Things were looking good, then the pandemic hit. How four Pittsburgh-area businesses are weathering the COVID era.

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COVID-19 has brought hard times to small business owners across the nation. The online review website Yelp estimated that before July 10, 73,000 small businesses in the United States had closed permanently. Times have been difficult for businesses in the Pittsburgh region, and while the outlook is uncertain, PublicSource spoke to the owners of four resilient businesses that have stayed afloat by obtaining credit, going online, developing new streams of revenue, and in one case, simply breaking the rules.

JUSTIN STRONG

Justin Strong stands beside a new steam cleaner he purchased with a loan from Honeycomb Credit. Justin Strong stands beside a new steam cleaner he purchased with a loan from Honeycomb Credit. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

At the start of 2020, Justin Strong, owner of Strong II Dry Cleaners in Homewood, was looking forward to celebrating the 90th anniversary of his grandfather, Dennis Strong, starting the family’s fabric care business.

However, as the April anniversary arrived, there wasn’t much to celebrate: The governor had ordered a statewide lockdown in March and the dry-cleaning firm began to lose business.

“Over the last five months, we’ve lost around 49% of our business compared to the year before,” said Strong, who currently runs his dry-cleaning operation with just one employee and, sometimes, a seamstress.

Strong didn’t give up. “We kept going. We had to shut the storefront down, but we converted all our customers to the valet service, pick-up and delivery. We tried to be more efficient with our production. We cleaned when we had enough stuff, maybe once or twice a week.”

Photo of Justin Strong.

Justin Strong. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

According to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black-owned businesses have a greater chance of failing during the pandemic, and many Black businesses were left out of aid programs. Strong managed to escape that trend.

“Prior to the COVID crisis, I could never get a regular loan,” he said. “All you had was some very predatorial lending that you have to pay back in six months, and they take money every day.”

That changed with the pandemic: “Soon as all the financial aids came out, I was on it.” 

First, his credit union extended a line of credit to the company. “Their sentiment was like, ‘It is so hard for Black businesses to get credit and you guys have been with us for a while, so here you go.’”

Strong also received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans [EIDL], the Minority Business Recovery and Growth Loan Fund from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, Honeycomb Credit and, to top it off, a small grant from Facebook. Altogether, he received about $93,000. He’s not sure how much he’ll have to pay back but estimates it as being anywhere between $63,000 and $70,000.

Strong said he believes his long track record as a business owner contributed to obtaining the loans. From 2000 to 2013, he was, among other ventures, co-owner of the Shadow Lounge and AVA Lounge, well-known former venues in East Liberty’s nightlife.

“I’ve been running businesses since 2000. My bookkeeping is current and I’ve paid my taxes,” said Strong, who took over the dry cleaning business in November 2014.

Strong used the crowdfunded credit he received from Honeycomb Credit to expand his business, in part, by buying new equipment that will make it possible to offer his services to a new circle of customers.  

“It’s a washer with steam injection,” he said, “so we can clean clothes and scrubs from medical labs and things like that.”

Strong said he believes the Black Lives Matter movement has a positive impact on his business. “We have people call us and specifically ask us whether this is a Black-owned business,” he said. “When we go to pick up the clothes, we see they have Black Lives Matter signs in their yards, or they have a BLM T-shirt on when they come to the door.”

MEGAN FLINN

Megan Flinn in her yoga studio in Penn Avenue in Garfield. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource) Megan Flinn in her yoga studio in Penn Avenue in Garfield. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

2019 was a difficult year for Megan Flinn. While her yoga studio on Penn Avenue in Garfield was flourishing with some 20 teachers giving more than 40 classes per week, she personally had to battle cancer and chronic pain  caused by surgery.

At the start of 2020, Flinn felt she was just getting back on top of things. Then the virus struck.

All  classes at One Point One Yoga were canceled in mid-March during the statewide shutdown.  “We went from doing incredibly well to literally having zero income,” Flinn said. 

Ignoring the still precarious state of her health, Flinn began to work 14 to 16 hours a day to keep the studio she calls “her baby” in business: producing online video classes, applying for loans, organizing outdoor classes and giving massages and private yoga lessons.

Megan Flinn standing in front of a brick wall.

Megan Flinn. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

“I feel like I went from having one business to having seven,” she said.

She paid her teachers who are independent contractors, their normal in-studio class rate to produce the videos.

When Allegheny County went to the green phase in the first week of June, the studio reopened. Students wore masks inside but took them off as soon as they were on their mats at a safe distance from each other.

Three weeks after reopening, the state issued an expanded mask mandate, and all lessons ceased once more.

“Nobody wanted to come and practice yoga in a mask,” said Flinn. “I mean, yoga is all about breathing.”

In-person classes again stopped at the studio. Applying for loans turned out not to be worth the effort. One Point One Yoga received $1,000 from the PPP fund and another $1,000 from EIDL. 

“I applied for at least 15 different things and I got about $2,000 out of that, which is about a month’s rent.”

Flinn feels she won’t be able to sustain the amount of work she’s doing for much longer. At one low point, she applied for a job with Amazon. When she was offered a job in a warehouse, she declined and decided to keep pouring all of her efforts into her own business.

“I haven’t had a paycheck since March,” she said. “Everything has gone to the studio and that includes money out of my savings.”

Still, there’s hope. In the third week of August, a few classes restarted in the studio. “We’re doing all the required cleaning, we’re taking temperatures and we wear masks,” said Flinn.

She hopes her student will get over their fears, get used to masks and once again will show up for classes.

She doesn’t allow herself to get too excited: “I feel as soon as you plan something, they can change the rules.” 

