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Businesses seek silver linings in COVID-19 clouds

Everyone knows how you’re supposed to react when life hands you lemons. But for those people running a company in the COVID-19 environment, the situation is more acute than dealing with a mere handful of lemons.

Business professionals in Westchester and Fairfield counties are trying to cope with the new normal, and some are able to adapt in unexpected and often surprising ways.

HEALTH AND WELLNESS

Burke

Fairfield County native Austin Burke returned to Connecticut two weeks ago after a six-year residency in Las Vegas, only to find the state going into a lockdown. As an independent personal trainer, being in a market where gyms are closed and nonessential workers are asked to stay home could be seen as an occupational obstacle.

But Burke had already established an online training and wellness business called WIND Coaching — the acronym stands for Workout Inspire Nutrition Desire. He claimed working with clients online has been more advantageous than being a gym presence.

“There are barriers to entry with the gyms,” he explained. “They pay you just a percentage of what the client pays. So, you’re already losing — 50% goes to the gym and they’re just focused on getting as many sessions per week to make as much money from the person.”

Burke did not have any local clients ready for his return to the state, but through WIND Coaching he maintains a national client base.

“I just signed up someone in Maui,” he said.

However, there is a downside to Burke’s work in the COVID-19 environment: many of his clients previously took his advice to their local gyms for workouts, but the pandemic has forced the closure of those venues.

“I had someone that was going to sign up with me this week,” he said. “And then their gym shut down in Massachusetts. So, they were reluctant to sign up. It’s more of a negative because people are more limited and like to make excuses on why they’re not going to start their fitness. This is a good excuse-causing time — and if people don’t have any equipment or they don’t have space, it is harder to get stuff get done.”

Reed's ginger shots energy drinksThe pursuit of health has registered with Norwalk’s Reed’s Inc., whose Wellness Ginger Shots have seen a spike of popularity. Reed’s CEO Norman E. Snyder observed that “people have recognized the benefits of ginger. There’s a lot of well-documented properties that ginger has, and several studies that have been conducted to support these properties and findings.”

Snyder noted that Reed’s manufacturing locations have been deemed as essential businesses, enabling his supply chain to remain open.

“We are accelerating production to get ahead of the curve,” he continued. “If something did happen that impacted our supply chain, we would have sufficient inventory on the floor and could ship it and sustain ourselves for a period if we are unable to obtain certain ingredients.”

Snyder stressed that the company was not doing extra marketing at this time as a response to the new preoccupation on staying well.

“It’s a fine line between maintaining your current stance and broadcasting your product in its properties and benefits, as opposed to appearing to take advantage of the situation,” he said.

CLOSED FOR BUSINESS

Ayala

Jason Ayala is unable to bring his health and wellness focus to the public — his two-year-old Bridgeport practice, It Is Wellness Massage Therapy, was among the businesses ordered closed by Gov. Ned Lamont. Ayala was able to cover the abrupt loss of income with a paid internship at Congregants for a New Connecticut, a social justice nonprofit.

But he has not put his business on hold. Ayala is strengthening the ties to his client base. Through this new focus on client communications, he is keeping tabs on their health and will be ready to respond to their post-COVID-19 needs when his practice reopens.

“A lot of clients need work,” he said, referring to the therapeutic treatments he provided. “I am keeping up to date on all of my clients to make sure they’re doing fine. It’s not just for the individuals, but for their families as well.”

AN EXTRA SERVING OF HELP

Rae

Christina Rae, president of the Valhalla-based public relations and marketing firm Buzz Creators Inc., has witnessed a dramatic change in her agency’s focus.

“We are doing totally different work right now,” she said. “In lieu of happy, celebratory grand openings and events, we are now focused on crisis communications for our clients. We are helping them to communicate to their internal and external audiences about COVID-19 and how they specifically are handling it. We are also getting the word out on many of the creative programs that they are developing to be and stay relevant during these changing times — such as Italian restaurants offering ‘make your own pizza kits’ to help keep kids in the community entertained a bit while they are stuck at home.”

