Soul-crushing COVID-19

A lonely, difficult - and educational - journey these 12 months for Kitsap’s small-business owners

By Mike De Felice

Special to Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD – Individuals have faced myriad hardships since the COVID-19 pandemic arose in the Pacific Northwest just over a year ago, from job layoffs to reduced work hours, to being housebound and working from a spare bedroom, to being unable to see family and friends in an effort to help reduce the spread of the virus.

At the same time, small businesses have also been greatly impacted by the pandemic. Faced with ever-evolving health-related restrictions tied to the different phase proclamations issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, businesses needed to be on alert, ready to shift gears on short notice.

Some businesses during this tumultuous time had to reinvent themselves to keep the doors open. Many had to come up with creative ways to tweak their regular operation. And others had no choice but to stay the course, endure the COVID restrictions and wait until their communities were ready to return to some semblance of normal life.

Kitsap Daily News visited small businesses across Kitsap County to learn how owners and managers had coped with doing business during such an unpredictable year. What follows is a series of profiles detailing how these businesses survived — and in some cases, thrived — during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

Irene’s Photos and Design, Port Orchard

‘Stressful’ is how Irene Beckham described the past year running Irene’s Photos and Design, her photography, graphic design and videography business in Port Orchard. As months on end of the COVID-19 crisis dragged on and her company suffered, Beckham was forced to downsize and close her 1,700-square-foot shop at Towne Square Mall. She subsequently squeezed into smaller quarters — a 650-square-foot storefront on Bay Street.

Irene Beckham’s graphics business in Port Orchard had to reinvent itself in order to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

Irene Beckham’s graphics business in Port Orchard had to reinvent itself in order to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

“It was constantly, ‘Okay, what’s the next thing I can get creative with?” she said.

“Heading into the pandemic, we were doing great. Our revenue was tripling every year.”

The shop specializes in sports photography, taking individual portraits and team shots of Little Leaguers and other young athletes in various sports. Once organized sports stopped due to COVID concerns, though, it was “game over” for that portion of the business.

To pay the rent, Beckham was forced to create a new source of revenue. She turned to yard signs.

Since South Kitsap High School was on a remote-only schedule for seniors and grads were unable to have a conventional graduation ceremony, families had no way to show support for their students. Beckham’s company got creative and decided to design yard signs. Families could purchase a political-style placard sign featuring their seniors and a congratulatory message. Proud families could display it in their front yard for passersby to see.

The student yard sign idea later expanded to “Happy Birthday” announcements and signs of support for family members who were essential workers.

The usual South Kitsap High School graduation ceremony had to be replaced with a car parade down Bay Street. This spurred Beckham to come up with the idea of selling large magnet signs displaying a senior’s photo that a family could slap on their car door.

Thankfully, things are looking brighter for the company. “Our sports leagues are all coming back. It does look promising,” Beckham smiled.

South Kitsap Properties, Port Orchard

“2020 was a fantastic year. My home sales business was up 66%. It was certainly our best year ever and the best year that South Kitsap — and Kitsap County for that matter — had seen since I have been in the business,” said real estate broker Doug Miller, who owns South Kitsap Properties in Port Orchard.

Doug Miller, real estate broker and owner of South Kitsap Properties, said his business flourished in 2020. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

Doug Miller, real estate broker and owner of South Kitsap Properties, said his business flourished in 2020. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

“I was really surprised with how busy the real estate market was, not only when COVID first hit that March, April and early May, but throughout 2020. It was a fantastic year,” Miller said.

Three factors contributed to the office’s success last year. “There were very few houses on the market, 50% fewer than the year before,” he said. “There was a huge pent-up demand from buyers leftover from 2019 that hadn’t been serviced yet, and there were historically low-interest rates.”

In 2020, the real estate industry was forced to learn how to work remotely with buyers and sellers. Virtual home tours replaced open houses and in-person house visits. Miller said he was fortunate to have been doing high-definition video and 3-D tour shoots for years, which gave him a jump on real estate agents who needed to gear up to do virtual tours once the pandemic struck.

