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Staying Afloat

by Andrew D. Otts

Small Businesses Adapt to Changing Times

As the pandemic arrived in Pittsburgh, bar owner and local DJ Adam Kulik knew the road ahead looked dismal for his businesses but saw an opportunity to adapt.

Like Kulik, business owners across the city began brainstorming new ways to attract customers and create content during these unprecedented circumstances.

“We pretty much knew from the jump that it was going to be a lot longer than people were making it out to be,” Kulik said.

Kulik, known as DJ Nugget, made the decision with his wife Nicole to close the doors to both of their businesses. “We looked at each other and just tried to make the best of the outcome, which we decided was we were going to be closed for a while,” he said.

Located at 4517 Butler Street in Lawrenceville, The Goldmark recently celebrated their five-year anniversary in late November. 
Photo Credit: Andrew Otts

With regulations placed on dining, drinking, and public gatherings – and the threat of contracting and passing COVID-19 – hundreds of businesses have closed and many more are in financial peril. With so much uncertainty, owners like Kulik have used sheer hard work and good old Pittsburgh willpower to keep their businesses afloat.

“We kind of went back to the drawing board and said, ‘What are our options here?’ And what we decided was doing these little private parties,” Kulik said, who had the idea to offer a party package for those looking to rent his Lawrenceville bar, The Goldmark.

Closure Dilemma 

Without a clear alternative to bring in business, many brick-and-mortar shops are at high risk of permanent closure, with restaurants, bars, gyms, and retailers among the top of the list.

According to data retrieved from Yelp’s Local Economic Impact Report for September 2020, restaurants, nightlife, and retail have had the highest closure rates across the country, with 68,934 closures between the three industries as of August 31.  – 40,592 of which are now permanent.

The fallout from the initial lockdown and the increasing severity of the pandemic has damaged commercial districts throughout the city, leaving many businesses on the verge of collapse.

Neighborhoods like Bloomfield, which has two business strips along Penn and Liberty Avenues, have seen a substantial loss in business, and many individuals have had to rely on local organizations for support.

“It’s greatly diminished the vibrancy of our commercial district,” Richard Swartz said Executive Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.

The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation is a local organization that provides support to businesses and promotes revitalization and development projects in the Bloomfield community.

With less foot-traffic, the commercial strip of Penn Avenue has gone quiet, with some businesses being forced to close indefinitely. Community events such as Unblurred – an annual outdoor art festival – have gone virtual, eliminating any walk-in business that they generated.

“Some of the businesses can do a third of their business for the month just in that one night,” Swartz said. He noted how many of the hardest-hit businesses heavily relied on foot traffic prior to the pandemic.

“This is a commercial district where we’re used to seeing people on the street… what’s happened now is the pandemic has pretty much turned our commercial district into something of a ghost town,” Swartz said.

Bloomfield’s other commercial district along Liberty Avenue also saw a drastic decrease in foot traffic and a subsequent decrease in business for many of the shops and restaurants that line the road.

According to Christina Howell, the Executive Director of the Bloomfield Development Corporation – an organization that provides business and community services to Bloomfield and its Liberty Avenue commercial district – businesses in the area have been significantly impacted, with 10 closures since March.

“Once the pandemic hit it took a while for a lot of folks to come to the realization that this was not going to be a quick thing, and that business models would need to change, in some cases drastically, to make it through,” Howell said. “Some businesses, often the smaller, more nimble ones that didn’t rely on walk-in traffic as much, were able to pivot.”

Howell noted that many of the newer businesses, women-owned entrepreneurs and minority-owned businesses have been among the hardest hit. And with virus cases on the rise and less foot traffic this holiday season, Howell fears that the neighborhood may be in store for another round of closures.

“After the holidays we might see another round of businesses close. These are ones that really hustled during this last nine months to a year and really did everything they could,” Howell said, explaining that financial strain, debt, and credit were all factors in their survival.

“I think that a third-round [of closures], unfortunately, is destined to happen, especially if there is no solid stimulus passed that really helps keep these businesses open during this time,” Howell said.

Pivoting Business 

With financial pressure mounting, Kulik and his wife Nicole made the difficult decision to permanently close the doors to their popular South Side nightclub, Scenario, knowing the space was too expensive to maintain without an influx of customers.

The two began focusing their attention on offering private party packages at The Goldmark, which included a top-shelf open bar, a DJ, pizza, and the entire space for three hours. Priced at $1,200 with a 12-person limit, loyal patrons and newcomers alike began booking The Goldmark for engagement parties, birthdays, bachelor parties, and more.

With restrictions on gatherings and occupancy limits, The Goldmark has begun offering private party packages.
Photo Credit: Andrew Otts

“People are always celebrating something… before the pandemic, we would do a lot of private stuff at the bar and bar rentals, and we just figured why not give this a shot and see how it goes,” Kulik said, noting that state regulations allowed a 12-person limit on private events when they first started in early September.

“It worked out great, people loved it. We just did somewhere around 40 [parties] in just the past two months, which is incredible,” Kulik said.

For Kulik, the influx of business gave him hope that his bar had a fighting chance to make it out of the pandemic intact.

“It made me really happy to see the outpour of support and really see people who wanted to support the business and make sure you made it through the whole thing. It meant a lot to my wife and me, more than anybody can even realize,” Kulik said.

“The Goldmark’s not going anywhere. If we can get this place back open in the next six months to a year, we’ll be totally fine,” Kulik said. “We’re just going to keep rolling with the punches.”

While some business owners have had to think of new ways to bring in customers, others had to transform their entire business model to adapt.

