Back to Business: Intown businesses count losses, cautiously reopen as pandemic continues

Bonnie Kallenberg at Finders Keepers

Gov. Brian Kemp controversial decision to allow businesses to start reopening on April 24 was met with cheers and jeers from those who were either encouraging a jumpstart for the Georgia economy or fearful of a surge in cases of COVID-19.

More than a month later, many businesses have reopened, while others are waiting for a further drop in coronavirus cases. No matter which decision owners have made, the majority are still seeing losses thanks to uncertainty from the public, social distancing measures, and operating costs.

Bonnie Kallenberg, owner of the four Finders Keepers consignment boutiques, reopened her shops on May 19, but did so hesitantly. “There was just no data out there to make a decision on when we should reopen,” she said. “We just had to make a week-by-week assessment and try to decide if people were ready to get out and shop. It’s been frightening.”

Kallenberg said Finders Keepers Furnishings in Decatur had shown the most resilience. She had allowed customers to come in two at a time to shop before the official reopening day. “I think the furniture store will rally first, but the clothing stores will be slower. I don’t think people are ready to shop for clothes.”

Despite the uncertainty, Kallenberg said there were some silver linings: she finally opened an online store and catalogue at fkconsign.com, which is updated daily with new arrivals. And speaking of new arrivals, she said people had more time to clean out their closets while sheltering-in-place, so the Finders Keepers boutiques had “some awesome pieces coming in.”

“I think summer is going to be shaky with kids out of school and people still working from,” Kallenberg said. “I think come fall, if kids go back to school and people start going back to work normally, we’ll be okay. We’re just going to hang on through the summer.”

Mode Marche at Ansley Mall.

Men’s and women’s clothing boutique M2[Mode Marche] at Ansley Mall was closed for six weeks and owner Levi Sandelin said business came to a virtual standstill except for a few online orders (shopmodemarche.com).

“It was a zero revenue period for us,” Sandelin said, but he was able to keep his employees on the payroll.

Sandelin reopened M2 in early May and said revenue had “trickled in” since. “People just aren’t getting out and shopping like they did before. They are holding on to their money because the future is uncertain when it comes to employment and the economy.”

Sandelin said he was hoping things would get back to something approaching normal by the end of the year but was bracing for a longer period. He also owns Stable & Company, a sales agency for a number of boutique brands of footwear and accessories.

“I think we will survive, but it’s going to be tough,” Sandelin said frankly. “Anyone who says they have it in the bag and will definitely survive are in denial.”

Bad Axe Throwing

Bad Axe Throwing (badaxethrowing.com), the recreational entertainment venue where customers, literally, throw axes at targets while enjoying food and beverages, has been a popular destination on the Westside since it opened in 2017. However, customers weren’t ready to come back when it opened at the end of April. The venue made national headlines when company president and CEO Mario Zelaya candidly said reopening was a “disaster” with only two customers the entire weekend.

Since that nightmarish scenario, Zelya said Bad Axe, which operates numerous locations in the U.S. and abroad, had made “substantial changes” to its business model and marketing message to show customers it was safe to return. Some of those changes included eliminating walk-in customers and requiring reservations, along with trumpeting its social distancing and safety precautions. Zelya said business was ticking up slowly but surely every weekend as more people looking for entertainment.

The arts community has taken the brunt of the pandemic closures with cinemas and performance venues still closed at press time in late May. Historic Plaza Theatre (plazaatlanta.com) and Dad’s Garage Theatre Company (dadsgarage.com) teamed up for weekend drive-in movies in the parking lot at both of the venues in Poncey-Highland and Old Fourth Ward respectively. Plaza Theatre owner Chris Escobar also created an online streaming service where patrons could watch indie and foreign films at home.

The Plaza Theatre

“The Plaza has been a huge supporter of Dad’s over the years, so we wanted to share the love and offer up our empty parking lot for their movie projectors,” Dad’s Garage communications director Matthew Terrell. “While the theatre remains closed, The Plaza plans on showing some really exciting movies like Clue and Jurassic Park that folks can watch from the comfort and safety of their vehicles. Dad’s Garage believe arts and culture remains vital to our community, especially during challenging times like these. We hope folks will find joy and comfort in the classic drive-in experience.”

Similarly, Donna Lefont – ex-wife-and-still-friend of former cinema empresario George Lefont – has created a streaming film platform for the Lefont Film Society at FoodFilmMusic.com. She’s been using her connections in the movie industry to curate a  selection of indie, foreign, and documentary films at the site.

“My goal is to curate a slate of films like George did when he was operating Garden Hills Cinema or Silver Screen,” she said.

She plans to keep the platform going – splitting rental costs for the films with the distributors – and include guest film curators and have chefs cooking a meal inspired by their favorite movies.

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