“When the COVID restrictions hit, we didn’t see a disruption of business that others did because we were ahead of the technology curve. That made a huge difference in our business last year,” he said.

Looking ahead, Miller sees his office already trending ahead of last year’s record sales. He plans to add two or three agents to his staff and predicts a 30% increase in volume this year.

Town and County Market, Bainbridge Island

“It was a roller coaster ride,” is how the director of Town and County Market on Bainbridge Island, Steve Snyder, described what it was like to run a grocery store during the pandemic.

“There was a lot of ‘filling the pantry’ shopping going on, people buying canned goods and paper products. Our business increased 10-20%,” Snyder said.

Toilet paper and cleaning products were items that flew off the shelf. With people stuck at home, many got into cooking, so flour and sugar became popular staples, he noted.

While demand for products increased during the pandemic, the store manager noted, supplies decreased since manufacturers had difficulty staffing production lines. The store had to come up with other sources to obtain products.

For example, when Purell and other cleaning products could not be found, Synder said the market turned to Bainbridge Distillery, which had shifted their operation from producing alcohol spirits to producing sanitizer, he said. Finding a local supplier for such a sought-after item was a relief, he said.

During the shutdown and the months afterward, one of the few places where people would venture out to visit was the grocery store. And for many, store sanitation was a top priority. “We had meetings three days a week to keep tabs on new health regulations,” he said.

Today, the company assigns nearly a full-time position to address COVID regulations in order to maintain the health of customers and staff, Snyder said.

Still, some customers remained reluctant to walk down the aisles. In response, the store developed a system allowing folks to phone in their shopping lists so that staff could gather the items and subsequently place them into the car. The phone-in order system eventually advanced to e-shopping where customers could visit the store’s website and electronically fill out shopping lists. Currently, the store handles about 70 e-orders a day.

“E-commerce is here to stay,” Snyder noted.

Snyder said surviving the past year provided them valuable lessons: “We learned how nimble and adaptive we could really be.”

KettleFish, Silverdale

Laying off eight part-time employees and dealing with a pile of standing contracts to purchase seafood and cooking materials were the immediate pandemic concerns that faced Dave Montoure, co-owner of KettleFish restaurant in Silverdale.

Following the shutdown, then being limited afterward to take-out service, the seafood eatery faced a 30-40% drop in business, Montoure said.

But like other businesses, the steam kettle-cooked seafood operation was able to pivot and come up with ways to keep its doors open. One way involved offering customers take-home meal kits featuring two of their signature seafood stew dishes — bouillabaisse and cioppino. Each kit was fully prepared with instructions.

“This allowed the customer to take it home, put it a big pot on their stove and prepare it in seven minutes,” he said. “A nice gourmet meal in your home in seven minutes. The reaction (of customers) was great.”

Fortunately, prior to the shutdown, the owners had invested in technology to handle online orders.

“We had a distinct advantage coming into COVID because we were already prepared to take orders over the internet by mobile devices. That was a saving grace,” Montoure said.

The restaurant received a financial boost last year by participating in Full Circle Meals — a program where restaurants earned income by providing meals to those in need. KettleFish prepared box lunches three days a week for residents of Kitsap Rescue Mission. The restaurant earned approximately $500 a week over several months. “It was really beneficial and kept our people working,” he said.

For Montoure, having the community get back to normal can’t come soon enough.

“A lot of people think the economy is open and restaurants are fully open, but we are not. We are still hurting. When we are beyond this and are able to fully reopen, we are very hopeful. We have a great community and a great opportunity here in Kitsap. We are excited about getting back to business.”

Pegasus Coffee House, Bainbridge Island

Up to the point when Pegasus Coffee House, a 41-year-old specialty coffee shop located in an iconic ivy-covered building, found itself at the cusp of the pandemic a year ago, it had been doing a stable business, according to president and co-owner Matt Grady.

