Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, officials at the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation (OBCDC) could see that some of their small businesses were struggling to keep their doors open after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered ordered the temporary shutdown.
Almost immediately, the OBCDC offered grants to invest in PPE and to businesses moving to an online model from solely bricks-and-mortar.
“Our small business outreach in Old Brooklyn started with just relief—checking in with people to see if they were doing okay, and getting them to apply for loans and grants,” recalls OBCDC director of neighborhood development Lucas Reeve. “As businesses started to re-open, we asked what we can do to help, and we developed a $250 physical distancing grant. Then we heard about businesses pivoting to serve new clients, offering new services, so we offered $500 grants to businesses in Old Brooklyn that were making some sort of pivot digitally—point-of-sale systems, websites, third party delivery.”
Ultimately, OBCDC made $15,000 in grants to about 45 companies, says Reeve, helping those businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.
Michael Januska, owner of Old Brooklyn Cheese Company at 4464 Broadview Road, and Trey Kirchoff, owner of Coffee, Coffee, Coffee at 4193 Pearl Road, are two owners who say the grants they received from OBCDC helped them make some changes to weather the pandemic—ready to take on the virus and serve their customers safely.
Here’s how Januska and Kirchoff have survived.
Old Brooklyn Cheese Van AkenOld Brooklyn Cheese
Earlier this year, Old Brooklyn Cheese owner Michael Januska was preparing for the Sept. 1 opening of his second location in Shaker Heights’ Van Aken District. “Its a good opportunity and its starting to fill up,” he says of his new shop in the VAD Market Hall. “Everyone’s been asking for two years when we were going to open on the east side.”
The day finally came, and Januska enjoyed a successful east side launch. However, when COIVD-19 hit Cleveland in early March, shutting down businesses and keeping people in home quarantine, Old Brooklyn Cheese Company was struggling on Pearl Road.
Januska was forced to lay off his staff on March 11, just before the shutdown order, to keep his doors open. “I could stay open if it was only me—I could protect myself,” he says.
Yet, Januska wondered how he could survive in the Old Brooklyn location. “First thing, there was nothing else around,” he says of his Pearl Road shop. “It was a total destination to get to our cheese shop. We didn’t close at all and I ran the whole company alone.”
On top of everything, Januska says he had a constant battle with customers who refused to wear masks. He offered masks to customers who needed them and kicked them out if they declined to wear one.
In July Januska moved to his new location on Broadview Road. He packed up his old shop in 72 hours, hired a new staff, and decided to devote the Old Brooklyn store almost entirely to online sales.
The $500 OBCDC grant helped Januska make the shift. He signed up for online deliver service Mercato, selling charcuterie and cheese boards, his Old Brooklyn Mustards, and other locally-made specialty items.
“The Old Brooklyn $500 was reimbursement for setting up online,” Januska explains. “And I could sit at home and watch everything.”
While Januska says sales were hot at first with Mercato, they are beginning to wane. “I’m staying with it, but it’s dying down a bit,” he says. “There’s a pause on online ordering [now], but it’s something people have become accustomed to and I think they see the value in it.”
Additionally, Januska says he can extend his customer base with the online service. “The reach on the digital stuff is quite far because the density isn’t great,” he explains. “We can get to Willoughby, Twinsburg, Brunswick, Avon, and the drivers get 50 cents a mile.”
But he says he’s still considering offering the Mercato service out of the Shaker location as well. “If I set up Mercato at Shaker, that’s another kettle of fish,” he says. “Then you’re talking about Mentor or Painesville.”
Coffee Coffee CoffeeCoffee, Coffee, Coffee
At the same time, Kirchoff decided to temporarily close his coffee shop on March 15—one day before the shutdown order came down and two weeks before the shop’s second birthday.
“The first couple of weeks I was getting a handle on everything,” he recalls. “I just let it go. The future is unknown, and we need to embrace that.”
And embrace it Kirchoff did. Immediately after closing the shop, he went home, rebuilt the company website to create an online pledge drive and started a campaign to keep people ordering his coffee.
Kirchoff began touting his coffee mugs, tote bags, and other Coffee, Coffee, Coffee merchandise during the drive. “We were sitting on 100 mugs we were about to release,” says Kirchoff. He then began to offer delivery within the Old Brooklyn area.
On top of everything else, Kirchoff had to ask Sixth City Cycles (which saw booming business in bike sales this summer) to move out of the shared, but now-closed space. Sixth City continues to do well in its new location at 4274 Pearl Road.
“I think we’re the only coffee shop that will reopen with more space than when we closed,” Kirchoff laughs.
Kirchoff applied for, and received, both the social distancing and the technology grants. Kirchoff began personally delivering coffee orders. “We’re finding out where we fit it,” he says. “And what we’re finding is everyone wants food.” So Kirchoff began making sandwiches.
Additionally, Kirchoff used the grant money to buy and paint church pews to put in front of the shop, and painted tables, fences, and other exteriors in bright colors—offering people a vibrant and inviting place to sit—socially distanced—and wait for orders.
Kirchoff says he’d like to invest in an Airstream trailer to create a new takeout window as well.
“We essentially had to reinvent ourselves and had to do it every other month,” he says. “The key to success for us is to stay very lean when we already were.”
Kirchoff says he will continue to reinvent Coffee, Coffee, Coffee as needed. They are expanding their food menu, keeping a strong social media presence, and helping to create a neighborhood mural.
“Everyone has a layer cake of stress they are dealing with right now,” he says. “The way we choose to look at it is positive.”