The New York businesses that have successfully pivoted during coronavirus
The stories of local businesses building back better are brought to you with the support of Wells Fargo Bank. "The right business tools for right now"
“We’re in the midst of extraordinary change, obviously,” says Shari Drewett, “but it doesn’t have to be ruinous.” Shari and her wife, chef MK Washko, have owned and operated Better Being Catering for a quarter century – until COVID-19 wiped out their business overnight.
With slim margins, colossal overheads, and no clear path to recovery, they’ve decided to leave the city and try something new in the Catskills.
“There’s this thing I’ve been dreaming about for a while,” says Shari, "but I couldn’t find the time. “Well ... hello, time.”
That thing is to design and build alternative living spaces – modern, sustainable homes made from shipping containers. “I just secured four 20 ft. ‘high cubes’ – the unicorns of containers!” she says proudly.
During quarantine she found a site, assembled a construction team and, well, a couple of unicorns. It’s a long way from catering photo shoots, “but it was right there,” she says. “We just had to think differently.”
If one word has come to define the business world in this post-COVID era, it’s pivot. Daters have learned to hang out on Zoom. Gyms, too, have taken their workouts online. Some restaurants have become de facto grocery stores. Others, like Bird & Branch, have pivoted to supply essential workers.
Theaters are still playing around with what changes might bring some hope and clarity to their uncertain future – outdoor shows, smaller audiences, and no intermissions have all been mooted. But one rehearsal space moved quickly, signing up out-of-work Broadway stitchers to make much-needed hospital gowns. The same business has now pivoted again to make masks for singers, and provide space for socially distanced cabaret performances.
And a ticketing start-up has switched to creating intimate, behind-the-scenes, online mixers where fans can meet their favorite Broadway stars.
Emily McGill, an entertainment PR, had been hoping for room to breathe … a space to create and thrive, not just survive in the frenetic pace of New York City. Two months later, Coronavirus hit. Suddenly she had the space she’d been looking for. Then George Floyd was murdered, and she found her calling.
“The a-ha moment came when seeing a friend of a friend offering up pro bono services for anyone who was doing work that supported the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “Immediately, I knew that if artists had access to a template and sample press release to write about their project themselves, I could easily help them with formatting while keeping their voice intact. Then it was simply a mail merge away to share it with my pretty large list of theater, arts, and entertainment journalists and make direct introductions for anyone who was interested in covering the story – a straightforward way to amplify unheard voices, which I’ve come to learn, is my calling.”
Artists and designers have also had to take a long, hard look at their new reality.
“At the beginning of 2020 I had 12 classes, one summer camp class, and an art residency in Finland booked,” says artist Joseph Cavalieri. “As with my artist friends, and most of the US, these gigs were cancelled or delayed to 2021.”
Unable to teach or work – the center in Brooklyn whose kilns he uses to create his stained glass art has closed – he switched to painting … and discovered a new identity in the process.
“My new work is large-scale oil paintings on canvas – something I’ve been wanting to do since college more than 30 years ago,” he says. “Compared to working with glass, which could cut you if handled incorrectly, painting is more immediate.
“Instead of listening to techno, I now listen to jazz. I can spend days painting. I have pivoted, but am still creative. And I’ve created a new 'name' and personality. Painting on canvas feels like my more feminine side, so Joseph Cavalieri is my glass artist name, and Josefina Cavalina is my painting name.”
“At the time of the NY Pause in April we immediately stopped making any income,” says Katie Sue Nicklos, owner of Wing + Weft, the last remaining glove maker in Manhattan, whose clients include Broadway shows, drag queens, and first ladies. “We sent our employees home with the thought that we would be returning within two weeks, and all of the work that we had in-progress was put on hold until those industries were cleared to be open again.”
But after two weeks, it was clear they were in big trouble. “The NY Pause was being extended more and more every day, and we had bills starting to bark at us," says Katie Sue. "We had already begun a line of ‘everyday washable’ gloves in March, meant for not touching surfaces, but I pivoted hard to masks in the middle of April after I knew I could tackle the prep of the production on my own in the factory and give the work to my employees who were at home.”
It’s a much simpler process compared to glove making – which takes years to perfect – so she could turn around the new “face gloves” fast and efficiently, using a “1940s workhorse of a machine – the Schwabe Clicker,” which was already in their Garment District factory.
Their glove clients started calling and business took off. “Our customers are a part of our family, and many who had purchased gloves in years past purchased face gloves to help us, and to make their own safety more fashionable,” says Katie Sue.
She was also able to help those entrepreneurial customers with their own pivots.
“One is Susan Clayton of WhitePaws RunMitts, who we are currently in production for her super-cozy running mitts. She began making ‘face mitts’ geared towards runners and walkers with us in early May and has been selling to her clientele like gangbusters.
"It has been a silver lining to be able to help these friends pivot.”
“Another is Melissa Ng of Lumecluster – we had previously created base gloves for their incredible 3D-printed gauntlet-style gloves. They created a mask and arm sleeve set that is reflective and in line with their very creative and intricate brand.
"It has been a silver lining to be able to help these friends pivot. It takes a village,” she says.
The concept store Maison 10, another Wing + Weft customer, has turned to Katie Sue to create its multiple iterations of the face glove, including the latest, which has a straw-sized grommet hole for drinking at bars. How did the owners, Tom Blackie and Henri Myers, feel when they were forced to close their 5th Ave store?
"Mild terror," admits Tom, "as we are mainly a destination spot, and our online sales have always been a nice little extra but certainly not the bread and butter of the business."
They'd been planning to launch an events program in the physical space for a few months, so quickly transitioned to make it an online experiential business model rather than an in-person one. "The Happy House NYC is a program of live streamed events delivered by world-class performers, teachers, artists, and talented individuals from all over New York City," he explains. That could range from tarot readings, cookery classes, financial advice, health workshops, drag bingo, artist talks, live music, and dance. "Tickets can be purchased for $20 per event, or for a suggested donation. Free tickets are also available for people who are currently struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic." Crucially, most of these businesses have no intention of simply going back to the way things were before the pandemic. The best pivots work when you learn something about yourself and your audience along the way. Charlie Marshall is keeping pizza on the menu. Masks will be a part of our landscape indefinitely. Both Shari and Emily have found a creative calling they can't just put back in the box. As for Tom? "Oh baby, The Happy House NYC is here to stay."
Be first to read stories like this when you join our daily newsletter at w42st.com.