Photo by Maria DeForrest
The Coronavirus pandemic forced Kent County establishments to think differently and flourish with new entrepreneurial tactics.
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on Main Streets throughout America for more than a year, proving dangerous to our physical and financial health alike. Businesses had to pivot quickly and smartly, through ideas like manufacturing new products, recreating a brick-and-mortar on a virtual platform or rethinking an entire business model. Four Kent County businesses share their survival stories and the common factor that has kept them alive: loyal customers who refused to give up on them.
Vincenzo Maddalena was barely three months into his new location at the old T.D. Bank on Forrest Avenue when the world stopped. He opened Dec. 16, 2019, and watched, head spinning, as his losses mounted to nearly 60 percent. “In those first few weeks after the March  shutdown, I thought I’d lose everything,” he says. Maddalena was a recipient of Paycheck Protection Program funds. “We applied at the right time, and thank God for that, because I was making enough to cover the mortgage, but I had 30 employees to pay.” From curbside to an uptick in delivery services, the pizzeria scraped by. Capacity restrictions eased when the warmer months hit, so the quick-thinking Maddalena turned the bank’s old covered drive-through lanes into patio seating. “But once it got cold, we couldn’t seat anyone out there due the fire marshal’s restrictions on heating elements with a covered roof,” he says. So Maddalena added a second outdoor patio. “It’s only about 15 by 35 [feet], but my contractor got it done fast, and we opened it in December  with gas fireplaces.” Maddalena sees relief in sight, particularly judging by the shop’s nonstop holiday orders. “We’ve been so fortunate with our loyal customers,” he says. “I never thought I’d say this year, but I am actually looking forward to a few days off.”
1035 Forrest Ave., Dover 674-0966 | vincenzosmenu.com
Half the charm of Erin Thwaites’ Bel Boutique is its cozy shop, a warm space where “Bel Besties” mingle over Thwaites’ thoughtfully curated selections. But how to recreate that online? Because the storefront served as such a destination, it didn’t have a robust social media presence. “We dabbled in it, and we knew we needed to be stronger online, so the pandemic forced us into this omni channel experience,” Thwaites says. But even after partnering with Shopify, an e-commerce platform that helps sellers get online via pretty templates requiring zero design experience, Thwaites ran into a conundrum— the “simple” act of going online required so much time that it didn’t make sense to keep shopping hours once restrictions eased. “There is so much behind-the-scenes stuff,” she says. But costumers responded, so the presence grew. “We were reaching new people that had never been to the shop,” Thwaites says. And they were engaging shoppers in other ways, like CommentSold, in which customers purchase via comment on an online platform, and Facebook Live events. The shop remains closed save for shopping days here and there so Thwaites and her staff can catalog, photograph and get new merchandise up. “It’s pretty time-consuming,” she says. “But we’re still here. Strangely, this time has brought a new wave of fresh ideas and opportunities to be passionate.”
28 W. Loockerman St., Dover 741-2340 | belboutique.com
Painted Stave Distilling
When life gives you ethanol, you make hand sanitizer. That’s what Painted Stave Distillery owner Mike Rasmussen did. “We had to pivot the business quickly or we were going to lose it,” Rasmussen says. Painted Stave started churning out sanitizer for first responders, state agencies and other essential businesses. But then the calls started. “We got inundated with requests, so we did a few releases for the general public,” he says. Making the stuff was easy. Figuring out the supply chain and packaging was another story. “You had to be willing to use a different bottle for every batch. You got what you got,” Rasmussen says. “Everything was delayed; we were driving to Philadelphia and Baltimore to pick up supplies.” It was worth it—the sales of sanitizer from March to June saw the distillery through. With Delaware’s laws prohibiting the shipping of alcohol, there was no need for an investment in an e-commerce platform—until the pandemic, when restrictions were tabled. “It cost a lot of time and money for the e-commerce side, plus the integration with our point-of-sale system,” Rasmussen says. The response to to-go cocktails from fans has been so positive that Rasmussen hopes to see legislative changes. “We are advocating strongly for the state to not only make the to-go model permanent but also give Delaware consumers some of the services that other neighboring states have made great use of, like alcohol delivery.”
106 W. Commerce St., Smyrna 653-6834 | paintedstave.com
Yes, Evans Armantrading Jr. wants to see you fit. But he’s also as invested in your emotional growth as he is in your biceps’. While a large part of his boutique fitness studio’s pivot was to go remote, loyal clients who retained membership fees but abstained from sessions got a weekly check-in. “We’re a family,” Armantrading says. “So, we’re calling to say, ‘Hey. What’s going on in your world? That emotional investment matters.” It also worked: the studio retained 90 percent of its clients. Upon shutdown, Armantrading invited his clients to take home whatever equipment they would need. “Our genius is not giving someone a weight; our unique ability is to see and correct action. We could do that online.” Except Armantrading soon found that an iPhone propped up on a shelf wasn’t cutting it. So, he invested about $3,000 in tripods for clients.” His next round of tech support including purchasing iPads or other similar devices for those still struggling. He took a look at what the fitness industry was doing to keep members—offering free classes—and said, ‘Nope.’ “They were cheapening our industry, but it was the quick, easy thing to do,” he says. “We decided to stay true to our custom approach.” The studio is open and humming along, and remote sessions remain. Early on, when Armantrading saw the fear in the eyes of his staff, he made it clear no one was losing their livelihood. “I also approached this whole thing as, ‘This is the great entrepreneurial challenge. This is cool. Let’s see what we can do.’”
1404-9 Forrest Ave., Dover 689-3489 | cnufit.com