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Columbia Business Monthly

Small Business Surviving Covid

By Amanda Capps

As 2020 came to a close, we set out to determine what small businesses had done to survive a year defined by forced shutdowns, operating restrictions and an economy upended by the coronavirus. We found that strategies during a time of crisis don’t differ greatly from the principles that lead to prosperity on an everyday basis: providing remarkable customer service, making the most of available technology, investing resources wisely and caring for the community. The people behind these five businesses represent South Carolinians from Simpsonville to Summerville and beyond who are pushing past the pandemic.


Carolina Olive Oil: Investing and Expanding 

Last year, the business world changed quickly. Rory Curtis and Lee Ann Swanson were able to change with it because rapid but savvy decision-making has been the norm for the owners of Carolina Olive Oil. 

Both Curtis and Swanson had successful careers in sales. Curtis’s job with a tool company took him to numerous trade shows where his observations led to a new venture. 

“He came home one day and said, ‘You know whose booth always draws traffic – the oil and vinegar people,” Swanson said. 

She hesitated to think they could make a living with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but after thorough research, they began wholesaling products out of their garage – until they seized an opportunity in downtown Fountain Inn. 

“Within 10 days, we were stacking bricks and laying boards for shelving. That was the week after Thanksgiving, and by Christmas Eve, we sold every bottle,” Swanson said. 

A year later, when that building was sold, Curtis and Swanson opted for a downtown Simpsonville location where they’ve been since 2015. Once again, the right storefront presented itself within a week. 

“Never tell Rory you have an idea, or he’ll be doing it in 10 minutes. I need six months to think, so we have a good balance,” Swanson said. 

After a few years of booming sales, the partners made another move – not away, but up – to Level 2, transforming the upstairs to a concert venue featuring a variety of contemporary and old school bands. 

Swanson said Level 2 became “a beast” in a good way, comprising 50 percent of their business. The flip side was numerous canceled concerts and tremendous loss for musicians and staff when Covid hit. 

Despite the bar’s shutdown, the business is flourishing. Acting on the suggestion of a restaurant supplier from Sysco, Curtis and Swanson installed commercial freezers and added restaurant quality meats and produce to their food offerings. 

“It wasn’t just the little guys who got hit hard by Covid. [The supplier] lost customers too. It was the right time to work together, and it really turned things around for us,” Curtis said.

Curtis and Swanson’s track record of alacritous entrepreneurship has been supported by customer loyalty. Curtis posted a video on social media soliciting the community’s help, and they called customers to encourage them to continue shopping locally. Their clientele did just that – even keeping the shop’s popular wine club going with some modifications. 

“Members used to get two bottles of wine a month. Now it’s four. We changed our 6 p.m. parties to noon to 8 p.m. drop-ins with individually sealed and plated appetizers, and we offer curbside pick-up,” Swanson said. 

A pivotal choice, according to Curtis, was to avoid loans. He and Swanson agreed they needed to focus on long-term strategy. 

“I had a feeling this thing wasn’t going to be over in two months, so rather than using any extra money we could make to pay off debt down the line, we invested in products we knew people would want,” Curtis said. 

After the holidays, Curtis and Swanson will revisit Level 2, which they’ve considered utilizing as a private space for special occasions such as proposals and anniversary dinners. In any case, good things including their own private label jams, jellies, preserves and salsa are on the horizon. 

“We always wanted to move toward a European market type of store, and so far, our choices are working; it feels like a roller coaster sometimes, but it’s working,” Swanson said. 


French Mercantile: Virtual Shopping That’s Almost Sensory 

When French Mercantile opened in September 2020, the economy was six months into a downturn that would deter any aspiring business owner, yet Toni Hammersley, writer of the popular home organization blog “Bowl Full of Lemons,” was undeterred. 

The eclectic Hammersley, also a registered nurse, photographer and author, was determined to share her love for European inspired home décor and vintage items. For those who wanted to go out, she renovated a 19th century home in Summerville’s historic district and filled it with attractive amenities. For those who wanted to shop from home, she relied on her vast online background to deliver equivalent service and a luxurious experience. 

Sales associate Kristin Robson said Hammersley’s social media following is a plus; French Mercantile had 17,000 Instagram followers as of press time. From the beginning, the staff has been booking virtual shopping appointments, taking customers through the store with FaceTime and shipping orders upon purchase. They also keep wish lists and notify customers immediately when popular items such as their breadboards and custom-poured soy melts are restocked. 

“We want all of our customers, regardless of whether they come in, to enjoy this beautiful space and enjoy treating themselves,” Robson said.


Critter Keeper: Getting Ready for His Close-Up

The summer of 2020 should have been the busiest of Randy Miller’s 12 years as the “Critter Keeper,” but Covid took the show off the road. For over a decade, Miller, who resides in Simpsonville, has been entertaining and educating children, bringing a bevy of creepy-crawly companions to schools, churches and birthday parties. Since last spring, he’s adapted his antics to the internet. 

“School programs went by the wayside, and we had to cancel scores of events,” Miller said. “One day in March, I put something on Facebook Live and got such a good response, I thought I might be onto something.” 