Todd Rowe, whose Fairfield-based BitX Funding operates as an online marketplace for small-business financing, has been fielding inquiries regarding financing sources that will help cover the sudden loss of revenue.

“The phone is ringing and ringing a lot with people looking for advice or funding,” he said. “Volume is up on our website threefold. The website would get 20 to 30 hits on normal days, but it is now up to 150. I may have to hire people soon.”

Rowe’s specialty is financial strategies, but lately he is dealing with business professionals dealing with a traumatic blow to their work.

“I try my best,” he said. “I can’t be totally emotionally involved, but I try to give them direction and be as helpful as I possibly can.”

For Matija Zarak, general manager of Dubrovnik Restaurant in New Rochelle, the state government moratorium on dining in might have been the kiss of death for his business. Instead, a new policy of 20% off all delivery and takeout orders, 40% off all wine deliveries and 20% off all gift cards up to $500 has ramped up business.

“We’re making more food than before,” he said, adding that self-quarantining has become problematic for “people who get tired of cooking for themselves.”

While Dubrovnik Restaurant is offering delivery services, he admitted that people are “worried about third-party deliveries.”

A NEW TECH TOUCH
For Mark Zeck, managing attorney and licensed financial adviser at Ridgefield’s Zeck Law Offices LLC, customized webinars for clients had been used “very, very sparingly” before COVID-19 reached the U.S.

“Now, it is a regular part of our business,” he said. “We now include online services for our clients.”

Zeck pointed out that the sensitive nature of client communications requires an individualized approach with “all consultations kept as confidential consultations in a one-on-one basis.”

And while Zeck would prefer in-person meetings, he acknowledged this solution “keeps business as usual and safe and effective for our clients.”

Jaime Urteaga, founder and CEO at Digital Chair Inc. in White Plains, has been using downtime to attend the virtual business group meeting sponsored by Master Networks, a national networking organization with regional chapters. He has developed leads that he hopes to convert into new business relationships. He co-hosted a Young Professionals of Westchester happy hour event called Thirsty Thursday — albeit with attendees imbibing across cyberspace — and this kept him in touch with peers and potential clients.

The website design and digital marketing expert said, “I have nine contractors who work remotely. Luckily, this situation has not really affected my business.”

Pires

Mark Pires, a real estate broker at the New Canaan office of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties, is experimenting with digital video technology in an effort to serve potential homebuyers who are not eager to go out in the midst of the pandemic.

“I had a client who walked in with a 14-month-old baby at an open house,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I know we shouldn’t be out, but we need to buy.’ ”

Pires has developed the Stay Safe Concierge Real Estate Service, where clients send him properties from the multiple listing service and he creates a video tour of the properties with a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time. Pires promised the videos would not be a glossy sales video, but an “inspection walk-through showing what needs to be done and a ballpark estimate of what it will cost.”

Pires envisioned this service as having a post-pandemic life, where “people in San Diego who want to buy in Connecticut can use the service and make decisions from across the country.”

DESPITE THE BEST EFFORTS …
For James Shyer, co-CEO and chief operating officer at Zyloware Eyewear, a distributor of designer eyewear based in Port Chester, the only course of action in the face of the COVID-19 uncertainty was to shut down the business on March 19 with a projected reopening of April 6. Shyer sent his clients a message with his personal email, guaranteeing them that their orders will be fulfilled.

He explained that the reputation of the 97-year-old, family-owned business was at stake.

Sara Leand, owner of The Snackery Bakeshop in Larchmont, hoped she had a winning formula with “care packages” to be delivered to those who found themselves homebound. The six-product “hug in a box” line featured Moon Pies, Twinkies and Yodels, as well as homemade pop tarts, cupcakes, breakfast treats and the reliable old standby of cookies and milk, along with a personalized card of good cheer.

“I started my bakery as a place where people can be happy and forget about their troubles,” she said.

The good vibes were not enough as the business was forced to shutter on March 19 for an indefinite closure.

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