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Sonoma County businesses discover creative ways to survive during pandemic

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Regina Rolland was going the extra mile.

Actually, by driving a shipment of s’mores bars, chocolate-dipped Oreos and sea salt caramels 35 miles from her Kenwood store to a customer in Vallejo, she was going 15 miles beyond her usual delivery area.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. When you’ve had to switch your business overnight from 99% walk-in customers to 100% online orders, when you’re fighting for your livelihood, you’re willing to drive out of your way.

“Traffic wasn’t bad at all,” said Rolland, the relentlessly optimistic owner of Wine Truffle Boutique chocolate and gelato bar, inside VJB Vineyard and Cellars. “I cruised down and cruised back.”

While Sonoma County continues to do an admirable job of flattening the coronavirus curve, slowing the rate of new infections, the learning curve for business owners adapting to this historically harsh economic climate remains dauntingly steep.

Rolland was doing more than just driving down Highway 12 with that cargo of artisan- quality desserts. She was surviving. That’s the grim mode in which many businesses find themselves as the county’s stay-at-home order remains in effect, and unemployment claims spike to levels unseen since the Great Depression.

From the Windsor manufacturer of motorcycle luggage pivoting to making masks for $8 a pop, to the Santa Rosa ex-cabinet maker who used his carpentry skills to build to-go windows for his chain of ice cream shops, to the 25-year-old clothing boutique owner in Cotati who raised her profile by starting a podcast to help young entrepreneurs deal with crisis, this is what survival mode looks like.

Across the county, businesses are adapting and innovating, just to keep the lights on. While turning a profit may be out of the question, for now, they’re scrambling to slow the rate at which they’re hemorrhaging money.

“Entrepreneurs and small business owners have always been a scrappy bunch,” said Seth Wood, owner of Sebastopol’s Woodfour Brewing Co., whose scaled-back operations include pickup and home delivery of its craft beers and food from the restaurant.

That revenue stream, while greatly reduced, is enough to cover his payroll. “It doesn’t really stop the bleeding,” he said. “But at least the blood’s not getting on the carpet.”

All about networking

For Rolland, it has meant quickly overhauling her online sales operations, switching her website from Wordpress to Weebly, whose “shopping cart” options worked better for her, and steeping herself in the particulars of Google Analytics. While that may sound dry to you, Rolland devoured it like a new episode of “Ozark”: those analytics tell her how customers found her website — whether they were responding to a text or email blast or clicking through from her Facebook page.

She learned Google Analytics from a marketing expert on a Zoom call hosted by a group of women’s business owners to which she belongs. In this awful business climate, Rolland is leaning on those human connections, as much as she is on analytics or her spiffy new website.

“It’s all about networking,” she said, “and the partnerships you’ve created along the way.”

After rolling out the new website, she marketed the store’s “Pet Bunny” Easter baskets — hollow bunnies filled with homemade marshmallow, housed “in a little gable box.” She made 60, quickly sold out of them, and had to make more.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Rolland expects the shop’s Mother’s Day baskets, overflowing with rose truffles, lavender caramels and other of the shop’s crowd-pleasing items, to be no less popular.

“A couple weeks ago,” she said, “I was feeling much more stressed than I am today. I feel like I can probably do this.”

Got masks?

You see a mask. They see a lifeboat.

For 35 years, Kathy and Richard Battles have run RKA Motorcycle Luggage — “the Gucci of soft luggage” he said — in their small Windsor shop. If you need some saddlebags for your Triumph or Harley-Davidson, you’ll find them in the Windsor store.

The Battles also travel to motorcycle rallies and shows, where they set up a booth and make a big chunk of their annual sales. This year, those events all have been canceled or postponed.

The loss of those sales “is a significant blow to us,” she said. Without them, the couple isn’t sure how they’ll stay in business.

“This may be the new model,” she said, pointing to her face, partially covered on a sunny morning by a reusable cotton-blend mask, designed to meet specifications they found on health care provider Kaiser Permanente’s website, featuring a slot for an additional filter, and cloth ties for more comfort.

Realizing the widespread demand for non-N95, public-use face coverings, the Battles retooled their plant, and got busy making them. They ordered three giant rolls of material, a 7½-ounce blend of polyster and cotton. The only colors available were gold and red. We’ll take ’em, they said. In a part of the state populated by numerous 49ers fans, that has not proven to be a detriment to sales.

What they hope to do is sign contracts with local agencies — “fire departments, police departments, EMTs” — and supply them on a local basis. “That would stabilize our business,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Battles have been surprised by the volume of orders coming in. An out-of-state customer ordered 1,000. The city of Sebastopol asked for 100. Calpine, the power generation company, requested 50. When Richard Battles sent a marketing blast to his RKA contact list, “the phones went off the hook” the next day.

