Small businesses keep plugging away

By Mike Genet

As the pandemic wears on into what normally would be the strong part of the retail and commercial calendar, some area business leaders can point to ways in which instead it’s a tenuous situation.

Public health restrictions, federal aid for businesses and changing consumer spending habits have all affected small businesses to varying degrees – and will continue to do so.

An employee of NS Custom Cakes Bakery & Deli in Independence makes a delivery to Independence firefighters earlier this year. Amid a generally uncertain time for small businesses, NS Custom Cakes has been a rare start-up operation in the middle of the pandemic.

“Day by day,” Lara Vermillion, president of the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce, says about how she hears local businesses are doing. “The hospitality industry has definitely been hit the hardest, and there’s some businesses that won’t make it. Grocers have been going fabulous, though.”

Saturday is Small Business Saturday across the country, a day to put a focus on locally owned businesses amid the rush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday that come with Thanksgiving.

Vermillion said a chamber survey from around Labor Day showed that businesses’ initial federal aid had been spoken for, and that another round would be needed. 

Added Tom Lesnak, president/CEO of the Independence Chamber of Commerce, who’s heard similar concerns, “When it first came out, the hope was ‘This will get us to the point in October and November where things might get better.” 

“It’s very uncertain,” he said about retailers’ feelings going into the holiday season. “People are doing a lot of shopping online, and some places have had no online presence and been forced to do something there. For ones that haven’t, they can struggle.”

Another worry can’t be reflected on the ledgers.

“One of their greatest concerns was the health and mental wellness of employees, and their stress level,” Vermillion said. “It’s starting to wear on everybody.”

Lesnak said the business struggles he hears about deal with logistics as much as the bottom line.

“They struggle more so with the change in regulation and interpretation, realizing that in a lot of cases Jackson County puts the order out, but who’s interpreting and enforcing it,” Lesnak said. “There’s so many different things that play into this, and we explain as we understand it.”

Small businesses have to balance the desire to maintain some revenue and some jobs against how they believe they can safely operate, he said.

“The big fear some have is liability, chamber taken a strong stance with legislature some kind of covid liability protection how many people do you bring back when at 50 percent capacity

Such an atmosphere would make a new brick-and-mortar business opening seem difficult, but Nicole Strong, for one, has managed well with NS Custom Cakes Bakery & Deli, which opened on 23rd Street near Lee’s Summit Road in Independence in August.

Strong, building on a hobby side job of making cakes, initially hoped to open in February but ran into bureaucratic delays that the pandemic amplified. Rather than shelve her plan, Strong bet that amid the pandemic she could still fill a niche for a local source of fresh-made pastry treats and sandwiches and soups for lunch.

Thus far, her guess has been correct – enough that she needs a small crew to help fill demand.

“At that point, my contractor and I, we just looked at each other and said, ‘We’re already in it,’” Strong said. “The amount of love and support we’ve gotten from the community has been incredible.”

A majority of her customers are elderly, Strong says, and she often hears from them that her bakery and deli hits a nostalgic nerve like few places, if any, can.

While grateful for her early success, dealing the “very good problem” of an early customer rush following an even cake delivery the day before, Strong said she realizes she might well be a fortunate exception during these times.

“We’ve just got to work hard; we’ll get through it,” she said.

Vermillion said while she doesn’t see many new businesses sprouting up, she’s witnessed the wheels turning in some people’s minds about such a move.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of people doing research,” she said. “Maybe they’re not working or thinking of doing something different. People are reprioritizing their jobs, some are leaving jobs and some are making different career moves.”

While Vermillion says consumer confidence will be the biggest determinant on how well and how many businesses ultimately survive, Lesnak said the restaurants he’s seen operating have done an admirable job to help consumer confidence. 

“I think our restaurants have done a great job, and I think they will look at the way they present themselves,” he said. The pandemic “has really raised the bar on that. It’s not an easy thing for them to do that, and I think the consumer sees that.”

With pick-up and delivery orders becoming the more common, if not the sole method for some businesses right now, Lesnak said he believes it could mean some permanent shift.

“I think we could see some kitchen-only services,” he said. “Some patterns have already started to change.”

Lesnak and the Independence chamber have started to sign up businesses for a buy-local partnership with the marketing firm MyHownd, which aims to make promotional offers from brick and mortar retailers more accessible to residents and possible consumers. The limited program is free for businesses on their end.

“Our whole goal with this is to help businesses get over the final hump the next few months,” Lesnak said.