The COVID-19 pandemic has been the death sentence for businesses across America, with an estimated 9 million small businesses in danger of closing by the end of 2021.
However the entrepreneurial spirit is sturdy and some business owners saw adversity as a call to action.
Roll Out the Red Carpet
After five years of development, the Laemmle Theater in Newhall finally opened its doors on April 9. Greg Laemmle, President of Laemmle Theaters, said that while the theater chain was able to sustain itself during the pandemic, it was not an easy task.
“By hook or by crook, we’ve found ways to survive a year of closure, and there is some potential relief on the horizon from the recent stimulus packages,” he said. “When you go from a staff of 150 plus employees to four, you end up wearing a lot of different hats.”
Though larger than many of the businesses that were affected by the pandemic, the theater chain had some financial woes of its own. On top of the pandemic, 2019 was a low performing year and like other theater chains, Laemmle was placed in a precarious situation. However by selling off some of its properties and by operating a virtual cinema where patrons could purchase tickets and stream films from home, the theater chain was able to survive the quarantine.
After the pandemic struck, the Newhall theater faced setbacks. While construction was not required to stop, fewer people and trades were allowed on site at a time, which caused delays. Construction was completed in June 2020 and permits were not finalized until November. The company also had to face layoffs and learn how to ensure a safe operation and keep tabs on when theaters would be allowed to resume operation.
Now, almost a year after completion, the Newhall theater has begun welcoming its first guests. In order to ensure the safety of patrons and staff, new filtration systems have been added to the theater to increase the amount of fresh air and increased cleaning, social distance and reduced capacity protocols have been put in place. Though patrons are allowed to remove their masks at their seats to consume concessions, Greg recommends that patrons keep their masks on.
“It’s not a requirement to take your mask off, and we would recommend that when not eating our patrons keep them on,” he said. “Maybe even wear two. Watching movies isn’t a strenuous activity, or at least it shouldn’t be. But you can’t return to the movie theaters right now and reasonably expect it to be like things were before the pandemic and that’s not what’s going to get us out of this thing.”
Faithful Laemmle fans might also notice another change to the theater. Alongside the foreign language, independent and arthouse offerings for which the theater chain has made its name – like “Minari,” “The Father” and “Another Round” – the Newhall theater will also show “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “News of the World” and other films produced by major Hollywood studios to give a healthy variety of options to theatergoers and likes for his theaters to “show good films regardless of provenance.”
“I’m not going to deny that the pandemic helped accelerate consumer uptake of streaming services, and that will have a lasting effect on theatrical distribution,” Greg said. “But I believe the audience will recognize the act of going to the movies and seeing something in a theater is dramatically different than seeing that same movie at home. We want to give moviegoers options and seeing a foreign language film is a way to travel without getting on a plane.”
“A symbolic hug”
For some, quarantine has been a necessary push towards entrepreneurship.
Chelsea Huntley, a Valencia-based baker, has been making cookies since she was a child and often dreamed about owning her own business but always held herself back from taking that step. Baking is a passion and comfort activity for Huntley (it took her ten years of subtle tweaking to perfect her chocolate chip cookie recipe), so when the pandemic shut the world down, she turned her oven on.
“It was hard not being able to see my family and friends or give them a hug during this crazy time,” Huntley said. “How could I reassure them that they’re loved and appreciated, while distancing myself and giving them a symbolic hug? And then inspiration hit: I’ll bake them cookies!”
The recipients of these cookie gifts often told Huntley that she should sell her cookies, but doubt kept her from taking that step. A brief period of unemployment sent Huntley into a self-described “baking overdrive” in which she baked almost every day. As the cookies began to accumulate in her house, she remembered how much people loved her baking and decided to finally try her hand at selling them.
In November, the 25-year-old Huntley, who has a marketing background, began creating her company, designed the logo by hand, set up an Instagram page and named her brand. Choosing the name took the most time because though she initially toyed around with ideas that included her name like “Chelsea’s Cookies” or “Baked by Chelsea,” she eventually settled on “Salt Sugar Flour” because of its memorability and future franchise potential.
“I didn’t tell anyone in my life I was doing this, and it was my secret project that I worked on in the wee hours of the morning because I so badly wanted to prove to myself that I could do this without anyone’s help and people,” she said. “Marketing is my forte but doing it for myself just made it more fun because I had all the freedom in the world. It’s very easy to mess up but it’s a heck of a lot easier to make a mistake working for yourself than working for someone else.”
Huntley approached starting Salt Sugar Flour with an “all-in” attitude and said though she didn’t spend a lot of time researching how to build a business but adopted a learn-as-you-go approach, though she did consult with a business coach. Between choosing her name, creating her website and Instagram page and taking photos of her cookies, Salt Sugar Flour went from concept to reality in approximately 48 hours.
Instagram has been crucial for the business – which ships nationwide – because it allowed her to expand her customer base beyond her family and friends. She followed other small business accounts and ran giveaway contests to increase traffic to her page. She also donated cookies to some charity fundraisers which helped her acquire several customers.
“Within the first couple of days I had about 300 followers and none of them were family, friends or anyone I knew and that felt like a really big deal,” she said. “I got my first customer about a week after I started and I started crying, probably more than I should have. It was so exciting because it was a complete stranger that I had never interacted with that found my page. It was such a confidence booster and I felt like, ‘Why didn’t I start this business sooner?’”
Though the pandemic provided the necessary kick for Huntley to start her bakery, it also threw in a few roadblocks. Huntley had previously worked for two bakeries and thus had an understanding of which suppliers to buy from and the importance of buying in bulk. Unfortunately, that knowledge can’t help if essential ingredients like flour are sold out nationwide. For about a month she and her friends were on a “gold hunt,” scouring any and all stores and websites they could think of with no luck. She even called other bakeries to try to buy some of their flour but they were experiencing the same difficulties.
When she learned that Lazy Dog Cafe was selling boxes of essential ingredients and toiletries, Huntley called to ask if they had any spare flour they were willing to sell.
“It ended up being such a beautiful arrangement and they knew me by name because no one else was calling in to ask for flour,” she said. “It was a saving grace and I could actually start my business. The first time I saw flour back in the grocery store again, I cried.”
Though she has found that business ebbs and flows (sales were low during January when many people likely made resolutions to diet, but surged during Valentine’s Day and Easter), Huntley said the volatility doesn’t bother her. At her busiest she baked 43 dozen orders in a single day, and it is that level of business that gives her hope for continued success.
Looking ahead, Huntley believes that in a post-pandemic world her business will only grow as in-person events become the norm again and people look for sweet treats to share with their guests.
“Sometimes I feel a little bit selfish charging for my cookies because for so long I just gave them to people and it feels kind of foreign, doing my dream job of being in the kitchen all day and now getting money,” Huntley said. “At the end of the day it’s just cookies, nobody’s life is at stake, it’s just adding additional sweetness to the world. But if people needed cookies extra during a worldwide pandemic, I don’t blame them because I was right there with them.”
The Newhall Laemmle theater is located at 22500 Lyons Ave. To view showtimes, head over to https://www.laemmle.com/theater/newhall .
Visit saltsugarflour.com to see and purchase Huntley’s cookies.