Pegasus Coffee House in Poulsbo kept the java flowing and followed the mantra “Go with the flow” in 2020. (Facebook image)

Pegasus Coffee House in Poulsbo kept the java flowing and followed the mantra “Go with the flow” in 2020. (Facebook image)

Then, came the mandatory shutdown.

“The retail side of the business disappeared for a month or two. Business was down 60-70% right out of the gate. Nobody could come into the store. You could order at the front door and we would make it for you and deliver it out the side door. It was a very different world,” Grady recalled.

Business picked up the second half of last year when restrictions were relaxed, he said.

To help weather the pandemic, the European-style coffee house expanded its online business. For the first time, customers — many locked away at home and not driving to the office — were able to purchase coffee beans online and get them delivered directly to their doorstep for home brewing. Orders came in from across the country, Grady said.

To encourage customers to use the shop’s coffee beans at home, the store started offering coffee coaching classes.

“If you wanted to know how to brew coffee the way your barista does in the coffee shop but you’re working from home and don’t get to your coffee shop as frequently, we started offering 15-minute Zoom sessions for folks. They could ask questions and we would actually show them how to use different grinders and brewers so they could have great coffee at home.”

Grady sees his business changing in the days ahead.

“We don’t think the world will ever fully go back to the way it was. When companies go back to doing in-person work, there will probably still be a lot of folks working from home. So, we are preparing for that kind of world.

“We are optimistic this summer, once vaccines have been fully distributed and cases decline, that in-person business will continue to improve. But, we are really investing in the online side of things and digital marketing. We really want to build out more content so [our customers] can make great coffee at home.”

Skyhawk Press, Poulsbo

Skyhawk Press is a graphic design business that earns dollars by adhering company names and logos on clothing. The Poulsbo business also happens to be the North American official licensee for Liverpool FC, a soccer team located more than 4,500 miles away in England. The local company designs and prints clothing that sports the team’s name.

At the point when the pandemic struck, the soccer team was on the verge for the first time in 30 years of taking the title in the prestigious Premier League in England. Capturing the championship was expected to lead to a massive demand for team clothing that Skyhawk Press would print.

Skyhawk Press of Poulsbo recouped a portion of its graphic design business by reaching out to the local community and printing localized messages for its customers. (Facebook image)

Skyhawk Press of Poulsbo recouped a portion of its graphic design business by reaching out to the local community and printing localized messages for its customers. (Facebook image)

In anticipation, the Northwest enterprise had purchased $20,000 of ink to print team apparel. However, when the pandemic struck, the soccer league curtailed its schedule and prevented the team from capturing the title. As a result, Skyhawk Press was left with gallons of unused ink that had an expiration date.

“All roads led to 2020 being our best year ever,” said Alisha Weiss, CEO and owner of Skyhawk Press. Instead, the company faced a 90% drop in business in those first months of the pandemic.

“I was watching something that I had built over 10 years just crumble. It was devastating,” she said.

Fortunately, the Poulsbo business was able to turn its ink predicament into a boost for both its business and the city.

“I wanted to be of service to the community, but I didn’t know how to. With the ink, I was, ‘let’s put it to use.’ I didn’t want to pour it down the drain,” she said.

Weiss brainstormed to find a way to use the ink and came up with ‘Poulsbo Strong.’ Her company produced T-shirts sporting the ‘Poulsbo Strong’ motto. Each shirt sold for $20 and buyers were able to designate a local company to receive $10 of the purchase price.

The program resulted in $54,000 being distributed to local companies, she said. The idea was so successful, it was duplicated in Bainbridge Island, Kingston and Silverdale.

Over the past year, the Poulsbo company has rebounded some, narrowing its drop in business to 20% for the year. Still, Weiss is optimistic, saying she learned many lessons from Poulsbo Strong.

