The pandemic delayed their grand opening dreams. Now, these stores are booming

We're Open sign
Posted at 6:00 AM, May 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-09 13:04:44-04

One year ago, Khisha Asubuhi stood inside a nearly empty storefront on Woodburn Avenue in East Walnut Hills. She had signed a lease on the space for her first store before anyone in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19.

She was uneasy but undeterred, she said at the time.

"I felt like, if it was meant to be, it would be," she said one year later. "If this was a step I was supposed to take, it would work."

The grand opening weekend party she hoped for in April 2020 couldn't happen because of a pandemic-forced lockdown. But she eventually celebrated the first Originalitees brick-and-mortar location.

And she hasn't looked back.

"We actually did better last year than the year before, believe it or not," she laughs. "Makes no sense, right?"

Originalitees has grown from one employee to five despite the pandemic's economic challenges. Asubuhi credits enthusiasm, creativity, hard work, and well-timed grant and loan opportunities. And the company has landed some key and long-awaited agreements.

It is one of three Black-owned businesses licensed to make FC Cincinnati-branded apparel. And Asubuhi said she's been granted license to make Indiana University-branded goods, too.

"I went to IU; I played basketball for IU. It wasn't enough (years ago)," she said. She applied for the licensing twice before. "However, the company is a lot different than we were."

The Originalitees store -- with shelves of shirts promoting Black Lives Matter and condemning anti-Asian hate -- also now serves as the starting point for a bi-weekly running club, called Run United. Asubuhi said the idea came from the conversations following the racial unrest in 2020.

"We want people to be intentional about talking to someone who doesn't look like them," she said. "So everything we do, we do with intention."

WCPO 9 News also visited Vevay Antique Mall in April 2020.

At the time, the large space on East Main Street was only partially full. Many vendors weren't yet comfortable in a physical space, without the ability to host customers. Its grand opening was held on Facebook Live.

"You were one of the early birds to get to see it in person," said co-owner Angie Priest. "Now, you can see, we are full."

There are roughly 28 vendors in the Vevay Antique Mall now, one year later. Some found the spaces because of the virtual programming and online and private sales Priest and her business partners, Emily Prarat and Timothy Shackleford, were doing just to survive.

Even though the doors are now open, a lot of that continues.

"We do so much fun stuff that has come out of what we did initially just to get by, that it's become a standard for us now," Priest said.

The mall has grown so quickly it now has two part-time employees, something Priest said wasn't in the business plan until two or three years down the road. It's made possible partly by a unique revolving loan program Switzerland County developed to help small businesses in the pandemic.

Fifteen businesses now benefit from the $250,000 loan program.

"It's more money than we've ever had to put into a business assistance fund locally in my time," said Jon Bond, president of the Switzerland County Economic Development Corporation. "They've used them to help stay open during the time they either had to shut down or were on diminished capacity, but they've also used them to help hit the ground running on the other side of the pandemic."

Despite dreams delayed and fears for the future, both businesses are booming. Owners said it is thanks to a mix of entrepreneurial spirit, forced changes, and outside help.

"It's exciting that through all of the crazy, we've come out a little bit better, a little bit strong, and a little bit bigger," Priest said.

Asubuhi agrees.

"The last year has been crazy, but on the flip side, we've done really well," she said. "People are being more intentional with shopping with small businesses and Black-owned businesses, so we've received a lot of support from the community."