Ypsi's small businesses find creative ways to stay alive during COVID-19 shutdowns

Business at Khadija Wallace's Ypsilanti Township catering service, Joyful Treats, has dried up completely as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. But through her nonprofit, Joyful Treats Community Development, she's begun offering free meals on a weekly basis at 1601 Whittaker Rd., expanding a service she's provided on a monthly basis for years.


"I have a drive up front, and it's perfect for people to drive up and continue on and they don't have to even get out of the car," she says. "They just park in front of the door, and I ask for information about how many are in the family, and then my volunteer and I put it in their trunk and send them on their way."

Patrick Cheatham and Khadija Wallace hand out meals at Joyful Treats Community Development.

Wallace is currently seeking donations and volunteers for her 501(c)(3) organization, but she'll accept nonperishable food donations and cleaning supplies too. She is hoping to begin selling meals for order online soon as well.


"Any online ordering would be greatly appreciated, so I can have a little bit of cash flow," she says. "A national economist predicted a $225 billion loss in the food sector, including catering, and that's a lot of money to lose."


Wallace's efforts are just one example of how Ypsi's small business owners are working to keep their businesses afloat and support their communities during the COVID-19 crisis.


Getting creative


Many entrepreneurs have adopted creative new ways of doing business during the outbreak. Jen Eastridge, owner of Unicorn Feed & Supply at 114 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi, recently implemented a "Personal Unicorn Shop" service. The service allows customers to tour Eastridge's unicorn-themed gift shop virtually, choose what they want to buy, and then have their goods delivered within 10 miles of the store or shipped via the U.S. Postal Service.


Eastridge says she thought long and hard about what was needed during the crisis and decided that "we need to encourage happiness whenever possible," so she kept store operations running, just without any foot traffic. Eastridge's store has also started offering themed gift collections that people can purchase online and have delivered or shipped to their homes.


Many Ypsi food and beverage businesses have similarly expanded carryout or delivery services in the wake of Gov. Whitmer's executive order barring people from dining inside restaurants. But personal service businesses that rely on physical contact with clients, such as barbers, nail technicians, and massage therapists, are among those struggling the most right now.


Angel Vanas, owner of Star Studio by Angel at 224 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi, says she and others in the service industry have had to get creative during this time. She says she knows of a local esthetician who is selling lotions and other skin products online, while Star Studio is offering online makeup and hair styling tutorials and "virtual one-on-one time."

Angel Vanas.

"You may not be able to go into the salon, but we can Facetime, and I can teach you how to style your hair or do that makeup technique you've always wanted to do," Vanas says.


Mara Evenstar, owner of the metaphysical gift shop Evenstar's Chalice at 36 N. Huron St. in Ypsi, says offering online sales is a challenge for her business model. Her inventory consists primarily of items from local artists and artisans who already have their own online shops, one-of-a-kind vintage items that aren't a good fit for online sales, and retail items that can be purchased from Amazon and other large online retailers.


"We had not had online sales as part of our strategy when we were building an online presence, so we were scrambling a little bit when we decided to close our doors," Evenstar says.


However, Evenstar's customers can still buy gift certificates, and some of the store's events have moved online, including a weekly meditation class now available via video conference. The store has also established a brand-new YouTube channel as part of its online offerings.


Uncertain futures


Not every business can get by just by thinking outside the box, and many are struggling with a deeply uncertain new reality. Some Ypsi businesses, like The Eyrie, have already decided to permanently close.


Ryan Griffin, owner of Griff's Unlimited Cutz at 880 S. Grove St. in Ypsilanti Township, expects to stay in business after the COVID-19 outbreak passes. But he says having to temporarily close his barbershop was still hard not just from an economic standpoint, but also a social one.

Ryan Griffin.

"I'm used to seeing so many people on a daily basis and dealing with my regular clients, people you see at the same time every week," he says. "You miss the conversation, the community, the atmosphere of the barbershop. It's much more than a haircut. It's a part of our daily lives."


Ypsi residents who have been involved in the "gig economy" as freelance and contract workers are also struggling.


Yen Azzaro, an Ypsi resident who runs a graphic note-taking service under the name The Paper Pusher, says all her clients cancelled through the end of April when the coronavirus outbreak got serious. In response, she offered her services on a pay-what-you-can basis to groups and organizations doing virtual meetings.


She says a few groups have taken her up on the offer, but she still isn't as busy as she'd like to be.


"I don't know if it'll be sustainable for me to do this," she says. "I do this graphic recording for companies and organizations, and I get more business through word of mouth when they have conversations in meetings with other people outside their organization. Because everything is happening remotely right now, those conversations aren't happening as naturally, and that momentum is not continuing."


Support for struggling small businesses


Community members have been rallying to support small Ypsi businesses by encouraging others to get takeout from local restaurants, buying gift certificates, and even running crowdfunding campaigns.


A number of federal, state, and local grants, loans, and other resources are available for local businesses that need help to survive until they can resume business as usual. Those include extended tax filing deadlines, grant and loan programs through the Small Business Association and the Small Business Development Center, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's Michigan Small Business Relief Program, the Washtenaw Small Business Emergency Relief Fund, and the Washtenaw Small Business Resiliency Fund.


Several local business owners say that even if customers can't support them financially at this time, making online contact is a great way to support a favorite Ypsi small business.


"Stay in touch with businesses via social media and see what they're doing," Eastridge says. "And don't hesitate to reach out and ask for what you need. Right now, we're going to do everything in our capacity to make the customer happy and work with you."


Griffin says he hopes people's concern for small local businesses continues long after the COVID-19 outbreak has passed.


"I hope that on the other side of this, there's a lot more focus on support of local small businesses," he says. "I've been sharing with friends on Twitter and Facebook, telling them to make sure they're supporting local businesses. We need cash mobs to help small businesses get in the black and get ahead."


If you're an employee or employer seeking assistance during the COVID-19 crisis, check out our list of local resources here.


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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