That led to virtual birthday greetings and a series of programs for the Saluda County Library. Miller quickly set up a studio – complete with a professional backdrop, lights and microphones – in the building that houses his critters; his granddaughters Evelyne, Reece and Avery Wagner served as both crew and co-stars, and although the girls are volunteers, Miller must support his nonhuman co-workers. 

“With the pandemic, food prices [for the animals] almost doubled. Crickets, for instance, went from 11 to 19 cents each,” Miller said. 

One thing Miller misses is the interactive nature of his shows. His brand of humor usually involves some harmless scares as punchlines to his captivating tales, and kids get to touch the animals. On the upside, he’s able to use critters such as the West African rhino viper and a 60-pound snapping turtle named Lola that should definitely maintain social distance. 

Hopeful he’ll be traveling soon, Miller is filling his 2021 schedule. Meanwhile, he offers programs tailored to clients’ needs online or face-to-face with appropriate precautions. He’s actively exploring online delivery platforms and weighing the benefits of a YouTube channel. 

“Virtual shows might be more convenient than packing and unpacking the critters all the time as the years go by – but I’m also thinking this could be the start of an entirely new level of programs. Any crisis or even a hiccup in plans presents the opportunity to bend and possibly open ourselves to bigger and better things,” Miller said.


The Spice & Tea Exchange: Using Tech to Stay Connected 

Already members of the “spice family” when they set up shop on Main Street in Greenville, Valerie Bartlett and Justin Smith met while working in a distribution center for The Spice & Tea Exchange® in Florida. The couple chose the area where Smith grew up for their franchise and have been gratified by the patronage of Greenville customers whose loyalty has not wavered throughout the pandemic. 

“It’s amazing how the food culture of this area has expanded. It’s all about fresh ingredients,” Smith said. 

Shoppers have been drawn to The Spice & Tea Exchange’s salts, which come from around the world, along with naturally flavored sugars, gift items and accessories. Additionally, the tea bar has been a favorite. 

When asked about his own culinary background, Smith laughed and said he and Valerie are best categorized as “eaters,” but they’ve learned to make good food even better with their products. 

The local shop is known for its seasonings, hand-mixed daily by “spice masters,” but it’s not exclusive to master chefs. They carry Chef to Table spices, complete with recipes and simple directions for creating appetizers, main courses and drinks, and offer customized samplers, so experimenting doesn’t have to be expensive. 

“We like to think of ourselves as problem solvers,” Smith said. 

In April, they were faced with the ultimate problem as they felt closing was the responsible choice due to Covid. Once that happened, they looked for suggestions from the company and ways to reach out to their clientele, waiving shipping charges and offering free delivery. 

“We had nothing but time on our hands, so we got set up with a text line through Google Voice, and we created a way for customers to send us direct messages through our website,” Smith said. 

Smith and Bartlett are grateful for the company’s support of their franchise, one of 74-plus across the United States. Added to that is strong local support; Smith said they saw more business from June through October 2020 than the previous year, and as of press time, they were on track for a solid holiday season. They also reported zero debt and noted that their cash flow runs the business. 

Next steps for the proprietors include getting more involved with local chefs and culinary schools. Smith and Bartlett love working with the community. Outside of The Spice & Tea Exchange, they run an animal rescue for dogs and pigs. 


Palmetto Commercial Services: Cleaning and Networking to the Extreme

Forming Palmetto Commercial Services in 2009, Mike Young soon noticed opportunities outside the typical janitorial market in the Columbia area. The right education helped his team delve into areas like hoarding cleanup and biohazard remediation, earning them a reputation as “extreme cleaning specialists” and positioning them to help with the ongoing pandemic.

“We were accustomed to working around viruses and bacteria. We had proper training ... so adapting to Covid was simply a matter of securing enough appropriate disinfectant, personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional equipment, along with marketing our services,” Young said. 

Young is not only proud of his team, but also their ability to support other businesses and the community. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to handle all the requests associated with Covid, Young also knew many companies wouldn’t be ready for the challenges posed by the virus. His response was to reach out to other firms and train their employees – free of charge. 

“Hopefully it showed our market that we have a high level of cleaning and disinfection knowledge … Most importantly, we wanted to keep some of the reputable businesses from going under and keep our community safe,” Young said. 

Young likened the situation to Ebola in 2014, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) never registered a disinfectant for the disease, so companies had to rely on employees’ knowledge of the science behind disinfection and sanitization. He looked for organizations offering advanced training such as the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) and the American Bio Recovery Association (ABRA) and was so appreciative of their expertise, he is striving to become an IICRC instructor. 

In addition to winning numerous awards and working with ESPN to prepare for certain football games, Palmetto Commercial Services has appeared on the television show “Hotel Impossible” and may soon be featured on a new program. 

Young said being prepared was essential, but the greatest advantage came from years of networking. Palmetto Commercial Services is a member of the Business Development Club (www.scbdc.com), which has helped them thrive when many companies are struggling. 

“One of our mottos is, ‘None of us is smarter than all of us.’ Watching other business leaders take calculated risks to provide better service encouraged us to do the same and has been instrumental in our continued success,” Young said.


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