A Pandemic’s Effect on a Small Business
Written by Kathryn Rajnicek on April 24, 2021
Photo caption: Tree City Coffee & Pastry in Kent, Ohio is one of many small businesses that has been harshly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocols the customers and employees have to follow include wearing face coverings and following social distancing guidelines.
Photo credit: Julia Webb
Rebekah Gillespie, owner of Tree City Coffee & Pastry, sits down every week racking her brain trying to figure out how to give everyone on her staff hours during a time when she is forced to reduce hours because sales are down. Her staff counts on her for paychecks and in uncertain times, those paychecks mean so much more. The life of owning and operating a small business requires working 24/7 to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Like many small businesses, the coronavirus pandemic has had harsh effects on Tree City Coffee & Pastry. The business has struggled to survive as a result of shutdowns and reduced hours and capacity.
Gillespie and her husband took ownership of Tree City Coffee & Pastry on May 1, 2020 which was a little under two months into the pandemic.
“My husband and I found Tree City for sale back in December 2019, so we started pursuing that,” Gillespie said. “Then, COVID hit and we kept holding off [on buying] as long as we could.”
Despite the shop containing a drive-through window, Gillespie and her husband were hesitant to take over the business right away in March because of indoor dining restrictions related to the pandemic.
“It came down to ‘well, it’s now or never,’ and we just went ahead and dove right into it,” Gillespie said. “Right smack dab in the middle of the pandemic.”
One of the biggest challenges Gillespie faced was making sure each member on her staff got around 15-20 hours each week. This particularly became an issue in November and she was forced to send people home early and decrease store hours entirely.
Gillespie’s daughter had an idea. At the end of November, she created a TikTok video to promote Tree City Coffee & Pastry in hopes of encouraging people to purchase items from the shop. The video showcased what the outside of the building looked like as well as a step-by-step creation of making one of the shop’s drinks. The TikTok went viral and resulted in Gillespie’s best weekend revenue wise as the owner of the shop.
“As a result of the TikTok, we were able to maintain staffing hours for the month of December,” Gillespie said. “I care about everyone that works there and they’re kind of like my own kids. It weighs really heavy on my heart knowing that they’re suffering as well, but they have continued to stick by me and know that we’re going to get through this together.”
Haley Carstenson, a senior at Kent State University, has been an employee at the shop for almost two years. She felt the struggle of needing hours at the start of the school year, and her work and class schedules conflicting making it hard for her to get hours.
“With my classes, it was very difficult for me to work there,” Carstenson said. “I stayed on for one day a week. Now, coming into this semester with my class schedule lightening, I’m able to give her hours on the days we need staff.”
Carstenson holds the role of shift manager which includes closing up the business at the end of the night and helping customers have a good experience when they visit.
One of her biggest challenges has been with customers who have problems complying with safety protocols like wearing a mask inside the store and waiting outside when the lobby gets to a certain capacity.
“They can get really aggressive and some people have such an issue when we’re trying to follow the guidelines, so we don’t get in trouble,” Carstenson said. “It’s the people who don’t want to work with us as a community to get through this together.”
Another challenge the pandemic has presented involves the suppliers of some of the syrups that go into the drinks at the shop. Sometimes, the supplier will be out of stock of a syrup and the shop will have to go to other places to search for a replacement.
Despite the challenges that come from running a small business during this time there is an advantage to running a small business during a pandemic.
“The advantage is definitely meeting and getting to know all of the regulars,” Gillespie said. “It’s a unique experience getting to genuinely talk to people and it’s not just a business encounter. I’ve loved getting to know all of the regulars and I know everyone by name.”
When things get back to normal, Gillespie has a vision for what she wants to shape the business into.
“I want to carry different food items like different soups and sandwiches,” Gillespie said. “It’s getting to that point and when that will happen. I’m always trying to search for something that’s unique and something we can offer Kent.”
But right now, it’s hard for her to make drastic changes and shape the shop into that vision.
“It’s all about survival right now,” Gillespie said. “Hopefully, we’ll get through all this and make it to the other side.”
Anna Louden contributed to this story.