By Anthony Solis Sierra and Mira Tarabeine
[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of profiles examining the pandemic’s toll on local businesses.]
The pandemic has forever altered the local business landscape.
Some businesses are gone for good. Others have hung in there, but the future remains uncertain. Still others have found new ways of doing business that may outlast the pandemic. Some businesses even launched during the pandemic.
In the profiles below, we look at a business that has shut down and two that have survived. We also look at one nonprofit that has come back from the brink.
Eagle Rock Public House: “The pandemic was a death blow.”
Before the pandemic, business was better than good for Ting Su and Jeremy Raub, the married owners of the Eagle Rock Public House, a bustling eatery they opened in 2014.
“We had a really rad restaurant that we were super proud of,” Su said. “We were really focused on giving people a stellar experience when they were there. Our service team was just all super friendly.”
Su said she understood why people hesitated to leave their homes during the pandemic, even to pick up a meal. But when the economy shut down, the hit to revenue was immediate.
The restaurant, which had partnered with local farmers and community members, stayed in business by selling produce boxes and changing their menu so that the food quality would stand up to the demands of delivery “We had to shift the entire menu first and foremost because a lot of our foods didn’t really travel well,” Su said.
The restaurant also took out a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to help pay staff. But as the months of shutdown dragged on, maintaining a full-time staff became increasingly difficult. Su began telling her employees to sign up for grant opportunities she heard about for people in the restaurant industry.
By November, staying open was no longer an option. “The pandemic was a death blow,” Su said.
Su is concerned not just about her own business, but about what is lost when small businesses begin to close down.
“We’ve lived in Glassell Park nearly 20 years at this point,” she said. “And so to us, it’s like this is home.”
“It’s heartbreaking to me to see this many small businesses shutting down like within Northeast L.A. — and it’s a little terrifying because you don’t know what’s going to come in its place,” she said. “I’m really hoping it’s not a whole bunch of chains.”
The Stronghold Climbing Gym: “The transition back to business will take time.”
With the exception of one month in the summer, The Stronghold Climbing Gym in Lincoln Heights was shut down from March 2020 until March 15, 2021, when it reopened at 10% capacity.
“It’s really hard to have been totally closed, [but] we don’t really have any outdoor possibilities,” said Kate Mullen, co-owner of Stronghold with Peter Steadman.
Mullen and Steadman managed to keep the business from going under by applying for and receiving a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program and by spending their own money to meet business expenses.
Currently, they are expecting a second federal loan to come through. They also expect to open at 25% capacity starting March 31. “The transition back to business will take time,” said Mullen.
Meanwhile, the owners are concerned about clients feeling safe enough to return to any gym and hope that when they do return, they’ll patronize small gyms like Stronghold.
“I would ask everyone in Northeast L.A. to really consider trying to give whatever money they’re able to spend to small businesses,” Mullen said.
Johnny’s Bar: “I know more about CDC guidelines than cocktails.”
Since the initial shutdown of bars and other businesses in March 2020, Highland Park pub Johnny’s Bar has reopened five times, adjusting each time to new health guidelines, said Johanna Cole, a manager at the bar.
At this point, said Cole, “I know more about CDC guidelines than cocktails.”
Eventually bars were allowed to sell alcohol to-go (with food orders), which has resulted in orders from regulars, but hasn’t brought in much new business.
“When I sell to-go drinks, I don’t see anybody new. I don’t meet anybody. It’s all my regulars,” Cole said, adding, that “the regulars” are what has kept Johnny’s Bar in business during this time.
Cole said the bar’s goal now is to hang on until the pandemic is over.
“We’d like to hold on to some of that like old school vibe, and that’s what we’re hoping to do with Johnny’s,” she said. “You just hang on to it, keep the lights on.”
Bob Baker Marionette Theater: “The puppets are running amok in an empty theater.”
The storied Bob Baker Marionette Theater, established in Los Angeles in 1963, had been in its new location in Highland Park for only four months when the pandemic forced it to close in March 2020.
Closure was a body blow to the theater.
“It’s a company that never existed as a digital one and never was meant to be experienced through a screen or in any way aside from going to a show, having a puppet sit on your lap, knock your hat off, and perform directly in front of you,” said Molly Cox, director of communications for the theater. “It was very much centered on the wonder of experiencing this place, walking through the doors and being transformed.”
Despite innovations including road shows, Zoom performances and an online store, the theater was soon hemoraging $30,000 a month and was barely able to cover operating expenses, rent and payroll.
Salvation came through fundraising. Bob Baker, which is organized as nonprofit, set a year-long goal of raising $365,000, eventually raising over $400,000.
Cox said that the donations were affirmations “by everyone who had been touched by the theater over the past 63 years.”
The theater is currently hosting some in-person events, like the peek-a-boo stroll which allows for pods of up to six people to be guided by lights and sound cues through a performance in which the puppets are “sort of running amok in an empty theater,” Cox said.
Anthony Solis Sierra and Mira Tarabeine, juniors at Occidental College, are participants in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership, a collaboration between the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental campus newspaper.
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