Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Small businesses, “provide half of all private sector jobs in the U.S. and an even larger percentage in many underserved communities,” according to a “Real Impacts of COVID-19 on Small Business” report relating to recent “Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business” research. Although some small businesses throughout the United States have been shuttered because of the pandemic’s lingering economic impact, many small businesses in Macon County reported best year-end totals at the close of 2020 – and others are pleased that numbers have remained consistently elevated. Several local business owners relate positive gains to heightened local support as well as patronage from visitors and seasonal residents.
“Twenty-twenty was definitely one of our best years in terms of sales,” said Bill Abraham, who co-owns Mountain Valley Health Foods with Sandy Ochsner. “We will have been in business 25 years this May and, yes, the curbside business we did for a short time was very hard – in terms of trying to fill orders and the logistics involved – but our customers have been incredibly understanding throughout this whole thing and I think they see how good our customer service is so they want to continue to support us.”
Rob Reale, owner with his wife, Brooke Reale, of Kitchen Sink Inc., said, “We were up 20 to 25% every month, and we had some really high dollar days in December and even into the first week of January. The locals have definitely been in here. And while they may have ‘discovered’ us and purchased items and gifts for others, they have come back to purchase for themselves.”
Reale and his wife relocated from Florida and purchased Kitchen Sink Inc. two years ago from former owners; he was an electrician and she was in the medical field. “We have no regrets,” he said. “We love owning this business and have not had to close during this pandemic or apply for any COVID government assistance.”
Reale and other business owners believe locals are more intentional about supporting area businesses because they want the small town feel of Franklin to continue and because of the ability of small businesses to provide an intimate shopping experience and stellar customer service.
“We educate customers on our products, look for what they might need, and seriously will take back items that are not working for them,” said Abraham.
“I love the customer service aspect,” said a Kitchen Sink Inc. customer who declined to share her name. “I would rather shop in a small store, learn about the products directly from the owners, and know that my money is supporting the continuation of that business, instead of shopping at big chain stores. Plus, shopping at a small business is more of an experience. It was on my bucket list to come into this store one day and just spend as much time as I wanted looking at everything and asking questions.”
“I think most of us on Main Street have just tried to do all we can to best serve the locals and guests that have been coming in like we always have,” said Rob Gasbaro, co-owner of Outdoor 76. “We’ve been very fortunate to see the total blended traffic numbers not drop, despite most downtown events being cancelled.”
Abraham observed, “This pandemic has definitely made people look first at local businesses before they shop at big places and in other cities, such as Asheville or Atlanta. There are many people who genuinely want to support us.”
Reale and his wife have determined, due to sales of higher-end items, such as Dutch ovens, knife sets, and the Le Cruset brand of enameled cast-iron cookware, that many people “must not be traveling as much and are instead interested in spending disposable dollars equipping their kitchens with quality items.”
“Our holiday sales were good,” said Martha Holbrook, owner of Mossy Rock. “The community, seasonal/visitors were very supportive. Many made the statement that they were shopping local with small businesses because they wanted to make sure we survived and because they enjoyed the atmosphere of the smaller shops.”
Suzanne Harouff, owner of Books Unlimited, shared, “My holiday sales were up by 10%, thanks to locals and visitors both. When you have books and puzzles, everyone loves you! I believe that the public has finally realized the importance of small business and the impact it has on home and community. The appreciation from my customers, just because I was open and still here, is very humbling. I always thought I was essential! It’s nice to know that other people think I am, too.”
Holbrook and other owners did not discount the fact that 2020 had its challenges.
“Closing for a month, canceling events … there have been losses. But we are still here; [locals and visitors] can still shop local in our small businesses and find specialty items for gifts or themselves.”
“I don’t know a business owner in our community who wasn’t terrified in late March 2020,” said Gasboro. “We’re on an island in the fact that we’re one of few businesses in the community that rely on concentrated revenue in March-April from AT hikers. They make up a considerable part of our annual revenue and we missed literally the entire season from end-to-end. We lost every nickel of that. However, I wouldn’t say for us that 2020 as a whole presented horribly challenging business conditions. By June we quickly realized that we were in an open state – and fortunately in a place where people wanted to get away to. So where we missed all of our AT hiker traffic, the influx of visitors made up for some of that as the year went on.”
Hannah Edwards, owner with her husband Alan Edwards, of Yonder, reflected on the hardship of seeing their young, but thriving restaurant face immediate challenges due to the spring 2020 shelter-in-place governmental mandate that resulted in their closing. However, the Edwards quickly transitioned into an online and then brick-and-mortar locally sustainable food market.
“What was such a challenge turned out to be a blessing … a true gift,” said Hannah Edwards. “Our numbers have been up for these past several months. Having to close Yonder and opening online and in our new location as a market was the best thing that happened to us.”
Small business owners have also expressed appreciation for various organized efforts, and support from the Town of Franklin and the Chamber of Commerce.
“The Main Street merchants (Streets of Franklin) worked together to provide things like a DJ playing music on select Saturdays, decorations, balloons on the street, some local artist/vendors in front of our stores to help bring some cheer and joy to the streets,” said Holbrook.
“Winter Wonderland, the fall festival … everyone did a good job putting on and promoting these events, and the work paid off,” said Reale.
“The repurposing of Pickin on the Square funds to decorate Town Square was brilliant. I have zero doubt that the ROI on those dollars were astronomically higher than what weekend concerts would have yielded,” said Gasboro.
“We will continue to work hard to keep our businesses and our downtown alive,” said Holbrook.
“All in all, for us 2020 was a year that we never want to see a repeat of. We’re grateful to have made it out as a healthy business and more importantly we don’t see a very significant change to the economic complexion of our community. If we don’t see any more disruptions, you can maybe argue that some aspects of our local economy may come out of this pandemic stronger than we went in.”