Nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic led to gathering restrictions and consumer worries, many businesses are still feeling the strain of a year with unanticipated challenges.
As Public Health Madison and Dane County continues to release new emergency orders to mitigate the spread of the virus (its 11th of the year was Dec. 15), the ever-changing safety mandates have kept business owners on their toes.
The arrival of the winter months adds another layer of challenge for businesses, some of which typically see a decline in customers as temperatures drop and the snow flies. But despite those hurdles, the owners of BE Adventurous Travel, Oregon Frozen Yogurt and Wishing Tree Studio are prepared to push through the cold and the pandemic, looking ahead to 2021.
Billie Farrar, travel agent and owner of BE Adventurous, said she spent four to five months beginning in March canceling people’s vacations and issuing refunds. Some unresponsive customers she spent extra time chasing down, she said.
“I think like a lot of other people I anticipated this year going a whole lot better than it did,” said Farrar, whose business is approaching its fifth anniversary. “2020 was supposed to be a record-breaking year for travel and exploring the world, then everything broke loose.”
Randy Joswig and Tina Juneau, the founders and operators of Oregon Frozen Yogurt, 856 Janesville St., said they felt they were heading into a “really good place” this spring where after six years of being in business, they felt they’d finally figured it out.
The couple said it’s been a rough year and they’ve felt like they’ve been getting hit from multiple angles – a poor economy, no in-person school and fewer people venturing out.
Unlike BE Travel and OFroYo which both had five years of normal operations prior to the pandemic, another Oregon business – Wishing Tree Studio at 121 N. Main St. only had five months.
Kelly Scholz and Jo Temte, who founded the yoga studio in October 2019, put a lot of “blood, sweat and money” into building-out their studio, Scholz said. While they haven’t been able to host students practicing inside the studio since March, they’ve still been able to help people deepen their practice spiritually and physically – part of what they envisioned, she said.
“This all for me has been a trying year, but also a year of a lot of growth as well,” she said.
Adventures in travel
At BE Adventurous, Farrar continues to cancel people’s plans, or reschedule them, saying for some people she hopes the second, third or maybe fourth time will be the charm for their plans.
Normally, January to March were some of the busiest months for Farrar, who used to work full-time in the Oregon School District but now operates BE Travel as her full-time business out of her home at 137 Fawn Ct.
She said she’s looking forward to when she can meet clients face-to-face again, though she still enjoys her phone calls.
She said she is sensing “a lot of positive vibes heading into the New Year” from customers who have begun calling to book trips for mid-2021 heading into 2022, so she is just remaining as optimistic as she can be.
She predicts going forward that there will be larger groups of families who will get together than before and that a focus on U.S. trips will be the first step for people getting back into travel. And she’s heard from customers eager to get back out onto the oceans on cruises.
Oregon Frozen Yogurt, known colloquially as OFroYo, offers frozen yogurts, custards, gelatos, Italian ices and sorbets, and it has typically been a post-event destination.
While they said the summer has always been good for the business, and this year was no exception, as the school year rolls around, the business comes to rely on extracurricular events to drive sales – being a go-to spot for after concerts, plays and sports. There was also a 3:30 p.m. weekday uptick in business from moms taking their kids out for a treat, they said.
In general people aren’t going out as much, Joswig said, or if they are, they are making less stops. He also said frozen treats have become more of a luxury with the downturn of the economy this year.
The goal for their business is to be a place to take a “happy break,” they said and that’s something they’ve lost this year as the business has become 90% carryout and customers continue to be fearful about eating inside, even after Joswig and Juneau removed couches and moved tables further apart.
And for safety reasons, Juneau said their business has almost changed completely, from a self-serve model to having employees assemble the cups filled with toppings like nuts, candies and sprinkles to “bottomings” like cakes and brownies.
Heading into winter, business always slowed down, the couple said, particularly into November and December. But they’ve found it typically begins to pick back up in January once people are acclimated to the cold.
At first, Wishing Tree offered virtual classes for free to get students online and show people it would work. Today, a team of 10 instructors is teaching 24 classes a week, of which two are free.
Though the Main Street studio could likely fit five masked and distanced students in safely, the co-owners have opted not to.
At one point, the co-owners discussed instructing in “pods” – the same teachers with the same students week after week, but as infection rates went up exponentially, they abandoned the idea.
As such, the only in-person classes the duo scheduled post-March were held outside at the Lussier Family Heritage Center in Madison several times a month through October.
Scholz said she’s proud of her instructors for how quickly they adapted, and also thankful for the loyal students that have been with Wishing Tree since the opening of the physical space and throughout the pandemic. Without them, the business would have closed down, she said.
With the help of their landlord who has not been charging full price rent for the studio, Scholz said they have been able to earn a little above the breaking even point to pay their bills and instructors.
“A lot of our students are older adults for whom COVID could be pretty devastating,” Scholz said. “Our tagline is ‘rooted in community.’ With that in mind, we’ve been trying to cultivate community online and have been pretty successful.”