A year after lockdown, small business owners envision life post-COVID – The Sierra Nevada Ally
Almost exactly a year ago, Americans began to grapple with the first of the lockdown orders imposed by federal and state governments to halt the spread of a new, dangerous and little-understood virus. In the months since, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of over 500,000 Americans, and another list of casualties has been keenly felt by almost every community in the country: the toll on American small businesses.
The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the number of working small business owners in the country went from 15 million in February 2020 to 11.7 million in April—a 22 percent drop considered “unprecedented” in the U.S. However, in spite of (and in some cases, because of) the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, some local business owners have begun to envision life beyond the virus by starting new businesses or expanding existing ones.
A Truckee coffeehouse geared for adventurers survived 2020—for several reasons
“Last winter was a dry winter and then COVID hit, and then we had a hell of a summer, and then California shut down,” said Nick Visconti, founder of Drink Coffee Do Stuff. “We were right on the border. … And in a lot of ways it was a very challenging environment, but we continued to commit to what we always believed in, which is extraordinary coffee leading to an extraordinary life.”
Visconti is a Tahoe native and former professional snowboarder. Throughout his twenties, he traveled the world in search of powder and big mountains, often finding coffee to be the one cultural constant. After apprenticing under master roasters in Portland and Seattle, he and his wife Laura opened the Drink Coffee Do Stuff Roastery in 2017 in Truckee. They’ve since opened two coffee shops around Tahoe, one in Incline Village in 2019, and the other a few months ago in Downtown Truckee.
“In Incline, we were only open for two months before the pandemic hit,” Visconti said. “So, we had to close our doors and we served coffee out of our front window for, like, four months. It was really difficult, but out of that struggle came relationship building opportunities with the local community that built loyalty and retention, and, ultimately, the culture that’s now thriving today.”
Before their brick-and-mortar stores, Drink Coffee Do Stuff was already sold in grocery and coffee shops throughout the West Coast. Those preexisting footholds in the market, Visconti said, better prepared DCDS to weather the lockdowns, but there were casualties in the retail side as shops carrying their product closed too—some indefinitely.
Smart branding and location helped as well. Visconti refers to Drink Coffee Do Stuff’s organic, fair trade product as “fuel” for an adventurous life, and as people sought outdoor activities to break the monotony of lockdown, the Viscontis were positioned around Tahoe to serve thrill seekers and day trippers alike. Visconti, however, credits their success to the 80-hour workweeks he and his staff endured—a necessity to continue supporting his 20 employees.
“I don’t necessarily want to give too much credit to passive things because we worked our asses off,” Visconti said. “There was definitely benefit to the outdoors and Tahoe being trendy and a destination—no doubt. … It was very timely, but at the same time, my wife, my business partner, Brad [Farmer], our entire staff, I mean, everyone works so hard.”
The decision to open a new location in Truckee came down to opportunity and a certain appetite for risk—one that Visconti honed during his days spent jumping off of cliffs for a living.
“The only way to succeed in that realm is get back up and do it again until you land it,” Visconti said. “So, I’ve learned for a decade plus how to take a beating in life and persevere in spite of it.”
The owners of a pop-up event space are on the verge of opening a permanent business in Reno
While coffee can be enjoyed just fine in a solo setting (I’m personally working on my third cup while writing this) pandemic restrictions meant another thing entirely to a local business whose tagline is “Gather here.” Located in the old U.S. Bank building on the intersection of Vassar street and Wells Avenue, The Virgil is slated to open on March 15 and will combine two business models that were especially hard hit by the pandemic: shared office space and a wedding and events venue.
“We believe that gathering is essential to human connection, and we believe in inspiring human connection,” said The Virgil’s co-owner Rachel Macintyre.
Macintyre and her business partner, Jessie Phillips, moved to Reno years ago from Portland, Oregon and Southern California respectively, and opened another business together in 2018 called Wandering Wyld—a pop-up events and retail space for small businesses. They experimented with hosting coworking space for other small businesses, freelance and gig workers, and when real estate became available in 2019, decided to go big with their next project.
“We identified quickly that our community needed access to affordable workspace—not just the space to promote their business, but a place to actually do their business,” said Macintyre. “So, we started with pop-up co-working and learned a lot and then decided to take the leap and open up our own co-work and event space.”
The Virgil will offer a shared, furnished workspace with amenities like bottomless coffee and high-speed internet, and the space—originally built as a church in 1920s—will also serve as a venue for weddings and private events.
“If you’re just an events space, and you invest so much beauty into this venue, why not allow your community to use it during the day? Why close your doors? And so that’s where the co-working came in,” said Macintyre. “We found a way to kind of flip that model on its head and we can offer co-working affordably by also doing weddings and events.”
With the help of another out of state partner, Jamie Miller, construction began on the Virgil not long before the pandemic began. Soon after lockdown started, however, Macintyre and Phillips began to feel the strain on their other business.
You know, we’re in the events business, and so when the pandemic hit, definitely fear came into play,” Macintyre said. “Our entire event schedule for all of 2020 was canceled.”
While Wandering Wyld’s event calendar suffered, another of Macintyre’s ventures, a yoga studio, opened briefly last spring before closing its doors for good. Like thousands of Nevadan businesses, the partners received some funding from the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan program but found that the qualifications of the program didn’t apply to new businesses like The Virgil.
“If you couldn’t show a financial loss from 2019 or 2018, then you actually didn’t qualify,” Macintyre said. “So, it’s ironic, right? Like, people taking risks and opening their doors and then three months later, it’s a pandemic, and they’re not eligible just because they weren’t open long enough.”
Macintyre and Phillips are grateful for the support they did receive, but watched many other local businesses collapse under the weight of social distancing and lockdown orders. The hardships were compounded, Macintyre said, by the rock-and-a-hard-place situation in which many entrepreneurs find themselves: grateful for programs providing much needed financial support, but helpless in the face of restrictions killing their businesses. To top it off, the corrosive state of American discourse meant even voicing an opinion on the issue can be dangerous.
“The pandemic has become so politically charged that, as a business owner, there’s no right answer,” Macintyre said. “There’s so much to say, and as an entrepreneur, we live in fear of saying the wrong thing.”
Ultimately Macintyre and Phillips were able to maintain Wandering Wyld and shoulder the construction costs of the Virgil by electing to not cut themselves a paycheck for the entirety of 2020, and with the grand opening of the Virgil next week and the addition of their first employees to the company payroll, the partners are starting to see their belt-tightening pay off.
“We’re really fortunate in our ability to be strategic and leverage our relationships to expand our business of Wandering Wyld that we were able to grow during a pandemic at the end of the year, which was great,” Macintyre said. “And that led us to be able to actually grow our team in 2021.”
While it may take years for parts of the country to recover from the economic and personal devastation caused by the pandemic, there’s at least another sign that Americans are beginning to see the end of the disaster: The Virgil already has about 50 inquiries for weddings in the coming months.