Westside small businesses are struggling and finding innovative ways to pivot amid COVID-19 restrictions

By Kellie Chudzinski

The Humble Potato’s Eric Ong

Small businesses across the city are feeling the effects of Los Angeles County’s “Safer at Home” measures.

New restrictions by county and city health officials have closed non-essential businesses in an attempt to keep residents at home and limit the spread of  COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, as the number of deaths and cases in the county rises daily.

Dine-in only restaurants, bars, hair salons, gyms, movie theaters, malls, and some retail stores, among others, have closed.

Businesses on typically packed strips including the Venice Boardwalk and Abbot Kinney Boulevard, as well as those all around Los Angeles, are closing and those remaining open are feeling the constraints.

Though the Safer at Home order officially went into effect on March 19 and will be in place until April 19, businesses started feeling a squeeze weeks ago.

Hair and nail salons were among new businesses in mandated closures announced Sunday. Mindy Kim, owner of Nails by Olivia in Marina del Rey, closed before the official order as business came to a stop after a slowing since the beginning of March.

“At this point, it was costing us more to stay open,” says Kim.

Shannon Tackett, a stylist formerly at Abbot Kinney’s Salon 1636, who saw clients canceling weeks before St. Patrick’s Day, knew she wouldn’t be able to afford her station at the salon.

Tackett made the difficult decision to leave the shop, though she is still offering clients services on a case-by-case basis in their homes or her Venice penthouse — where she hopes to open a business called The Salon Sanctuary after the crisis — though she will be taking precautions to not spread or get the virus by wearing gloves and masks for now.

“I’m doing my best to keep my focus,” she says. “I believe what we focus on grows. So I’m doing my best to keep my focus in a creative forward-moving place.”

Tackett expects if the closures of salons span a significant time period it will drive stylists to other professions and will have those in the industry innovating on their own as she is working
to do now.

Restaurants, and hospitality in general, have so far been deemed an essential business, as long as they serve food but only for delivery, pickup or take-out. In a letter sent to President Trump on March 18, the National Restaurant Association estimated the industry will lose $225 million in revenue over three months and five to seven million jobs.

Mayly Tao, owner of the 24/7 DK’s Donuts & Bakery in Santa Monica, and delivery-only Donut Princess, has been working to find new and creative ways to drive in businesses.

Tao says she noticed the change in foot traffic and orders weeks before the local and statewide orders started to rain in.

For Tao, DK’s is a family business, opened in the early ’80s by her parents who settled in L.A. from Cambodia and passed the business on to her. A staple in the community, the doughnut shop has catered St. John’s hospital cafeteria for nearly 25-years and had reoccurring orders for New York Bagel & Deli, among other cafes, and large companies in the area including Hulu, Amazon, and its subsidiary Ring.

Earlier in the month, as concern around the novel coronavirus grew, companies slowly started sending employees to work from home, and on the front lines hospitals began preparing for heightened hygiene concerns. When St. John’s canceled its order, Tao took notice.

“Almost all of the accounts are canceled,” Tao now says. “And that’s a huge hit on the business.”

To stay up and running, she created a grocery store at DK’s, selling staples such as milk, eggs, bread and a selection of vegetables, open around the clock.

She has also created DK’s Secret Sandwich Shop Menu on Uber Eats, and has made delivery available 24/7 on multiple food delivery apps. If a customer is outside of the app’s delivery range, Tao will take orders via email and deliver them herself. Tao is also encouraging residents to support local shops, and buy gift cards that supports businesses now and shoppers can use them later.

“I mean, when your family business like this has been opened since 1981,” Tao says. “I will literally do anything, I will work at any hours necessary to make sure that we will move forward in the future.”

Eric Ong, owner of Humble Potato in Culver City, Mee and Greet in Palms and MVP in Westchester, has banded together with other small business owners in the hospitality industry to petition Gov. Gavin Newsom “to plea for relief and support at the local, state and federal level.”

“This is a once in a lifetime type of situation,” Ong says. “I’m just trying my best to make sure that we are as proactive as we can be.”

He felt small businesses were “forgotten” in the initial discussions of a stimulus package, as owners were encouraged to take out low-interest loans with SBA or the city of Los Angeles’ microloan program, though both have caps that he said would barely cover one of his payrolls.

President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on the 18th that allocated roughly $8 billion for COVID-19 prevention, preparation and response efforts, with some new expectations and tax breaks for small businesses, but Ong is still pushing for relief.

“It’s just crazy [that] somebody would take out a loan in this situation and go into debt,” Ong says. “We need grants here, we need cash bailouts in the sense that inject into the business.”

Included in the aid package, going into effect April 2, were requirements that businesses with less than 500 employees provide up to 10 days of paid sick leave for those affected by the disease, and partial sick leave for up to 10 days to take care of an affected family member. And with the new expectations, those businesses will also receive tax credits and payroll tax relief to offset the costs of the sick leave.

Christina Davis, president and CEO of the LAX Chamber of Commerce, is working to provide her nearly 600 members with resources — from webinars to tech training — to keep their businesses running. She is encouraging owners to pivot when possible and embrace the digital age, taking their companies online. She believes those that are able to “reinvent themselves” and use new technologies will “come out of this stronger.”

“Some businesses will survive and thrive and they’ll adapt and some businesses will not,” she adds. “Every day is a new adventure for them trying to figure out how to weather the storm.”

As businesses that remain open continue to struggle without their typical customer flow, Davis encourages support of local businesses.

“When you can shop local, shop local,” she says. “So many of these businesses continue to reinvest in our communities. And if we can start at a very local level, it will just ripple out from there.”