They applaud those who are making masks and donating them. “I wish we were in a financial position to do that,” he said. “But we are not.”

Though it’s only been making masks for two weeks and change, RKA Motorcycle Luggage is an old hand in that field, compared to Santa Rosa Uniform and Career Apparel, which turned out its first mask on Monday, owner Leslie Bagley said.

While the company provides uniforms for police and medical personnel, her husband, Bruce, said “half our business is hospitality uniforms” — for chefs, servers, housekeepers and casino employees, to name a few. “We are really taking a hit, and trying to stay open.”

To fill that void, they’re also making masks. Because they already sell medical supplies and nursing uniforms, they have a built-in base of customers seeking them.

“It’s sort of taking off like a rocket,” said Leslie Bagley, who notes the company makes masks in different sizes, for adults, children and infants. At this point, they can’t make them fast enough to meet demand.

When the recession rolled in 12 years ago, the same thing happened, she said. “The hospitality part of our business fell off terribly. And it took a couple years for things to come back.”

Rainy day fund

Salvador Cruz was a cabinet maker who worked hard, saved his money, and invested in real estate. But in 2008, the bottom fell out of the market. His losses were heavy.

The time had come, he decided, to reinvent himself. A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, he’d grown up savoring the local, fruit- forward ice cream flavors. In 2010, Cruz opened Fruta All Natural Ice Cream at Bellevue Plaza on Stony Point Road. People loved it. By 2018, he’d expanded to four locations.

When the pandemic arrived, Cruz put his carpentry skills to use, building a fairly involved takeout window at each of his stores.

Customers can order at the window, or by phone. In building the additions, he didn’t skimp on Plexiglass barriers. This man is serious about mitigating the spread of the virus.

“I’ve got 40 employees and five family members working for me. I don’t want my workers, my family or my customers getting sick.”

When the Great Recession of 2008 hit, Cruz didn’t have much of a cushion. “I always said, I don’t want that to happen again,” he recalled. “So I’m going to have a rainy day fund.”

That fund has spared him some of the sting from the financial hit he’s taken. With his four stores open for take-out orders, he’s still losing $10,000 to $15,000 a month. But that’s less than the $20,000 a month he’d be out if he shut everything down.

By staying open, “I keep my employees happy, because they’re getting an income.”

His cushion — $120,000 before the pandemic — is now half that amount. As the weather warms and restrictions are eased, Cruz hopes, he’ll start turning a profit before his rainy day fund goes dry.

Blessing in disguise

The first thing Julie Montgomery did, following the county’s public health emergency quarantine order effective March 18, was furlough her small staff at Kindred Fair Trade, a shop on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa specializing in handmade goods from around the world. To further cut expenses, she requested, and received, a rent deferment. She called her credit card company and got some good news: she didn’t have to make payments for a couple of months.

Like every other business owner in this story, she applied for grants, and relief from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program administered by the Small Business Administration through local banks and credit unions. None have seen a nickel so far.

As it did for Rolland, the pandemic forced Montgomery to inject steroids into the 98-pound-weakling that was her web presence. For Montgomery, that’s entailed hours immersed in webinars on marketing and search engine optimization strategy. She’s learned to caption pictures and describe products in a way that makes Google “see you as an authority,” she said, “so if somebody searches, ‘African market basket,’ then ‘Kindred Fair Trade African market basket’ will be at the top of that search.”

“Everything in my store is interesting,” Montgomery said. “It’s made by a person in a developing country, and it’s improving their lives. It’s my job to tell that story, otherwise I look like every other store selling dresses and jewelry.”

In the past, she’s plowed her profits from the previous year back into the store. This year, “out of sheer luck,” she held on to her money. “Cash-wise, I’m OK,” she said. “I’m confident I’m going to get through this.”

At Bow N Arrow Clothing, her boutique in Cotati, owner Mercedes Hernandez likewise laid off her staff of three.

“Right now,” the 25-year-old said, “It’s just down to me.”

Among her challenges is inventory. Hernandez buys from many Los Angeles-based vendors, whose warehouses are all closed. She’s having difficulty keeping her “hot sellers” in stock.

Meanwhile, while trying to move the items she does have in stock, she’s pushing social media content, including her new podcast, “I’ll See It When I Believe It,” which debuted on April 9. On the podcast, she shares her journey and knowledge of “running a biz, overcoming obstacles … and how to stay faith-driven.”

A self-described “old soul,” she exhibits, at times, a serenity belying her years. Rather than surrender during our “rock-bottom moments,” she advises listeners in her second (and latest) episode, press on, even when things feel hopeless.

Your setback, she said, “is a blessing in disguise. ... When you’re having a bad day, a bad month, a bad year — it’s during these hardships that we learn so much, and it’s where growth takes place.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88

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