You may have heard the talk that NYC’s glory days are over. That the pandemic will inspire businesses and people to permanently move on. Let me tell you, first and foremost—this is completely not true. Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic’s shutdowns, including the recent shutdowns in zoned areas of Queens and Brooklyn, the brutality of the last six months and resulting strict regulations, and adherence to CDC guidelines have resulted in a whole array of stresses, challenges, pivots, and new behaviors. But, NYC’s entrepreneurial businesses and its people are strong and resilient, and NYC will bounce back. NYC is a town of strivers, of builders, of immigrants and entrepreneurs. There is a renaissance coming – you can feel it walking in Fort Greene, seeing the community picnics in the park, and the outdoor dining in SoHo. There will be a rebirth of NYC that will bring the artists, entrepreneurs, creators and tourists back.
There is no city like NYC, a tolerant and diverse and complicated place. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to ride the subway over the bridge to Brooklyn as the sun comes up, cheer on the Nets at Barclays Center, eat at the food trucks in Red Hook, spend an afternoon people watching in Washington Square Park, felt the energy of the NYC Marathon and the cheering crowds on 4th Avenue, or stole a Tuesday afternoon to explore the masterpieces at the MET, you know there’s nothing better than NYC. It’s the best place in the world to build a company, raise a family, learn, think, grow and live.
As a born and raised New Yorker who loves this city and who has been hanging out with owners of small- and medium-sized businesses throughout the boroughs, I am once again witnessing the city’s grit and resilience firsthand. While there is no doubt that the coronavirus has resulted in unprecedented uncertainty and change for businesses in the area—and that owners are facing challenges like never before—many of these businesses are meeting these challenges head-on with ingenuity and innovation, propelling their businesses forward and painting a bright outlook for the future of NYC business.
The challenges are very real
Recently, I spoke with Randy Peers, the President & CEO of Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, and the statistics on the state of business in the borough even before the recent shutdowns are humbling. According to an August 2020 survey of 234 local businesses, 50% say they are doing half as much business as they did last year during the same period and have hired one to four fewer employees. As a result, 39% report owing back rent, 53% say they will remain open but see themselves struggling over the next three months, and only 13% say they’re breaking even.
Sectors like retail and particularly restaurants are experiencing uncertainty and anxiety, according to Peers. This is echoed by Thomas Grech, the President & CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, who I spoke with one recent afternoon. “Queens County has been the epicenter of the pandemic with more confirmed cases and deaths than any other region in the U.S.,” says Grech. “NYC has 27,000 restaurants and 6,000 of those are in Queens. After talking to them and walking around, it is our fear and deep concern that up to half may never again see the light of day, especially given these new zoned shutdowns.”
When the Brooklyn Chamber repeated their survey in September, the retail and restaurants were still struggling, but one industry was notably recovering: only six percent of manufacturing or industrial companies saw themselves struggling in the next three months.
NYC manufacturers have a positive story to tell
The reasons manufacturing is faring relatively well can be attributed to the signature can-do attitude of American manufacturing, its ability to pivot to essential production lines, and its willingness to digitize.
“A lot of our Brooklyn manufacturers have remained open and those that couldn’t have repurposed in some way, shape, or form,” says Peers. Grech agrees: “The first word of the year is ‘Covid’ and the second is ‘pivot.’ Every single business I know in our region, state, and country has pivoted in some way. I’m especially proud of some of them. Some have pivoted to save the day in their own way.”
Case in point: Plaxall, a family-owned plastics packaging company run by three cousins, including Matthew Quigley and Paula Kirby, has been operating out of a factory in an industrial stretch of Long Island City, Queens, for 70 years. When Covid-19 hit, they went from making medical waste disposal containers, dessert trays, and form-fitting packaging for perfume and liquor bottles, to creating face shields to help people stay safe—a remarkable pivot forsaking profit to do the right thing.
Remarkable as it is, Plaxall is not alone. Also based in Long Island City, Tom Powell and Charles Boyce of Boyce Technologies do a lot of high-tech work for NYC subway signals (those sanity-saving lights you see on subway platforms that report a train is two minutes away). Within 30 days, the team pivoted and was making a mini-ventilator to help people breathe—saving the company and helping hospitals with a critical need.
