CINCINNATI — Within months of opening The Confetti Room on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine, Simone Charles was confident she had a winning business concept.
Customers were booking dates for baby showers, bridal showers and rehearsal dinners, and Charles was planning and hosting the classy events she envisioned in her venue.
Then came COVID-19, and the business that Charles had just opened in July 2019 had to shut down.
“It’s been a whirlwind year,” she said. “We were booked solid. And we were figuring out everything when it came to marketing and tapping into different clientele and seeing how we can get our name out there. And then March hit, and everything came to a standstill.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for businesses of all types. But it has been especially tough for small businesses that were just getting started.
Catherine Manabat and Julia Petiprin said they felt the strain at HomeMakers Bar on East 13th Street. They opened in June of 2019 and – like Charles – said they were just hitting the bar’s stride when the COVID-19 shutdown hit them. The business stayed afloat by selling carryout and capitalizing on the neighborhood support that surrounded it, they said.
“We reopened after being shut down for almost 100 days on our one-year anniversary,” said Petiprin, the bar’s operator and co-founder. “We had our second, annual grand reopening.”
Now with the virus surging as the temperatures drop, entrepreneurs and their advocates are encouraging customers to keep spending money with the small businesses they value to help them get through the holidays and into the new year.
“It’s masks on, and it’s shop small,” said Kelly Adamson, executive director of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce. “We will need this moving forward, too. It’s not just this year – 2021 is going to be incredibly hard as well.”
‘I thought I had a recession-proof business’
The OTR Chamber started helping Over-the-Rhine’s roughly 300 businesses early during the pandemic, Adamson said, by helping business owners navigate the state and federal assistance that was available and by spreading the word about which locations were open for business. The chamber also raised $400,000 and awarded grants of up to $20,000 to 30 different businesses, she said.
The day after Thanksgiving, the chamber kicked off programs to encourage safe holiday shopping at local businesses. OTR aGlow storefront and window displays will be up through Dec. 31 as an extension of FOUND’s “Windows of Wonder” along Vine Street. And on Dec. 13, the chamber is bringing back Second Sunday OTR, encouraging customers to shop the sidewalks of the neighborhood’s business district or visit the chamber’s Instagram page to shop online.
Charles, who also is the owner and creative director of Social Butterfly Events, said the chamber has been a huge help to her.
“I don’t think without them, we’d be where we are,” she said. “They’ve really kind of held our hand through everything.”
The Confetti Room had 36 events cancel in the early months of the pandemic, she said.
“Everything became crazy,” she said. “And as an entrepreneur, it sort of plays with your mind because you have those six months where obviously this is a concept that is sustainable. It’s something people want.”
It was heartbreaking, Charles said, to have to cancel baby showers for expectant mothers without being able to refund their deposits.
“They were not happy,” she said of her customers. “And I got off the phone, and I cried because I didn’t know what to do. I had to stick to my guns to be able to even open my doors again and say, ‘Unfortunately, I can’t refund your deposit because there is a force majeure clause in our contracts.’”
The Confetti Room had some business return in July and August, but bookings have slowed again for the holidays as coronavirus cases have risen, she said.
To help meet customers’ needs, Charles used grant money to buy a floral cooler so she can market flower arrangements through her business. She also is renting out some of the supplies she typically uses at The Confetti Room and delivering them to customers’ homes so they can use the items for smaller gatherings of their own.
Beyond that, Charles said she’s focused on marketing her venue as the perfect spot for small, micro-weddings that have become more popular.
“I thought I had a recession-proof business,” she said.
Manabat, HomeMakers co-founder and vermouth lover, said she and Petiprin have had to pivot to keep their business going, too.
‘We need the community to help us’
“We’re a craft cocktail bar. We also serve comfort food,” Manabat said. “I think the community was really opening their arms to us. We actually were named a month before shutdown the best bar/restaurant by the OTR Chamber. So we were in a really good place.”
But when the COVID-19 shutdown happened in March, Manabat and Petiprin had to furlough all 12 of their employees. The two of them kept the business afloat by running carryout business for 100 days until they could reopen again, Petiprin said.
“It’s been a wild first year and a half in business together,” Manabat said.
“We weren’t making enough to support our own salaries,” Petiprin added. “Luckily, we were able to take advantage of some of the federal grant money that came out. So that was what got us through.”
Since the bar reopened in June, Manabat and Petiprin have been able to bring back eight of their 12 employees, Petiprin said.
Property management and development company Urban Sites is allowing Homemakers to use a parking lot behind the bar for outdoor dining and service, a space they call HomeMakers Outpost, Petiprin said, and that has helped customers feel safe eating and drinking outside.
“For us, it’s really important that we meet our guests where they feel comfortable and where we feel comfortable,” Manabat said. “We try to offer a multitude of experiences.”
That includes the Outpost for outdoor dining, a carryout window, online ordering and limited indoor seating, she said. HomeMakers also has been offering virtual cocktail classes for customers, has a pop-up bottle shop to sell bar tools and low-proof spirits and is releasing a printed holiday guide to entertaining with cocktail recipes.
“We’re kind of trying to attack it from all sides and give people options to where they can feel really safe deciding how they can help support a small business,” Manabat said. “We need to give people those options because we need the community to help us make it through the winter.”
More information about how to support Over-the-Rhine’s small businesses during the holidays is available through the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been reporting on women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 20 years. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.