have stayed exactly where I was [if COVID-19 never occurred],” Ballaro said. “Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be doing this during a pandemic.”
Ballaro, 38, signed a lease at Sola Studios, 38 Town Line Road in Rocky Hill, which provides rentable space for hair and makeup professionals. She then got the necessary permits and began using the appointment management and scheduling system GlossGenius to keep her clients and appointments straight.
It cost her a couple thousand dollars to set up shop, which required Ballaro to dip into her savings, she said.
A few months into running her own business for the first time, Ballaro is making less than the approximately $1,300 per week in commissions she had been earning, and is now responsible for overhead costs like rent.
Ballaro said she thinks she can build a successful business, but for the moment it’s mostly about keeping her head above water. And with no financial support beyond revenue from customers, Ballaro is alone with any success or failure.
“Right now I’m just trying to get as many butts in the seats as possible,” Ballaro said with a chuckle. “I certainly have goals for my business, but I can’t even think about that right now.”
Rendering | Contributed
An artist rendering of the planned WeHa Brewing & Roasting cafe/brewery.
Business: WeHa Brewing & Roasting
Owner: Cody McCormack
Town: West Hartford
In February, Cody McCormack had landed on a West Hartford location for his planned cafe/taproom, and was just about ready to sign a lease and start a $100,000 buildout.
When the pandemic hit, the 29-year-old entrepreneur put that on hold.
“We couldn’t really proceed with it,” McCormack said. “We didn’t feel comfortable opening a taproom/cafe at that point.”
At the time, McCormack had already begun selling coffee online, using a Cottage Food Operator license that allows him to sell coffee he makes out of his home. That’s currently providing him between $1,500 and $2,000 per month in revenue, McCormack said.
More than a half-year into the pandemic, McCormack recently raised $75,000 from investors, after securing $275,000 in funding from other sources. He now plans to sign a lease and build the space in time to open WeHa Brewing & Roasting by early next year.
McCormack declined to identify the specific address of the location at which he plans to sign a lease, but said it’s in West Hartford’s Elmwood neighborhood. When the buildout is complete, the space will include a brewery, roastery and taproom/cafe, which will be open all day for coffee or espresso drinks, and a rotating selection of beers on-tap for afternoons and evenings.
WeHa will roast the coffee and brew the beer it serves. McCormack and his business partner — who serves as head brewer — plan on hiring up to 10 employees, and want to open by May.
The terrain has been treacherous for a first-time business owner launching a drinking establishment, especially since bars are still not allowed to open and restaurants have been restricted to limited indoor capacity (currently at 75%). But McCormack said he’s been able to count on a supportive business community, including the Small Business Development Center, which has provided him with advice and contacts.
“The community really stepped up and they really want to support local business at this time,” said McCormack, who noted many of his investors are local.
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
The Place 2 Be restaurant’s Principal Owner Gina Luari outside the new downtown Hartford location.
Business: The Place 2 Be
Owner: Gina Luari
When the pandemic hit, Luari was already far into her plans to open two new The Place 2 Be breakfast-and-lunch restaurant locations.
She was locked into leases at 5 Constitution Plaza in Hartford and in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square so she’s pushed forward with both expansions, although on a delayed timeline.
She officially opened the downtown restaurant in October, and added a number of modern amenities to the former Spectra Wired Cafe location. The new 4,500-square-foot space is equipped with touch-screen kiosks customers can use for to-go coffee orders, Luari said. Diners can also order from their phones and have food delivered to their table.
The Blue Back Square spot — at 50 Memorial Road, in the former location of the now-defunct The Cook & The Bear restaurant — is scheduled to open at the end of December. Luari plans on hiring 25 employees at each location.
Early on during the pandemic, The Place 2 Be’s flagship location in Hartford’s south end, at 615 Franklin Ave., had to shift its business model — moving to takeout-only, Luari said.
But takeout business was more successful than she expected — it currently makes up 50% of revenue — which could bode well for the new downtown Hartford storefront.
“We had an amazing response,” she said. “Downtown was a ghost town, but about 90% of to-go orders were from downtown. There is definitely a need for us — even during a pandemic.”
The changing dynamics led her to put a lot more effort into The Place 2 Be’s to-go business, by buying microwavable food containers and investing in an online ordering/point-of-sale system that streamlines the takeout order process, Luari said.
Luari said she’s spending almost $700,000 to open the two new locations, with help from a state Department of Economic and Community Development loan.
The pandemic hasn’t affected the scope of The Place 2 Be’s expansion, but it has delayed it, Luari said. That’s mostly because it’s been harder to get permits and approvals signed in a timely fashion since many municipal offices have been closed for periods of time, and people are working from home.