At first blush, the idea sounds preposterous. Starting a new business during a worldwide pandemic? Really?
Yet, a number of people have done just that and have been happy with the results.
This age of COVID-19 has served as a reminder that it’s a mistake to put all businesses under the same umbrella. Since the coronavirus has made its deathly, disruptive presence felt, some businesses have fallen under, some have struggled, some have done pretty well and some are flourishing.
The idea of opening a business during a time of economic uncertainty can sound, well, curious to some.
Sara Gallitto encountered that when she told people about Wild Roots Wellness, the health spa she launched in Riverhead last April.
“They thought I was nuts,” she said.
Gallitto saw a need that her new venture could fill. Pandemic or no pandemic, if a product or service is in demand, customers will pay for it. It’s as simple as that.
And, as they say, timing is everything.
Timing came into play in the case of Melinda Morris, owner of Arni Paperie, a Southold gift shop that deals in paper goods and custom printing. Ms. Morris had owned a similar business in Brooklyn for 20 years before moving to Cutchogue with her husband, David, in 2019. Finding a “little jewel box of a building” available to set up shop, she saw it as a sign. “This was meant to be,” she said. “It was just the perfect spot. Everything just sort of like fell into place with a neon arrow pointing to ‘you should do this.’”
She signed a lease Feb. 1, 2020. Opening day was Feb. 29, 2020.
“We closed two weeks later,” she said.
Thank you, pandemic, which made its presence felt in early March of that year.
“A lot of people asked me about that, saying, ‘Oh my God! Wasn’t that horrible?’” Morris said. “And the truth is — if I had not opened when I did, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
“Would you have signed a lease on March 15th of 2020? Of course not. The timing worked in a way that it sort of was the right thing to do. I didn’t know what was coming, and I’m grateful for it because had I not done it back three weeks before, I probably would have chickened out.”
Ms. Morris believes her late father — whose first name was Arni and who had run a similar business in Huntington for 40 years — was watching over her when she made the move.
While the business was closed for three months, Ms. Morris developed a website for the shop, made deliveries, promoted the business on social media and found she was able to meet expenses. That was encouraging.
“We felt like maybe we hit a nerve and this is going to work,” she said. “It was really positive. We were like, ‘Wow. Obviously people want this service because it’s working during shutdown and it’s only going to get better.’”
Of course, the pandemic being a pandemic, there are going to be complications, and there were. Customized wedding invitations are a big part of the business, and many weddings were put on hold during the shutdown.
“That’s a huge piece of the puzzle and that’s my expertise and so that went away completely,” Morris said. “So, all of my friends and contacts in the wedding industry, their businesses were crumbling underneath them. So, that was scary.”
On the whole, though, she said, Arni Paperie has been doing “really great, wonderfully, like beyond our expectations.”
Ted Bucci and his wife, Kathryn, owners of North Fork Aquaculture, were looking for a place where they could process seafood and found one on Shelter Island. They set up Shelter Island Seafood, which houses a seafood market, eatery and oyster bar. The market opened in July 2020, and the restaurant opened a month later. With the three facets of the business feeding into each other, it made sense.
Restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic shutdown, though, and the aquaculture business felt the pinch. “It was devastating because 99 percent of all shellfish and oysters are sold in restaurants,” Bucci said. “So when they closed down, it just impacted [aquaculture] dramatically.”
Meanwhile, with the pandemic’s arrival, Shelter Island’s population swelled, a positive for the seafood market.
“Shelter Island was very heavily populated with everyone who was sheltering down there from the city, and since we were offering a food product, everybody was thrilled,” Bucci said. “They were getting fresh fish like they never had before on the island for years.”
Business was steady enough to keep both the restaurant and market open through the winter of 2020-21. They closed for this winter, though, with many people having returned to New York City and Shelter Island’s population dropping. Bucci said extensive renovations are underway and he expects to reopen the doors in April or May.
Shelter Island Seafood has had to navigate the employee shortage and supply issues like an obstacle course. The company had about 14 employees this past year as compared to 20-something the year before, said Bucci.
“We had a help wanted sign up for a year, and not one person applied,” he said. “We were advertising on Indeed. When someone finally came in, it was a 13-year-old looking for a job. He was on the ball and would have been a great worker, but I couldn’t hire him because he wasn’t old enough for work papers.”
He continued: “I’ve talked to other people in the restaurant business and they’re all having the same struggles. You talk about help, everybody’s doing more with less people, (they’re) overworked.”
And then there are housing issues for employees (a problem that existed well before the pandemic) and inflation. Bucci said some of his seafood costs have doubled and tripled.
And the supply chain issue has been a factor as well. Mr. Bucci spoke of having ordered a $7,000-plus steamer for lobsters well in advance of last summer and then canceling it after waiting and waiting with no delivery before finally opting instead to steam lobsters the old-fashioned way, by hand. He spoke about placing orders to a large supplier for food that never arrived. What happened?
“They had a shortage of drivers,” Bucci said. “They didn’t have enough people. That doesn’t happen, but it did. You’re buying your food wherever you can at retail prices just to get by.”
Timing came into play for Ms. Gallitto, a licensed esthetician and certified health coach who is in the process of earning her yoga teacher certification. She had been running a small business out of her home and doing health coaching.
“Of course, when we went into quarantine, that came to a screeching halt,” she said. “So, that was the time when I had to stop practicing at home and I said, ‘You know what? I just want more exposure and I want more foot traffic and I want to expand to other holistic services.’ And so I just took that time to really buckle down and start planning.”
The shutdown afforded her that opportunity to prepare to open a holistic wellness center that offers massage and facial services, yoga classes and workshops.
“It’s something I’ve been working toward for many years now,” she said. “I knew that this was eventually what I wanted to do.”
“And then at a certain point, the world started to open up a bit,” she continued. “People started to become kind of tired from being cooped up, I guess you could say. So, I thought if the world needed anything at that point, it was health and healing.”
Gallitto found an upstairs space on East Main Street in Riverhead for Wild Roots Wellness. Its last known use was by a law firm over 40 years ago, she said, but the space didn’t require much renovation. It was the realization of a seven-year plan.
“Many years ago, I spoke to one of my girlfriends about it, how although it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind, I still continued to work toward it, health and healing is just a passion of mine,” Gallitto said. “So, I kept moving in that direction just because it is my passion. And then the pandemic hit and I kind of said, ‘Hey, this is something I’ve been wanting to do,’ without that time frame in mind. However, when I did open the doors, my girlfriend came to the grand opening and she said, ‘Wow, you actually did it in seven years,’ and I went, ‘Wow, it’s been seven years.’ ”
Gallitto said Wild Roots Wellness, with its 11 employees, is geared toward self-help and self-healing, both physical and mental. She thinks people need that these days, and that gave her confidence in setting up shop.
So, how is the business doing?
“I have nothing to compare it to, but I am pretty happy with the growth,” said Gallitto. “The conversation and a lot of dialogue from the clients is that this is what they’ve been searching for. This is exactly what they needed.”
A pandemic helped bring it about. Who would have thought?