How 6 downtown businesses found success during the pandemic

·6 min read

Jul. 23—When the COVID-19 pandemic closed storefronts in downtown Rochester in March 2020, Seamus Kolb knew his business could be in serious trouble. Carroll's Corn's subway store, frequented by Mayo Clinic workers and patients, was suddenly deserted, and the now-owner had to find a way to keep it running.

One day, Kolb got a call.

It was from the Hy-Vee on West Circle Drive, inquiring about buying Carroll's popcorn to use in a trail mix. Realizing the potential of a partnership, Kolb proposed he sell the popcorn in Hy-Vee by itself. The two sides agreed to test the market by putting 30 bags on the shelves.


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Within 30 minutes, those bags sold out. Since then, Carroll's Corn has been flying off the shelves of area Hy-Vees.

It was an unexpected change to their business model made necessary by the pandemic. While many downtown businesses struggled to stay open, those like Carroll's that found success were able to adapt their strategies on the fly.

"I think the people that did succeed were the ones who were willing to put on a different set of lenses and say, 'What can we do differently?' and 'How are we going to do that?'" Kolb said.

Much like Carroll's, Pasquale's Pizza also teamed with Hy-Vee. Although owner Pasquale Presa initially balked at the store's offer to sell his frozen pizzas, he realized the importance of innovating in order to keep turning profits.

Soon, that turned into a resounding success. Presa estimates his store sold about 75,000 pizzas last year, by far the highest number since Pasquale's opened in 2016.

"You have to be different, better and more special than anyone in your segment," Presa said.

But for most businesses, surviving wasn't as easy as a fortuitous partnership with a major grocer.

When Fagan Studios co-owner Shawn Fagan was forced to close his photography studio, he soon began exploring ways to offer services to other local businesses without using the studio.

First, Fagan offered photo and video commercial opportunities. But after noticing that neighboring restaurant Mango Thai needed a way to keep up with its to-go orders, he offered to build them a simple website.

That proved successful. Soon, other local shops purchased commercial and web design services from Fagan Studios. Not only did that help them maintain their revenue stream, but other small businesses were able to stay open.

"I care tremendously about this downtown," Fagan said. "You have to show up and be involved."

Naura Anderson also kept it local.

When it became apparent her nonprofit, Threshold Arts, would be shut down for a while, Anderson worked with the city to find ways for area artists to contribute. Threshold was able to host a handful of outdoor shows, and artists collaborated on public art projects.

Then, Threshold received a grant and moved into a new space downtown on Thanksgiving weekend. Now that new space functions as both a retail outlet and gallery for artists on consignment. Anderson said sales have reached more than $25,000 since the space has opened, with about 75 percent of that revenue returning to the artists themselves.

"I've been just blown away by the amount of people who really value supporting local, small-owned businesses and also independent artists and makers," Anderson said. "It's never been about increasing our bottom line. It's really about being able to expand our programs."

While these businesses pivoted to partnering with others, The Nordic Shop went at it alone.

For decades, the shop had a small but thriving mail-order business, originally started as a way to keep connected with customers from afar. But when co-owner Walter Hanson heard from his business partners in Norway about COVID-19 shortly before everything locked down in Minnesota, he closed up shop and began transitioning fully online.

"We're not just going to sit here and cry about it," Hanson said. "We're going to crank it up. We're going to make it happen."

And they did.

The infrastructure The Nordic Shop had built allowed them to greatly expand their mail order business and keep profits coming. Mail order revenues grew by more than 350 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and sales are even higher so far this year.

"It's an evolution of our customer base," Hanson said.

Like The Nordic Shop, ThaiPop relied on dedicated customers to turn record profits.

When the pop-up restaurant had to close, co-owners Annie and Ryan Balow knew they had to shift their business to takeout. It was an unnatural move for the pair, who were used to providing an expansive tasting menu, not quick dishes.

But with an assist from Ryan's sister, who designed a website and helped the restaurant market itself online, ThaiPop saw nearly instant success. By the operation's second week, every pre-order slot had been filled. Now, the Balows are expanding ThaiPop to a full-service restaurant, expected to open downtown later this summer.

"We had a really great opportunity here downtown and had a lot of people that supported us — repeat customers," Ryan Balow said. "It was a good year when we knew a lot of restaurants weren't having a good year."

Even with that supportive base, success wasn't guaranteed. The Balows said that profit margins are tight, especially as a small restaurant, and they had to update their business model if they didn't want to get left behind.

Each of the other owners stressed the importance of pivoting.

"There wasn't an alternative," Fagan said. "If I couldn't (adapt), then the business dies."

That's why Kolb jumped on the Hy-Vee opportunity for Carroll's Corn. His previous pandemic endeavor — a free delivery program on Fridays — was modestly successful, but not a long-term solution if he wanted to grow the business.

With so much on the line and few if any customers walking in the subway shop's door, he knew he had to find a new way to connect with his customer base. Kolb did with the Hy-Vee partnership.

"Just have a willingness to learn, use social media and be willing to make connections with the community," Kolb advised others. "We can't really stay comfortable with what we're used to every day."

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