Likewise, when the pandemic took hold, Kings County Distillery, a craft whiskey distillery in Brooklyn, immediately switched gears and took beer from the kegs that restaurants and breweries had leftover from shutting their doors and turned it into hand sanitizer. Then they gave it back to the breweries to distribute throughout the city. According to Colin Spoelman, cofounder and head distiller: “We distributed 15,000 bottles of hand sanitizer throughout the five boroughs to the people who follow us on our website, to medical facilities, nursing homes, fire departments, a FedEx worker—whoever asked.”
The digital power behind the pivot
To be able to pivot quickly and successfully, businesses in every industry fast-tracked digitization, creating websites and apps, and installing tools to pay workers electronically, accept credit card payments, and more.
In retail, it was a shift to online sales: “Our mom-and-pop retailers need some sort of ecommerce.” said Peers of the Brooklyn Chamber. “The employment and engagement of tech and ecommerce is key for these businesses; it’s hard to operate the old way.”
In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bednark Studios, a vertically integrated custom fabrication company, has relied on live events and in-store experiences for business since it opened in 2005. When those went away during the original shelter-in-place order, founder and CEO Michael Bednark had to lay off a third of staff—and quickly decided to pivot because people in New York were dying and he wanted to help. “We spent the weekend of March 20 in the shop for two days straight cutting parts for ventilators, and then we were told about the need for face shields,” he told me. “We went from shutdown to ramp up in two days. We hired 150 people for the assembly line and assured the supply chain. In the first five days, we manufactured 50,000 face shields and kept getting more orders. Over a 90-day period, we made 2.7 million shields. We had the shop running 24 hours. When we learned you can get thicker plastic, we also started building dividers for Ubers and installed more than 4,500 in Ubers in NYC. We’re still making those now.”
To accomplish what they did, Bednark “learned how to build a website, build a scheduling app, and take credit cards online,” says Bednark. “We found so many great tools that helped us quickly pivot.”
Words of wisdom
- The folks I spoke with had insightful, hard-earned tips to share with other small- and medium-sized business owners about how to navigate through the pandemic and boost your company’s resilience:
- “Don’t assume someone else will do it. Do it yourself. Get out there and figure out what you love and how you can do it.” —Michael Bednark, Founder & CEO, Bednark Studios
- “Try to read the community as best as possible. NYC is a big community, but within NY there are different communities—for us, that’s whiskey, bar and restaurants, and more—that we can serve. So it’s looking where people are stressed, and saying: what do people need in their lives now?” —Colin Spoelman, Cofounder & Head Distiller, Kings County Distillery
Additionally, there are a variety of resources you can turn to for support. Here are a few of my favorites.
- I’m really proud of the awareness and education effort we’ve created at Alibaba.com called “B2B Today”—it’s a great resource specifically designed to help small businesses navigate the disruption to the economy, their businesses, and their families through daily content, resources, events and tools.
- The new Empire State Digital initiative aims to “accelerate New York State-based small businesses’ ability to grow their online presence through a first-in-the-nation program with leading global ecommerce enablers.” The initiative’s partners are offering education, marketing support, and discounted pricing.
- In response to the crisis facing small businesses today, an array of NYC organizations joined forces to launch The NYC Small Business Resource Network, a one-stop shop to accelerate the recovery of small businesses and strengthen the city’s economy. The public-private partnership is funded by a $2.8 million grant from the New York City-based Peterson Foundation. At its heart is a team of 22 dedicated Small Business Specialists who will be embedded within the five chambers of commerce and will work directly with local entrepreneurs in the hardest hit communities, helping them gain access to a range of programs and services. The Network will focus on minority-, women-, and immigrant-owned businesses that have limited access to the help they need to survive the pandemic.
- The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s Covid-19 resource page publishes updates about regulations, lists grant programs available (e.g. to fund PPE) and links to financial and other assistance resources.
Yes, it’s true: the NYC we know and love will come to look different as we navigate through the ongoing challenges of this pandemic—but rest assured, it will come back. Spoelman of Kings County Distillery put it perfectly as we were talking about his experience and the overall state of manufacturing in the city: “Covid-19 has created a lot of resiliency. While some would have written off a non-global manufacturing model, manufacturing in the U.S. will only become stronger because of what’s happening now. People have turned back to their communities and New York has such great resources—supplies, agriculture, people. You have people with all talents and capabilities. New York feels very strong.”
By connecting with other New Yorkers, people who are evolving their business and in some cases even starting companies, I am constantly inspired. The ones who remain agile, pivot to meet tomorrow’s needs and digitize will be the key to the future of our city.