‘The uncertainty was the main issue’: Small businesses push through pandemic

After seven months, small businesses have begun to stabilize during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t come without hardships. Plenty of businesses have had to rethink their models and prepare for change. 

Roberto Sanchez, owner of Riviera Maya, a Mexican restaurant in Alton and Godfrey, said the scariest part of the pandemic was when it first hit. According to Sanchez, there was a short period when he was getting almost no business.

“The first two weeks when the restaurant was closed, there was very little to no business, because people were scared to go out. I remember it was like 8 p.m., [and as] I drove ten miles home from work, and I saw no other vehicle on the road,” Sanchez said. “We weren’t covering our daily expenses, but [after] two, three or four weeks, eventually people came back out. You have to be prepared for a few weeks of bad times in order to survive [as a business]. It will happen for some reason, and you never know why, but you have to be prepared.” 

Preparation is a necessity for any business, according to Robert Sancamper, owner of Sancamper Farms. Sancamper said too much preparation can never hurt.

“With a pandemic, it’s like anything else [as a business owner]. If you’re not thinking six months to a year ahead, you’re making a mistake,” Sancamper said. “You solve one problem, and you get to the next one and solve it too, and that’s how you get through these things.”

The pandemic hit every business hard, but Theodora Farms owner Kris Larson had a unique struggle — starting a new business during the pandemic.

“This was our first year of operation. So, we are a vegetable farm, and when the pandemic hit, we were just starting our season, but we knew right away that we were deemed an essential business, so we had to do what we had to do to keep in business,” Larson said. “We immediately protected our staff, and made sure we were all distanced at work and wore our masks and all that early on.”

All businesses have had to follow plenty of regulations due to COVID-19, even the Alton Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market, where Sancamper and Larson have stands. Sancamper said the COVID-19 regulations have led to new perspectives on the farmer’s market.

“We went back to a regular farmer’s market, but we still have a 10 foot spacing between the vendors, so it actually made the market expand a little bit,” Sancamper said. “We’re looking at the market in a different way now, and how to use it a little different than we have before.”

Larson said Theodora Farms had to find new customers since staying open.

“The biggest impact on the new business was that most of our buyers, our large buyers like restaurants especially, were essentially shut down, so we lost at least one or two market channels right away, and lost some income there, but on the other hand, the household market picked up,” Larson said. “Individual families and consumers started buying more, so we just had to adjust our focus, but as a new business, we didn’t have a lot of brand recognition right away.”

According to Sanchez, brand recognition and a strong customer base is incredibly important for any business, especially now.

“Restaurants, or anything locally owned, are very local things,” Sanchez said. “We have people from Alton and Godfrey, or even East Alton who know our name, so they come here more, so we stay steady easier.” 

Above all, Sancamper said the most important thing to remember is to go with the flow and stay optimistic.

“All you can do is adapt to what they tell you.  You have a problem, you work through the problem. You figure out how to do without what you don’t have,” Sancamper said. “Despite all that’s been going on, I think it’s all gonna work out pretty nice.”

For more information, visit Theodora Farm’s website, or the Facebook pages for Riviera Maya and Sancamper Farms.

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