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At St. Pete Pier, local businesses thrive despite the pandemic

For one vendor, sales on an average weekend at the Pier beat other local markets and festivals. Now they can afford their own storefront.
Signs at The Island Flavors & Tings booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. Since the St. Pete Pier opened more than a year ago, Island Flavors & Tings owner Helena Josephs has seen foot traffic grow at her Gulfport restaurant.
Signs at The Island Flavors & Tings booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. Since the St. Pete Pier opened more than a year ago, Island Flavors & Tings owner Helena Josephs has seen foot traffic grow at her Gulfport restaurant. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 17
Updated Sep. 23

Sarah and Joe Simoncini went from taking their jewelry business between markets and festivals each weekend to surviving solely through online orders when the pandemic came.

But since the St. Pete Pier opened, Lily Rose Jewelry Co. is livelier than ever.

“It was hit or miss whether you had a good market or a good weekend,” Joe Simoncini said. Now they sell their handmade jewelry and crystals exclusively at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace where they say business is booming. They’ve doubled their sales, Joe Simoncini said, allowing them to open their first brick-and mortar store.

Customers Janice Quinonez, 33, on left, from Queens, and her sister Leslie Quinonez, 31, from Tampa, laugh while talking with employee Mallory Shortway as they shop at the Lily Rose Jewelry Co. booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. St. Pete Pier has been open for a year and the retailers are succeeding and some are expanding to their own brick and mortar stores.
Customers Janice Quinonez, 33, on left, from Queens, and her sister Leslie Quinonez, 31, from Tampa, laugh while talking with employee Mallory Shortway as they shop at the Lily Rose Jewelry Co. booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. St. Pete Pier has been open for a year and the retailers are succeeding and some are expanding to their own brick and mortar stores. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Pier opened in the midst of the pandemic last summer with uncertainty over how COVID-19 could dampen its success. But vendors at the Pier said the atmosphere pushed their business to new heights.

Nearly all 17 original retailers renewed their lease after a year at the Pier, according to Colliers, a real estate firm advising the city on the project. Two new vendors have also been added to the lineup.

“We were all a little bit nervous seeing how this would play out,” said Stephanie Addis, director of retail for Colliers. “It exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Treats and merchandise at the Island Flavors & Tings booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Treats and merchandise at the Island Flavors & Tings booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

City officials and Colliers representatives selected local vendors who offered pre-packaged goods and might not be ready to open a permanent store, Addis said.

The last year has been so good for Lily Rose Jewelry Co., they plan to open a 1,200-square-foot store within walking distance of the Pier at the corner of 1st Street N and 2nd Avenue NE. The shop, slated to open by 2023, will expand on its line of crystals, based on the demand they’ve seen from customers at the Pier. The company will keep its Pier stall, Joe Simoncini said, where it will focus on jewelry. Because of the store’s proximity, they can refer customers back and forth.

A large part of the success for Pier vendors is the outdoor atmosphere, Addis said. As Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance said the coronavirus was more transmissible indoors, people felt more comfortable outside.

And because the Pier is a tourist destination, vendors were able to create connections with new customers and ship goods to anywhere in the U.S.

“Our customer base improved,” said Helena Josephs, owner of Island Flavors & Tings. “It opened up my eyes to all kinds of things and ideas that, had it not been for COVID, I probably wouldn’t have looked at.”

Josephs sold her goods at the 1Pier by One Community stall, which is a collection items from different businesses led by Black women. She now has her own tent for Island Flavors & Tings. With the pandemic putting stress on her catering and dining business, Josephs used her Pier location to promote her Jamaican restaurant in Gulfport with rum cake and banana bread.

And it worked. Josephs said foot traffic at her restaurant on 1411 49th Street increased by 15 percent, even though they still haven’t reopened their dining room.

A look at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. St. Pete Pier has been open for a year and the retailers are succeeding and some are expanding to their own brick and mortar stores.
A look at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. St. Pete Pier has been open for a year and the retailers are succeeding and some are expanding to their own brick and mortar stores. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Keisha Long-Watson, the owner of InSparkle Me Bling Apparel, also expanded out of the 1Pier stall and signed a lease for her own space. She said the Pier opened her business up to new demographics.

“I made the bulk of my money, prior to getting down to the Pier, by going to different events as a vendor at fashion shows, women’s conferences and things of that sort,” Long-Watson said. “And when COVID happened, everything stopped.”

A sparkled Tampa Bay Lightning shirt hangs in the foreground as Danasia Veney, 21, left, smiles while talking with customers Rachel Warner, 42, from Boston, and Scott Feinberg, 35, from Sarasota, at the InSparkle Me booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
A sparkled Tampa Bay Lightning shirt hangs in the foreground as Danasia Veney, 21, left, smiles while talking with customers Rachel Warner, 42, from Boston, and Scott Feinberg, 35, from Sarasota, at the InSparkle Me booth at the St. Pete Pier Marketplace, 800 2nd Ave NE, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

She said she learned a lot about growing her venture through the connections she made with the other women business owners she split expenses with at the Pier.

At first, Long-Watson was hesitant about coming to the Pier during the pandemic, but said it felt wrong not to take the opportunity. Her bedazzled masks were so popular, she struggled to keep her shelves stocked.

Long-Watson has also been able to expand beyond the Pier. Her sparkling clothing and accessories are now sold at Tampa’s Westshore Plaza in The Collective at Artisan Row and she’ll soon have a store at the Skyway Marina Mall in St. Petersburg.

The chance to have her own space at the Pier, Long-Watson said, “has definitely taken my business to the next level.”