Ryan Brown, a local party organizer, and entrepreneur who regularly hosted the popular event Make Sure You Have Fun, had to think of a way to bring the experience of his live shows to people without compromising safety.

“The initial reaction was a concern. There was no inherent threat that this was going to last any particular amount of time, so it was just being cautious,” Brown said, who started brainstorming ways to host his events online. “That’s when the hunt to create this livestream channel started.”

Brown and his partner, both avid fans of the popular video game streaming service Twitch, realized that they could use the platform to livestream their events for everyone tuning in from home.

Ryan Brown performing at his Make Sure You Have Fun event.
Photo Credit: Victoria Miller

“It was a lot of trial and error to get high-quality audio and high-quality video… it was just a learning curve of understanding how to produce a quality livestream event on Twitch,” explained Brown, who began working with other individuals and organizations to create fundraising opportunities through streaming.

Brown and his team organized a 12-hour festival which live- streamed his Make Sure You Have Fun event and a show from the Miami-based collective Sophisticated Delinquency between two separate Twitch channels. The event raised money for Camillus House, an organization from Miami, FL that feeds the homeless, and Feed the Hood, a Pittsburgh-based group that provides food, education, and other services to the homeless and those impacted by COVID-19.

“Since that festival, we went on to produce a few different weekly events with some of our radio station curators… we’ve grown that channel, we’ve grown our knowledge in it,” Brown said. “And from just doing the reps in the virtual space it gave us the confidence to be able to offer these services to other organizations.”

After several successful events, Brown pitched the idea of a livestream marathon for Art of Change, an annual art auction held by the Persad Center to raise money for the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS impacted communities, and began working with local organizations to fit the event for the virtual world.

“For the next few months we began completely shifting this event from a physical one with one, with a live auction, to a livestream event,” Brown said. “It was a lot of things to figure out very quickly that we had never done, but we pulled it off.”

The four-hour event was hosted at Spirit in Lawrenceville on November 14 and showcased live performances, comedians, live-streamed conversations, drag performances, and the art auction – all on a livestream feed across multiple platforms. Brown’s successful execution of the event has kept him optimistic, but he’s still concerned about what lay ahead for himself, his creative partners, and the industry.

“My hope is that we can figure out a way to support these freelancers and independent people, and ourselves, through entertainment,” Brown said.

Expanding in Uncertainty

Despite the impact on local businesses and entrepreneurs, some have managed to expand their business into new avenues. Individuals like Pat Bruener, a local photographer and creator of the clothing brand Bankrupt Bodega, used his time during lockdown to come up with a new and innovative way to attract customers.

“I feel like I’ve had one of the best summers ever. I was able to get more work done… I was really locked in working all the time,” Bruener said. Bruener came up with the idea to offer film development for his customers. “I was lying in bed, ready to go to sleep, and it just clicked for me that I could offer film development to customers as a service.”

Bruener got to work that night and launched his Bodega Film Lab Instagram account. Before he knew it, word began to spread, and customers began lining up for his services.

Pat Bruener, owner of Bankrupt Bodega.
Photo Credit: Tim Semega

“Everything grew so organically,” explained Bruener, who has since built up a base of over 30 clients for his film service. “The whole system is pretty much word of mouth at the moment.”

For Bruener, the Bodega Film Lab was the next step to grow and diversify his business under the overall brand name of Bankrupt Bodega. Bruener has also been busy holding pop ups and fundraisers – such as his seven-day bike-a-thon, where he biked over 400 miles and raised approximately $9,300 for the organization 412 Food Rescue.

This busy summer has all led up to his biggest move yet – a brick-and-mortar location for his shop. The new space, which is still undergoing renovations by Bruener himself, is set to include a gallery of his work, Bankrupt Bodega apparel, and his Bodega Film Lab.

“It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but I’m committed to it now,” Bruener said.

While some owners have turned to a physical location to grow their business, others have utilized the popularity of pop-up shops to attract customers. Entrepreneurs such as Cody Baker, a party promoter and creator of the popular event Creatives Drink, found that pop-ups were a solid route for expansion.

Cody Baker’s Lemonade Stand, which ran from July to November, offered adult lemonade cocktails and to-go food in the Downtown and Lawrenceville areas.
Photo Credit: Cody Baker

“The idea slowly grew every week. Originally it was just cocktails to go, then the city ended up helping everyone out a bit by providing seating,” explained Baker, who started his Lemonade Stand this past summer, a pop-up offering adult lemonade cocktails and a small menu of sandwiches and sides.

As the seasons changed, Baker knew that he had to adapt his business with them. Just as the cold weather began to set in across Pittsburgh, Baker launched his Ski Lodge, a pop-up that offers hot alcoholic beverages and food to those looking to get out of the house this winter. For Baker, the idea grew beyond his expectations, giving him confidence for what the future had in store.

“I was not expecting to get the response that we did,” Baker said. “I think I got lucky with providing a very nostalgic, simple idea during a very troubling time.”

The Ski Lodge, a new pop-up concept by Baker, is open this winter for to-go service.
Photo provided by Cody Baker

Although businesses like Baker’s are struggling across the city, the young creative has a positive outlook about where these industries are heading in the future.

“These difficult times help us think outside of the box… I see a lot of people getting shut down, but at the same time I’ve seen so many businesses come up with new ideas and partner with other people,” Baker said. “I think we all have to work together as a community to get out of this.”

This piece is from Multiplatform Magazine Reporting Digital Magazine FALL 2020 Issue “Good Trouble – The New Normal.” 

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