“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So said Thomas Paine during the crisis of the American Revolution. The current economic crisis caused by the COVID pandemic is now trying the souls of American entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Some industries are suffering in general, like restaurants and movie theaters. At the same time, some individual restaurants are experiencing booms because they quickly switched to curbside pickup, takeout and delivery and ghost kitchen restaurants (more about that in a minute). There’s no question that there is an explosion in video streaming services. One industries’ bust is another’s boom.

Home office furniture sales are at an all-time high. According to Timberly Hall, owner of Jodac Office Outfitters in Longview, their sales increased during the COVID pandemic. “There were more requests for contemporary office desks and chairs since people were working from home,” says Mrs. Hall. “We also stocked and sold a lot of sanitation products.” When asked how they succeeded where other small businesses didn’t, she says, “We saw a need and prepared for that need.”

Extermination services are going gangbusters. It seems that bugs and business don’t mix now that more people are working from home. Speaking about the effects of the COVID pandemic on his 13-year-old business, Daren Horten, owner of Gecko Pest Control in Marshall, says, “Pest control has been a dynamic, recession-proof industry. As an essential business, we remained open during the quarantine.” The industry overall saw 10 percent growth in 2020. “My business experienced 20 percent sales growth in 2020 and a 17 percent increase so far in 2021.”

One of the reasons companies like Jodac and Gecko survived and even thrived during the pandemic is the fact that they are prepared to innovate and change direction the moment market conditions change. More importantly, these companies have focused on customer service and have built a loyal base of customers who will go out of their way to help these businesses survive. Stellar customer service builds a strong community of loyal followers who will support a business through the tough times.

So, the outlook is not all bad. But it must continue to get better. In the past year of the lockdown and pandemic, American entrepreneurs have shown what they are known for, taking a bad situation and innovating around it. Restauranteurs are the perfect example. Some took it on the chin and promptly closed shop, while others tenaciously stuck it out and fought back.

One of the most innovative concepts that has taken off in the restaurant business during the pandemic are virtual restaurants. Virtual restaurants, sometimes known as ghost kitchens, are restaurants that only offer curbside pickup or delivery with ordering made possible through digital apps and websites. While this concept is not new, it has become popular during the pandemic lockdown now that delivery and curbside pickup have become an excepted way of life even at upscale restaurants.

Virtual restaurants can be based out of a shared kitchen with another business cooking the food. Or, a virtual restaurant can operate out of a commissary kitchen, a commercial kitchen where food service providers can store ingredients and prepare food themselves. Commissary kitchens are in the works in East Texas and are often used by food truck businesses for food preparation.

Some restaurants are now creating virtual restaurants out of their own kitchens. This way, a restaurant can create an entirely new brand with a separate website and menu. For example, a local Italian dine-in restaurant can start a separate Tex Mex take out restaurant and prepare meals in an already established kitchen. Their trained employees make the food strictly for curbside pickup or delivery. This way restaurant owners leverage their resources while generating additional revenue streams from people who prefer Tex Mex over Italian. These are the types of innovations that are changing the industry.

To paraphrase Tom Paine, the summer entrepreneur and sunshine small business owner will shrink in this time of COVID crisis, but the truly innovative will survive and thrive when the economy turns back around. Your local SBDC is here to help you do just that!

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Day Shelmire is the Director of the UT Tyler-Longview SBDC, which covers Gregg, Harrison, Marion, Panola, Rusk and Upshur Counties of East Texas. Entrepreneurs and small business owners can contact their local SBDC for advice on how to start, grow or fix their small business. Call (903) 757-5857 for an appointment with an experience business advisor.