Tampa Bay loves to buy local, but can small businesses survive COVID-19?

There’s no Saturday Morning Market, no Indie Flea. Yet, new business Book + Bottle and established local favorites are pushing to stay open during the coronavirus outbreak.
Terra Dunham, owner of Book + Bottle, works to fulfill orders at the newly opened shop, 17 6th Street N., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Terra Dunham, owner of Book + Bottle, works to fulfill orders at the newly opened shop, 17 6th Street N., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 19, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG — Terra Dunham called it the “first last hurrah."

By early Tuesday afternoon, the new business owner scrapped any semblance of a plan she was holding on to for the debut of her wine bar and book store, Book + Bottle. The store would open right then, in a half-setup shop, announced with a simple Instagram post. She’d serve wine by the glass for a few hours before the state’s call to cut off bar service began later that same day.

“I didn’t even put makeup on this morning,” she said from behind the counter. “But here we are."

The grand opening was supposed to be the following day, Wednesday. It was also supposed to include an author talk. But during the COVID-19 outbreak, there are a lot of lingering “supposed to’s.”

There were supposed to be an Indie Flea at Armature Works in Tampa last weekend, a Tuesday Fresh Market in Gulfport and a Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete. There were supposed to be concerts and sporting events, festivals and art shows. And Durham was supposed to have an evening of wine-drinking and celebrating for the business she has long wanted to open in her hometown of St. Petersburg, a community often lauded for its enthusiasm over shopping local.

Now, Dunham is selling wine by the bottle along with books while offering curbside pickup and free local delivery. Bar service is suspended statewide for at least the next 30 days in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus — that’s why Dunham cannot serve flutes of champagne or glasses of Pinot anymore.

With the outbreak, the very fabric of Tampa Bay’s buy-local movement and the stable footing it has provided entrepreneurs to flourish is in jeopardy.

Tampa Bay’s small businesses have learned fast that, while the virus outbreak shuts people in their homes self-isolating, they have to be nimble and creative for any chance of coming out of the crisis intact. Plenty worry about surviving the massive blow to their bottom lines. Hundreds of vendors who rely on the area’s festivals to sell their handmade goods have nowhere to sell now but online. Bars are closed and retail employees’ hours cut.

Related: Tampa Bay bars had to close today. Will they open again?

Robin Munroe lives a few blocks from Dunham’s new shop, which is just off Central Avenue on Sixth Street N downtown. She saw the Instagram post, rushed over and picked up a hardcover copy of The Authenticity Project. The novel was already on her list, something to pass the time while cooped up at home avoiding crowds. She wanted to come support the new business while she still could.

“I’m worried they’ll close all non-essential retail,” Munroe said. “I feel for these guys. They’re not going to be able to stay afloat without business.”

Team member Courtney Richards works to unpack boxes of books and display them on the shelves at Book + Bottle, 17 6th Street N., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Team member Courtney Richards works to unpack boxes of books and display them on the shelves at Book + Bottle, 17 6th Street N., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
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Local coffee shops are plugging carry-out services on their social media: Bandit in St. Petersburg and Tampa’s Buddy Brew are promoting mobile ordering apps. Brick-and-mortar stores are hawking items on Instagram and accepting payments over cash apps such as Venmo. Local dog school Sit Happens is offering virtual obedience classes. King Corona Cigars in Ybor City is promoting free shipping on large online orders of cigars. Food truck operators such as Zachary Joseph are attempting to switch over to Uber Eats for delivery.

Joseph and his truck, Funnel Vision, had a packed March calendar. From food truck rallies to the Reggae Rise Up music festival, he lost out on 10 full days of once guaranteed steady business.

“I’m out $35,000 in gross income,” said the 25-year-old, “if not more, honestly.”

Joseph, who is also the vice president of the Gulf to Bay Food Truck Association, said all food truck operators are dealing with the same uncertainty. Joseph said he wouldn’t be able to continue hiring workers to help serve food.

Popular markets are on hiatus, like the always-crowded Indie Flea outside at Green Bench Brewing in St. Pete and inside Armature Works in Tampa. Indie Flea had an upcoming event in Gainesville owner Rosey Williams also had to cancel. She spent the start of the week issuing refunds to vendors and laying off her own workers and contract employees.

With such tight profit margins, Williams said she couldn’t continue to operate without the usual income. She’s closed her business for at least the next two months with hopes to reopen once crowds are allowed to gather again. For now, she’s figuring out ways to promote small vendors online.

Local woodworker Bear Creek Timber said it is out 75 percent of its business because of all the canceled markets over the next two months; husband-and-wife business Lily Rose Jewelry Co. says it has lost out on $50,000 in anticipated income.

Related: Coronavirus: How small businesses in Florida can apply for aid

“We have been through so many obstacles before and have always been able to get creative and adapt,” Williams said, “but just to have this shutdown is so unexpected and shocking and it’s made our whole business collapse in a way we would have never expected.”

Event planner Suzanne King and her sole employee work out of a home office to plan festivals and fundraisers across Tampa Bay. She said she had 100 steady vendors at Gulfport’s regular Tuesday market alone. Then there were planned special events like the Pepper Festival, the Sailor and Sirens Ball and art walks.

“Four, five, six,” King counted out loud, taking stock of her canceled events. “There was a new monthly event in Pinellas Park…so, four, five, six — seven in March. And two, probably three, in April we’re waiting to find out about."

She doesn’t see a lot of the smallest mom-and-pop makers and vendors surviving. And not every one of the fests she’s planning can be rescheduled. Sure, there are low- and free-interest loans to help businesses, she said, but that’s money that has to be paid back. This is peak festival season. Things are slow in the summer because of the chance of rainouts, hurricanes and heat. Even as vendors push online sales, King wonders who is going to be freely spending in the coming weeks.

“Can people afford to buy candles right now?” she posed. “I know I just told my daughter do not spend money you don’t have to."

Orders being fulfilled at Book + Bottle for curbside pick-up in St. Petersburg.
Orders being fulfilled at Book + Bottle for curbside pick-up in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

At Book + Bottle, Dunham continued business as best she could throughout the week. She said she’d closely monitor the state’s mandates and public health recommendations. She could still sell coffee, but said she’d switch to just books if it was what the state requires. She had homemade hand sanitizer (aloe gel and alcohol) out on the counter and was regularly cleaning surfaces.

“This town is amazing and so supportive," she said. “We’re so fortunate we’re here, where people care.”

If any community can support local businesses through this crisis, Dunham said it’s this one.

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