The economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has already been disastrous for many small businesses, especially those that rely on a physical store for a large chunk of their sales. Over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of advice about what we can do to help small business owners — we’re told to buy gift cards, order takeout, and show our favorite spots love on social media. But is there more we should be doing? What do small business owners wish the world knew about their current situation, and what do they need to ensure they emerge whole from this difficult time?
We talked to Kay Kim, co-founder of Rooted, a New York City-based plant store that made the difficult decision about two weeks ago to indefinitely close the Chinatown space it’s been occupying for over six months. He says that while online sales are helping and he appreciates the love Rooted has been getting on social media, their biggest concern right now is qualifying for relief assistance programs. He says, he and his co-founder “will go down with the ship,” whatever that looks like, and that they’re hoping to be able to re-open the business one day.
What was the process of coming to the decision to close down your space?
All of it started with the official warnings from our government, and a lot of the scientific backing about just how severe this was and that people weren’t taking it seriously. We get a lot of foot traffic on weekends, and [two weekends ago] we thought, hey, maybe it’s not as bad as you think, let’s keep it open. Then on Saturday, after more research, we decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. So we immediately called it to close out our shop, and told our customers, hey, look, we’re really sorry, but safety comes first. And obviously, that was the right call because it is a lot more severe than we had originally thought it was.
When all of this is over, are you planning to reopen?
Yeah, that is our goal for now. It really just depends on whether or not we can weather the storm for the next however many months. Most of our revenue has been coming from our retail shop, but we also have a B2B division where we do all the build-outs and maintenance for Sweetgreen stores and companies like Facebook and Google. We’ll do consultations. We’ll do interior design things, we’ll maintain your plants, we’ll do rentals. But all of our existing clients have been super kind and given us a warning saying, ‘hey, like we have to shut this down now, because we’re getting hit pretty hard, too.’ So the past few weeks have been absolutely brutal. Luckily enough, we have a big enough following on our social media accounts, where we’ve kind of just been like, hey, like, this is what’s happening, we need your support, and our community has really come through for us and rallied. Which is really cool to see that we have this community backing us. We’re sold out of all our small plant inventory at the store. But besides the online portion, which is still pretty small compared to the rest of our businesses, we’re not certain where this is going to take us the next few months.
Do you think this crisis has revealed that a lot of small and even medium-sized businesses don’t have a lot of cash to fall back on?
Absolutely. And there have been a lot of bills being proposed saying that they’re going to try to support small businesses by giving up giving out loans or grants up to like $75,000. But at this point, we can’t depend on that, because we don’t know how much debt we’ll get into, or what the relief package looks like for a small business.
Do you think political leadership, nationally or locally, is doing enough to help small businesses right now?
It’s hard to say because there have been a lot of things being proposed and plans being tossed around, and that may all very well be true, but until we see anything — an action or something tangible, a check, a guarantee — we can’t really know. I think it’s something we want to believe, that the government is trying to help us out.
What do you want people to know about small businesses at this time? There’s been a lot of talk about ways to help small businesses, but is there anything you think people are missing?
We have definitely been talking to a lot of our other friends who own their own respective small businesses, and they’re getting hit just as hard, if not harder. I would honestly say, a lot of things have been covered — people are saying go buy some gift cards in the meantime, which gives them some liquidity. There are some companies that have done Patreon pages, ourselves included. I think word of mouth and just sharing via social media has been huge. I know a lot of people on Instagram or Twitter say like, all you guys are doing is liking and sharing, and that’s not going to solve anything. But in our case, like it has like we’ve got so much exposure, we’ve probably gotten tens of thousands of impressions this week from people sharing on all their social media accounts. It does help. It’s not as helpful as direct buys, or a gift card, but it helps.
Since some of us are sitting home, what’s a good plant to invest in right now that maybe needs a little more care?
There’s so many it all really boils down to what kind of light you have. If you get a lot of direct sunlight, I would recommend a monstera or a fiddle leaf fig. They’re the ones that people tend to have the most problems with but really want. If you do get a fiddle, during this time, you can actually spend a lot more time pruning or wiping down the leaves every now and then, because it does accumulate dust. The leaves are actually like solar panels, so if it’s dusty, then it’s not as efficient as photosynthesis. I would also say right now is a good time to start potting your plants at home and getting your hands dirty, exposing yourself to some good bacteria in the soil, and having a little fun. And it is very therapeutic. It has been proven to lower stress levels.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn have disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. So, we’re passing them the microphone to tell us what they think we should know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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