The owners created pandemic-themed products that boosted their bottom line.

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More than 100,000 small businesses have closed their doors for good due to COVID-19.[1] But some have found creative ways to keep from falling to their knees.

It’s not because of the small business loans the government was giving out. Those have run dry, and it turned out that big businesses were getting most of the money, anyways.[2]

It’s because they read the room and began to sell just what people want – pandemic-themed products. Here are three small business owners who are doing better than ever during the pandemic and how they learned to adapt.

Aloria Cakes and Gourmet Sweets: New York

Anastasia Cunningham, owner and sole baker of Aloria Cakes and Gourmet Sweets in Astoria, New York, used to make 95% of her profits on large events like weddings and birthdays – but COVID-19 had other plans.

“When it first started and I was reading up on it I was like, ‘Oh my God, do you think it’ll affect weddings?’” she said. “It was affecting huge [event] venues, like 10,000 people, but then it just kept trickling down.”

Cunningham usually specializes in custom cakes, meaning no two are alike. However, after closing for most of April, she said she had to rethink her business strategy – hence her website’s new section called “Quarantine Treats.”[3]

Unlike her custom cakes, quarantine treats are the first time Cunningham has made products in bulk. She now sells items like chocolate chip bars, vegan pumpkin muffins and biscotti in boxes and bags.

But Cunningham is also making items specifically geared toward quarantine. One is a cake that looks exactly like a roll of toilet paper. Another is cupcakes with a white chocolate topper that says “Wash your hands,” along with “quarantine cakes” with toppers saying “Don’t be a hoarder.”

This is also the first time Cunningham has used e-commerce, where customers can buy the products directly online. When she opened orders back up for the first time in May, she received so many that she had to start declining requests.

“We have such a great community here in Astoria,” she said. “Everybody’s really supportive of small business and I’m just very, very lucky.”

For Cunningham, baking is therapy – and she believes it provides therapy for others, too. She said she has received emails from customers saying that her products help them cheer up while stuck in quarantine.

“It’s an almost stupid thing, right? A bunch of cupcakes,” she said. “But even if it helps brighten up somebody’s day, it is super, super meaningful and fulfilling for me.”


Zoey’s Attic: St. Louis, Missouri

Zoey’s Attic usually sells customized t-shirts and other personalized gifts out of a cozy brick building in Webster Groves.[4] The business, which has run since 2006, had 25 employees who were as close-knit as the suburbs surrounding the shop, said owner Erin Delanty.

Then the storefront shut down in March, sales dropped from 150 items a day to 10 and Delanty had to lay off almost half her workers.

“My husband and I were just looking at each other like, ‘Oh my God, what do we do?’” she said. “We have so many employees and there’s not gonna be enough to cover payroll and it was just terrifying.”

Delanty spent a week pacing her home before she decided to do something about it, she said. It started with the candles, which she had previously been making for her friends for fun.

When she started selling a gift box online labeled “Quarantine succs without you! Hang in there!”  with the candles and a succulent, she said she had to shut down orders early to not overwhelm her remaining employees with production.

Then the products became pandemic-themed clothing, mugs, puzzles made out of photos, wine labels and clothing.

One T-shirt says “Homeschool like a boss” for parents who have found themselves in charge of their children’s education. Another mug says “Fun quarantine fact: turns out my job can be done remotely, Karen.”

“We’re certainly not making light of it. But we’re just trying to live with it,” Delanty said. “Anything we can do to make it better for our families and better for our friends and our kids, that’s kind of where I think that’s where we’re taking the approach from.”

Since introducing the quarantine products, Delanty has been able to hire back almost all of her employees, she said. The store even sells up to 400 products a day sometimes, which is almost twice of what the average used to be.

“My brain is just on fire with new products. I think what’s kind of unique about our business, is that I don’t have to wait for a manufacturer,” she said. “I do it all myself without anyone in the way.”

The Sunday Daisy: Tuscon, Arizona

The Sunday Daisy may not have a storefront, but Etsy sales of the t-shirts were more than enough for what she needed, owner Jenni Young said.[5] In 2018, she converted her garage into a t-shirt printing warehouse to help pay for her three children’s private school tuitions.

At the beginning of the pandemic, sales went from 50 t-shirts a day to two. But Young introduced quarantine products quickly, and sales jumped from 400 a week to 500, she said. Some weeks she even racks in 800.

“The first two weeks I was like, ‘Well, this is it for all of quarantine. There goes my sales. Nobody’s going to be shopping,’” she said. “So I’m definitely happy.”

One t-shirt says “Social distancing expert” in a loopy cursive. It comes in 19 different colors, from “Cinderella blue” to “heather sunset.” Another one says “Like a good neighbor stay over there” in a similar range of colors and sizes – and those are just two of 16 that are pandemic-themed.

At first, the demand was overwhelming. Young couldn’t have her two employees over for safety reasons, and her own two hands could only do so much, she said.

“I just didn’t know how to go about everything,” she said. “I was trying to work and help my kids and I had no employees. So it’s definitely a big juggling [job].”

Mail orders have only added to her problems.[6] The t-shirts that she orders from a California warehouse used to take two days to come in, but now it takes seven. Customers also aren’t too happy about having to wait longer for their products to arrive, she said.

But Young says she can’t complain because she thought nothing was going to save her profits after the pandemic hit.

“We definitely rely on this income,” she said. “I’m not really worried. Because I feel like whatever happens, I can figure out a way to adapt.”

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About the Author

Hope Dean

Hope Dean

Hope Dean is a senior studying journalism at the University of Florida. She works as the enterprise editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and previously worked at the Florida Atlantic University student-run newspaper the University Press as the news, features and managing editor.

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