By Logan Roddy, contributor
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part look at what Harrisonburg businesses learned from surviving the last year amid a pandemic.
Despite all the uncertainty — economic and otherwise — that the pandemic created over the last year, some Harrisonburg-area residents chose to follow their dreams and turn their passions into businesses. While launching a new business is always a learning experience, even for seasoned entrepreneurs, doing so amid these conditions have inspired a unique set of lessons learned.
And while the pandemic might have messed with some of the businesses’ timelines last year, the numbers show that it didn’t scare off too many aspiring business owners. In 2020, 12 new businesses opened, compared to 13 the year before, according to figures from Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
After two years of planning and renovating to qualify for a historic tax credit, Magpie Diner finished in March and was ready to open when COVID struck. Entrepreneur and owner Kirsten Moore shifted resources to create an online market, partnering with local producers like Mt. Crawford Creamery, BoBoKo Indonesian Cafe and Clementine Cafe.
“We created this market within a week, and I had my managers hired already so we were all kinda just itching to do something and had time on our hands,” Moore said. “It was a cool way to build our brand while we weren’t open.”
They shut it down in late June to prepare to open the diner in the last week of July, and began attracting large (but safe) brunch crowds throughout the rest of the summer, thanks to the spacious outdoor patio space.
“One of the coolest things Magpie has shown me is there has been this really evident need for people to feel like connected to part of a community,” Moore said. “We have lots of regulars that come in, we see lots of familiar faces, and that feels good that people feel like this is their spot.”
Moore said that along with her culinary reputation, Magpie’s vibe helped fill a niche in town that contributed to the diner’s success.
“I think the cool thing about it being breakfast and lunch, is it didn’t seem quite as overwhelming, it didn’t feel like you were ‘going out’,” Moore said. “It feels less like a big deal, it feels more casual, and the price point is much more in line with the recession we’re in than going out for a big fancy dinner.”
Moore also has a background in marketing and design. Along with her social media efforts, she says word of mouth played a big part in getting business. But that didn’t mean it came easy or without doubt.
“I think the most challenging moment was that time before you’re open where you’re just hemorrhaging money, you’re stocking the pantries and buying the equipment and every little spoon and spatula and pan you forgot you needed and you’re training people so you got people on payroll but you’re not actually generating revenue and I remember going, ‘How does this work?’” she said.
Still making it despite never-been-used barstools
Across the street, Zach Carlson was in a similar boat. After being laid off from his job in March, he decided to go all in on his cider making hobby and turn it into a business, and opened Sagebird Ciderworks.
“This has been in the works for a while; we signed a lease last July,” Carlson said. “It was in the works before COVID hit in the US, and when COVID hit we said, ‘What do we do?’”
While it doesn’t look quite like what he envisioned while studying craft business brewing at Portland State, he says he’s grateful for the outstanding support.
“We’ve got these nine barstools that nobody’s ever sat in,” Carlson said. “Because we can’t. We created this place to mingle, and now we’re not supposed to be mingling.”
Carlson felt a lot of the place’s success comes from filling a similar niche. Harrisonburg has five breweries in town, but only Sagebird offers the experience with an alternative beverage.
“Whether they don’t like bars, or they have Celiac disease and they’re gluten free, or they just don’t like beer, they can have that alternative experience here.”
He also noted that for better or worse, an alcohol business is somewhat well-positioned in times like this.
“I think part of it is people are looking to celebrate right now. There’s a lot of crap going on, whether it’s politically, with COVID, economically, socially, mental health, like it’s a tough dark time right now,” Carlson said. “When we opened, we provided people an opportunity to escape a little bit and feel a little bit of normalcy and this excitement that they hadn’t felt in a long time.”
Carlson said he agreed with other local business owners — both new and longtime proprietors — that everyone in the community is in this together, and it’s important we keep investing in each other.
“In a town the size of Harrisonburg it’s very much a collaborative effort. I need those businesses, I need them to succeed,” Carlson said. “The success of my business depends on the success of the town, and everybody else’s business.”
As a business newbie, just ‘going with the flow’
Down the street, Mary Yoder-Anderson was planning to take a similar leap. After resigning from her teaching job in the fall of 2019, she knew she wanted to open a second hand shop. The space opened up in July, and she jumped on it, and by Oct. 1, Dart Resale and Trade was operational.
“We’ve been just fortunate, timing-wise,” Yoder said. “We started to build a customer base through Instagram before opening, and I was doing clothing delivery to people’s homes.”
Along with offering quality clothing at the same price point as bix box stores, Dart presents an opportunity for people to make money by getting rid of their old clothes when they take in new items every Tuesday.
“The positive response from our community has just been so great. I think people are rooting for small businesses now that they realize how hard these times are and they really wanna support local small businesses,” Yoder said. “We have a community that’s really conscious about recycling and reusing and a lot of people in Harrisonburg buy second hand, and they’re excited to see another little second hand shop downtown.”
She said she believes the shop fits right in on North Liberty Street and represents the new wave of businesses that joined downtown in 2020.
“As a new business owner, I don’t really know anything different. So we’ve just been going with the flow as best we can, and just taking it one day at a time. It’s been going really well, but it’s hard for me to say that out loud because I know that things can change.”
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