“I have found myself so energized and excited to work with local brands and people who want to start a small business and are not deterred by the past 12 months,” she said.

Red Plantation, Poulsbo

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced Stay-at-Home orders, the co-op-like Red Plantation store in Poulsbo was hit hard.

“Our sales the next month were the worst since we opened, down 85-90%,” owner Gabrielle McGraw-Elliott said.

Red Plantation, a Poulsbo vintage and repurpose shop, found its business down by 90% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to generate new business, the store owner turned to Facebook and streaming technology. (Facebook image)

Red Plantation, a Poulsbo vintage and repurpose shop, found its business down by 90% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to generate new business, the store owner turned to Facebook and streaming technology. (Facebook image)

“I experienced a wide range of emotions. I’m a single mom with two kids. I’m in charge of 15 other people who rely on money going to their families. I think I worked harder and longer those first 30 days than I ever had in order to barely make ends meet.”

McGraw-Elliott rents out shelf space in the store to 15 vendors. “We try to stick to vintage, antique, handcrafted and repurposed items, and focus on home décor, garden, gifts and unique things you won’t find anywhere else.”

With sales lagging, the owner turned to technology for help.

“I came up with the concept of doing an online flea market because we weren’t getting anywhere,” she said.

The store went live on Facebook to do shows that spotlighted store items. The programs allowed for interaction with viewers. The first two shows attracted some customers and produced sales.

“By the third show — which we called ‘Girls Night Out’ — we were on for four hours with over 200 people watching and sold out everything!” McGraw-Elliott said.

The unconventional — but successful — Facebook show ran twice a week at a peak.

“People were bored at home watching Netflix. The only places they got to go were Walmart and Home Depot. Our shows were fun. We did funny little intros and skits at the beginning.”

In one live-streaming show, store vendors did a takeoff of “Game of Thrones” and called it “Gnomes of Rolls,” where they sat on a throne made of toilet paper rolls and were surrounded by gnomes.

“We did not even need to be open because we were doing so well,” the owner said, who noted that sales during some months were double over 2019.

“It was the best year we ever had.”

Running the shop last year was life-changing for McGraw-Elliott. “I don’t know how to describe when you go from feeling like you just lost everything to being on top of the world and knowing now that you can handle anything after that. It was empowering for me.”

Servpro of Kitsap County, Bremerton

When COVID cases began being reported in the area a year ago, new business stopped at Servpro of Kitsap County. The office had to lay off 25 workers, sales and marketing manager Kathleen Arndt said.

Fire and water damage service was normally the kind of work the company handled, so with the pandemic putting so many business operations on hold, Servpro found there was less need for their services. With their backs against the wall, company officials had to find a new service in which to offer customers. The enterprise did so by addressing what had weakened many businesses – the COVID-19 virus – and turned it into a source of new business.

“The company came up with a pro-active disinfectant cleaning service that helped with a variety of different bacterial viruses, one being COVID. We were thinking it would be a good tool for businesses to use so they could advertise that they had taken extra steps to prevent COVID from affecting their business,” Arndt said.

Once COVID cases started showing up at office settings, causing them to shut down and quarantine staff, Servpro realized it could go into such businesses and disinfect the premises. These cleanings would allow a company to reopen sooner, she said.

“We found that businesses really liked that we were able to come in and provide that service after a COVID case. They then were quickly able to open their business back up.

“Oftentimes, we would get a call on a Thursday or Friday and asked if we could do the work over the weekend so they could open back up Monday. We did that a lot.

“It helped us stay afloat, basically,” Arndt said of the new service. Cleaning jobs climbed 30-40% and put the company in a position to offer jobs to those who had previously been let go, she noted.

And like so many struggling businesses that found a way to redefine themselves, Servproy and its owners learned a lesson during the pandemic.

“You definitely have to think outside the box. We are in a ‘new normal.’ Things that we maybe did a year ago are not going to work in this ‘new normal.’”