Some Chicagoans find success with starting small businesses amid pandemic

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CHICAGO – Thousands of businesses have gone under across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some Chicagoans decided to tap into their entrepreneurial spirit during lockdown and the results have paid off.

“I think to start a small business, you have to be a little crazy to begin with,” said John Edel, looking through his round wire-rimmed glasses.

Edel is the founder of The Plant, a food business incubator space located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.

He’s seen dozens of fledging businesses begin in The Plant and thrive, even since the COVID-19 pandemic took a significant toll on how the world does business.

One of those is Komunity Kombucha or “Kom Kom”, a small one-person operation, headed by Jack Joseph. His business began during the pandemic—from a dream.

“My brother came home and said ’Why don’t you start a kombucha company?’ I said ‘Are you crazy? why kombucha?’ I swear to god, I went to sleep that night and I had a dream that I started a kombucha brand. I woke up, Kommunity Kombucha: Mind, Body and Soul.”

Joseph takes up a small area of an existing local Kombucha company to brew his own specialty drinks. When it’s time to can, he enlists the help of family and friends.

Like many entrepreneurs, he sees the changing environment brought by a pandemic as an opportunity for change and growth. He’s found great support from his family and from being involved in a food incubator facility where other entrepreneurs work together and learn.

“To be surrounded by a positive environment and people doing great things in this time is definitely the support I need to get through it all,” said Joseph.

For now, Joseph does his own deliveries and marketing, relying on word-of-mouth and social media for sales.

“We have plans for expansion in the near future. [For now we’re] just really getting our feet on the ground and laying that foundation,” he said.

In Lakeview, another small business, Cloud Cookie was born out of the pandemic lockdown, says Anne Marie Morin. Their oversized cookies and handcrafted hand pies have become a hit.

“One thing that I noticed during quarantine that kind of kept me going and kept me happy was coming up with new cookie creations,” Morin said.

“I noticed that everyone in my household was enjoying that as well. When I realized that I figured you can bring that to a lot of people and that really is when Cloud Cookie was born.”

“We created the concept in September and had the doors open by December. I don’t think we were thinking of anything else. It was my heart and soul into this and that’s how it happened,” said Morin, whose mom and dad helped with the buildout of the kitchen and customer area, which includes an insta-worthy neon wall of clouds.’’

Like Kom Kom, social media during the pandemic is what catapulted the success of Cloud Cookie. Morin’s posts on TikTok have been viewed millions of times, drawing customers from around the Midwest.

“Some people have literally driven seven hours, coming from Cincinnati. I had people from St. Louis coming in saying ‘Oh, just wanted to come and check out the shop, I saw it on TikTok and now we’re driving home with a box of cookies,” said Morin with a smile. “I’m like ‘Oh my gosh!’ The support has just been unimaginable.”

Morin also credits the neighborhood for her success. Those who live nearby as well as her business neighbor, Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary on North Clark Street.

“It was pretty convenient, I’m not going to lie. We’ve had a lot of foot traffic from across the street. That’s definitely helped a little bit, I must say,” she said.

Another way entrepreneurs found their path in a pandemic is staying close to home. Ja’Mal Green, an activist and former mayoral candidate, began a mobile nail salon to accommodate the need for pampering in the pandemic. He renovated an RV into Majostee Spa.

“We put a model together, we saw an opportunity where people needed to be serviced and feel beautiful even during this tough time in a pandemic,” said Green. The salon on wheels can be reserved for small parties, and maintains a staff of five nail technicians.

A buzz word during the pandemic became “pivot”—as we discovered new ways of doing business out of necessity. Pivoting is exactly what happened for a shop along Wilson Avenue in Uptown named Hearthstone and Terrace.

Husbands Charlie and JT Murray began planning for the shop in the fall of 2019, before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

Because of delays, their original opening date in March was postponed. They got their keys to their storefront on March 11, 2020.

“And basically two days later,” said JT Murray, “every business shut down. At the time everyone talked 2 weeks or a month. We had two months of build out so ‘it’ll be perfect, we’ll be able to open’ we said, but that didn’t happen.”

Their biggest challenge was getting product. Their original vision was to be mostly furniture, lighting, and rugs.

“Furniture we couldn’t get in. A lot of our stuff in handmade in North Carolina and the facilities were shut down and nothing was in production,” said JT Murray. “What little we could get in made the inside look kind of decent.”

Because much of their business capital was used on ordering product— product that wasn’t going to be ready in time, the Murrays doubled down on Charlie’s experience in botany and quickly altered their business plan to include many plants. They tapped their own personal credit cards to do it.

“Once we got close to Mother’s Day I said ‘OK, we’ve got to open or we’re going to go under,” said Charlie Murray. “We’ve got to do something. The plants were a bet on if it would salvage the business. It’s been a good lesson to taking things one day at a time and make the best of a situation.”

Even though the furniture, lighting, and rugs have arrived, the plants continue to be a large presence in Hearthstone and Terrace.

A home-centric lifestyle store hit home for many people during lockdown.

“The pandemic changed a lot of people. They were home and they wanted to change their homes becaue they were in them 24 hours a day,” said JT Murray. “So that helped, too.”

The City of Chicago has a special office to help small businesses. You can find more information here.

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