COVID cases are spiking once more to the worst levels of the pandemic and local small businesses tremble in trepidation. The feeling among owners is one of steeling for battle. But as they train like boxers — building strength and finessing reflexes — they are grateful to be headed toward the ring in step with the whole community.
The first set of lockdowns due to the novel coronavirus swept many off their feet. For Melissa Siig, co-owner of the Tahoe Art Haus Cinema and the Tahoe Tap Haus, the initial shock “was like a wave you saw from far away and you’re like, that’s not gonna hit … that’s not gonna hit … and then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘holy crap we’re gonna get hit.”’
In your corner
The state stay-at-home order forced many businesses to shut down immediately and indefinitely, for what ended up being almost three months. Since the indoor theater had to be shuttered, the Art Haus innovated with their crowd-pleasing drive-in theater, originally slated to run through the summer, but it was in such demand that it continued until early November (though profit wise, it was a “drop in the bucket” compared to their losses). Other ventures have included virtual cinema and renting out the theater itself to family groups.
“We did it for eight months without any help,” Siig said.
But as winter approached and Placer County went back to purple tier restrictions as of Nov. 17, the writing was on the wall.
“We just looked six, nine months out and we said, ‘we’re going to go into debt,’” Siig told Moonshine.
The business turned to the community for support, launching a GoFundMe page on Nov. 9. Within a few weeks, they raised almost $44,000 of their goal of $50,000 from the Tahoe City community and beyond. And so, things are a little less daunting this time, she says, because her businesses have directly felt the love and support of her community.
“We feel like with this money we can make it to summer, so it gives us breathing room,” she shared. “We’ve done fundraisers and we’ve given to the schools … so it feels good that the community [feels the] need to return that [and] give back.”
California’s purple tier designation of “widespread” coronavirus exposure risk (at press time assigned to El Dorado, Nevada, and Placer counties) mandates shutdowns of nonessential businesses including indoor dining, though multiple people in the business community confirmed that some establishments are still choosing to remain at least partially operational indoors at 25% capacity.
The popular Alibi Ale Works locations in downtown Truckee and two in Incline Village have come to define the region’s nightlife, relying on large crowds at evening events, which makes them just the type of business devastated by COVID-19’s economic impacts. The company also tapped into crowdsource fundraising. Owner Kevin Drake said loyal customers were sensitive to the pandemic’s impact on his business and have been asking about ways to help. The restaurant group’s GoFundMe page, launched Oct. 9, boasts $27,148 as of press time, well over halfway to their goal of $40,000.
Bobbing and weaving
Like other businesses, Alibi has survived by remaining flexible and meeting the necessities of the moment. Having been permitted by the town to create a warm-weather beer garden in their parking lot, the company has now built an outdoor seating area that will be heated with gas-powered infrared lamps at its Truckee Public House. Similarly, the Incline Village locations have porches that will have heat lamps hanging from square steel beams.
“We think about the ski areas and you know people are outside having a beer and some food, so we’re kind of banking on that après ski vibe,” Drake said.
The event and wedding industry, which is the bread and butter of many area residents, has been hit hard by a virus that spreads via human contact.
Aubrey McCready, owner of Photography by Aubrey, had the “biggest year of my career lined up for 2020” with an abundance of booked weddings. Then, everyone had to reschedule.
Wedding and event florist company Love & Lupines owner Meghon Shrewsbury also had a staggering number of cancelations in March, and now, with the return of increased regulations, is experiencing the same thing.
“Five elopements that I had scheduled in December all canceled and a huge order from the Ritz Carlton canceled because they just had to close down all their indoor dining,” she said, “so it’s just a roller coaster ride of things.” Yet Shrewsbury used her recently honed pivoting skills — the flowers from the Ritz Carlton order were repurposed for a decorating project in a rental home.
Jill Akers is the owner and founder of The Board Truckee, a not-quite-one-year-old charcuterie business that started on Instagram and has flourished despite coming of age amid pandemic cancelations and event reworkings.
During COVID, Akers shifted her focus to creating intimate moments (versus large events) and was able to be successful within that niche. Ultimately, she felt that her reduced-capacity business launch was “even more impactful because people are so thankful for your work, and to work with you, and still have their day this year.”
Megan Bristol and her husband took the right leap of faith in launching their online interior design service Tahoe Modern, and with the region’s housing boom she said the pandemic has had the fledgling company “drowning in work.”
Instead of “feeling sheepish” about their success in the face of so many others’ hard times, Bristol decided to give back to the community by forming an Instagram giveaway called #TeamTahoe, see p. 25. Customers use the hashtag to be entered to win a variety of prizes from partnering businesses.
While some giveaways in the business world are focused primarily on self-promotion, Bristol told Moonshine she “wanted to tie it to a larger initiative that felt community-focused with the secondary goal obviously being brand awareness.”
It’s no simple task to understand who’s been hit hardest and who’s doing okay, says Cassie Hebel, executive director of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association.
“There are some retail clothing businesses that are up, there are some that are down,” she said. “There are art galleries that have said they’ve had it good, they’ve been doing fine,” while others in the same industry struggled.
Still, while there are variations in how businesses were affected, when it comes to downtown Truckee, businesses were down between 25% to 50% for the year, Hebel said.
However, Hebel, like every business owner Moonshine spoke with, felt that grassroots collaboration in the small business community gives Truckee downtown a fighting chance this winter. For example, she said, businesses are “push[ing] that mask wearing together.”
Yet this mutually beneficial relationship existed in the downtown merchant community pre-COVID.
“We have a synergy between our restaurants in Truckee and our retailer shops; we need them to coexist,” she added.
Also, the TDMA, the Town of Truckee, the Sierra Business Council, and the Truckee Chamber have teamed up to secure a network of grants from Nevada County via the CARES act to attract foot traffic downtown as an “entity.” The money is funding a magical land of lighting, artwork by local artists Sara Smith and Nancy Holliday, with frames created by Mountain Forge, and outdoor dining capabilities for many restaurants through winter. It’s called Winter Wonderland.
Small businesses that have been innovative, shifting, and reinventing to adapt to the changing regulations are the ones still standing and that have a shot of making it to the other side. For Drake, the word of the year is “nimble.” While the effort is described as “exhausting” by numerous interviewees, the community spirit and beloved nature of local independent businesses is an advantage.
As Siig told the Ink, “I think in this pandemic it’s paid to be a mom and pop shop. Nobody is going to give money to save Staples or Home Depot, but that little mom and pop store, whether it’s a boutique or a restaurant, people will pay to save that.”