MAY LEBO AND LAVENDER WACHIRA

May Lebo, left, and Lavender Wachira, right, running their cleaning business in the Bartram House Bakery in Wexford. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource) May Lebo, left, and Lavender Wachira, right, running their cleaning business in the Bartram House Bakery in Wexford. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

In 2013, May Lebo and Lavender Wachira, both immigrants from Kenya, received their master’s degrees in business administration from Point Park University and started MayLav Elite Cleaning, which specializes in home, office, construction and event cleaning.

At first, they did all the cleaning themselves, while also holding down other jobs. As business expanded, they began to hire cleaners while they did the supervising.

“At the start of 2020, our business was going great,” said Lebo. “We had a pool of six to 10 people doing the cleaning jobs as independent contractors. We expected that we would make double of what we made in 2019.”

All that came to a screeching halt with the governor’s March stay-at-home order. “We lost 95% of the business,” said Lebo.

May Lebo. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

May Lebo. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

Lavender Wachira. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

Lavender Wachira. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

They had to cut costs. They stopped paying themselves and gave up their office in Shadyside while only holding on to a storage space.

“We had a lot of anxiety,” said Lebo. “We were afraid to lose everything we had built in seven years. Fortunately, we’re together and we can console each other.”

As the lockdown continued, Lebo and Wachira applied for a PPP and an EIDL loan from the Small Business Administration. They received the EIDL loan but declined to say how much. The money helped them with back pay and getting their contractors back to work as some restrictions were lifted. 

As work resumed, the cleaning business had to follow a lot of new rules: wearing masks, restrictions on the number of people in the work space at a time and more sanitizing. 

“We are now constantly cleaning the high-touchpoint areas that people touch constantly like light switches and doorknobs,” said Lebo. “We already did that before, but now with corona, we even emphasize cleaning those even more.”

At the start of September, MayLav Elite Cleaning has recovered about 80% of its business and Lebo and Wachira are hopeful. Many clients have stayed loyal. A few of them even kept paying.

“At the day we were supposed to clean their house, they sent us a check,” said Wachira. “They didn’t ask for anything, they knew we weren’t able to clean soon, but they paid us out of their kindness.”

Lebo and Wachira have learned from the COVID-19 crisis that they have to increase their streams of revenue. They are working on a new home-cleaning tool and also are developing an app that can assist cleaning companies with needs like hiring, invoicing and billing.

ROD AMBROGI

Rod Ambrogi in his restaurant, Al’s Bar, in Bethel Park. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource) Rod Ambrogi in his restaurant, Al’s Cafe, in Bethel Park. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

On July 3, Rod Ambrogi, owner of Al’s Cafe in Bethel Park, sent an email to area bar and restaurant owners in which he called a meeting for July 13. The email was a call to action: Stand up for your rights or else we’re all going out of business. 

At that point, Ambrogi’s restaurant, with a capacity of 350 seats and 34 barstools, wasn’t doing well. “Up until March, we had 60 people working here,” said Ambrogi. “After the shutdown, when we operated on take-out only, we went back to 20-something.”

Ambrogi obtained a PPP loan that enabled him to pay his key employees for six to eight weeks but had to lay off the waitresses, the bussers and the dishwashers. He said he stopped taking a paycheck.

After lifting the lockdown, the governor maintained several operating restrictions on bars and restaurants. Among them: no more than 25% indoor capacity, no alcohol without food and no seating at the bar.

Rod Ambrogi. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

Rod Ambrogi. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

“Those regulations were not common sense,” Ambrogi said. “They targeted our businesses. The Lowe’s, the Giant Eagles, the Walmarts and other retail were held to the 6-foot distancing, but they handcuffed us to 25% capacity.

“Operating at 25%, the waitresses cannot make a living. Instead of them getting 10 tables a night, they would get 2 or 3 tables. They’re not getting enough tips to make a decent wage.”

So Ambrogi sent the email.

“I didn’t know whether to expect 20 or five people,” he said, “but close to 200 bar and restaurant owners showed up.” They formed The Southwestern Pennsylvania Restaurant and Tavern Association and chose Ambrogi as president.

The newly formed association wrote to the governor, asking him to reconsider the coronavirus restrictions. They specifically wanted the governor to lift the 25% rule and the closing of the bars.

On Aug. 14, still waiting for a response from the governor, some restaurant and bar owners, Ambrogi among them, decided to take the matter in their own hands. 

“I don’t follow the 25% rule any longer,” Ambrogi said. “When a customer comes in and wants to sit at a table that’s 6 feet away from anybody else’s, he’s welcome to sit there. And right now, the bar is open. I don’t believe that it is a common-sense rule that you can sit at a table, but you cannot sit at a bar.”

Ambrogi stresses that Al’s Cafe strictly follows all the CDC guidelines for restaurants. His employees all wear masks, customers have to sit at least 6 feet apart, temperatures are taken at the bar, and seats and tables are sanitized afterward.

Until now, Ambrogi’s business has not been fined or shut down by the Allegheny County Health Department.

In the first week of September, Al’s Cafe was back to about 65% of its normal business and  most of the laid-off employees have returned. “Normally, we would do 400 dinners at a Friday and Saturday; now we do 250.”

On Sept. 9, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that  the restrictions on indoor capacity at restaurants would go up from 25% to 50% on September 21 if businesses self-certify that they are complying with public health guidelines.

Ambrogi said he has no intention to self-certify, noting a recent federal court ruling that deems Wolf’s shutdown measures unconstitutional. Despite ongoing challenges, Ambrogi is more optimistic about the future. 

“I probably won’t take a paycheck until this is all over, but the business will stay afloat.”

Teake Zuidema is a photographer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at t.zuidema22@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Amanda Su.

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