‘Brutal Year’ for Business

So much despair. So many people laid off. So much money lost.
So many questions … and many lessons to learn.
Who could have guessed that 2020, a year whose date just rolled off the tongue, would bring such tragedy and misfortune?
Many South Pasadena business owners — especially those of smaller, unique boutiques for which the city is known — are hoping that things will finally get back to “normal” with COVID-19 cases trending down, more vaccines being administered and state and county restrictions being eased.
But what exactly is “normal” anymore?
Last Sunday, Lucia Wiltrout glanced across the showroom of Lucha’s Comfort Footwear, and her eyes misted at what she observed.

“I never dreamed it would be like this,” she said. “It’s killing our business.”
There are days, she noted, when she takes in a meager $300 to $400.
“That’s two pairs of shoes,” she explained.
Other business owners in the city know exactly what Wiltrout has been going through during the past year. First, there was the complete shutdown for almost two months. Then, the COVID caseload outlook improved and restaurants were cleared to utilize outdoor dining. But cases quickly rose again, and hopes sank after the holidays as a winter surge of the virus seemed unending.
As with Wiltrout, it’s enough to make a person cry.
Among a dozen or so business owners in town, there were some common threads that ran through their comments, which came almost exactly a year after the world seemingly stopped turning and everything was first shut down. Uncertainty was high on everyone’s list.
“Nail salons and barber shops were closed, then open, then closed and now are open again,” said Laurie Wheeler, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “Some people are barely hanging on, but those who have made it this far feel a little more comfortable about themselves.”
Wheeler highlighted some of the businesses that have permanently closed, including John Vandercook’s Reimagine Your Home, which shuttered after 27 years, and the South Pasadena Music Center.
The chamber is about to launch several initiatives to further encourage shopping in downtown South Pasadena, including a March 20 resumption of the Shop Al Fresco program and a more robust campaign to boost downtown foot traffic.
Many mom-and-pop retailers and restaurants laid off their employees a year ago amidst the uncertainty. Now that they are reopening and need to hire a staff again, some say they’re having a hard time finding applicants who understand what goes into working at a small-scale shop or eatery.
Several business owners also said that the instructions for applying — and even being eligible for — government assistance were confusing. The chamber ran programs on how to apply, but several owners said that they were turned down at least once, and some twice, by the government without explanation.
The confusing flow of information about county rules versus state guidelines was especially painful for restaurant owners who first took advantage of being able to serve outdoors and invested in chairs, tables, tents and coverings. Mama’s on Fair Oaks Avenue created a dining experience under a big top, while the city placed concrete K-rail barriers in the street to create extra space for tables. Then, coronavirus numbers spiked again, and all those plans had to be put on hold.
That day has come again, however, and locals are even lining up to wait for outside seating at some places. This week, limited indoor dining also has returned, but some restaurants such as Canoe have been closed since the shutdown, while Twohey’s just recently opened after many COVID-related delays. Several other restaurants debuted in the past year in the space formerly held by Citizens Business Bank.
Amazon has also largely taken a toll on local shops, although it’s been a boon to one business in town.
At the UPS store, every week has been like the holidays of old. Hundreds of boxes wait to be returned as people buy a dozen pairs of shoes, try them on, and then return 10 pairs. Wiltrout said that customers didn’t hesitate about trying on shoes at her store, taking down a brand and size and then ordering them online.
“People are becoming very cynical. They don’t care about hurt feelings. If they want shoes, they go to Amazon,” said Wiltrout, who also noted that to add insult to injury, customers will tell clerks outright that they plan to buy the same shoes online.
Alice McIntosh, owner of the Red Shoes ballet store, has had that problem for so long she has a sign in her front window. The sign asks people not to take up her time in trying on ballet shoes, only to then take the measurements to shop online.
Doctors and dental hygienists said that their business was down about 90% during the shutdown. Family practitioner Dr. Gary Seto said he suggested to his patients that they put off physicals during the shutdown, but there were still people who wanted to come in.
Charlene Williams, a dental hygienist who works in the office of Sangho Byun in Pasadena, said that in the first months after the shutdown, about 50% of people canceled appointments for cleanings.
“In May, there were a few days when we didn’t have anyone,” said Williams. “We had to cut back anywhere from eight to five cleanings a day because of regulations.”
The pandemic did not hit everyone the same … or at the same time. Mission Wines — with a strong website and innovative marketing — reported solid sales throughout most of 2020 and so far this year. Barristers Nursery reported excellent business through almost all of 2020, before slowing the last two months.
Profits at many other local restaurants, stores and medical offices often yo-yoed according to how the pandemic affected health, confidence and regulations. Some places started 2020 strong and then plummeted. Other businesses rebounded after the shutdown, only to collapse after the holidays.
Some businesses, including music instruction, are still operating online, and office rules at places like TLC Veterinary still bow to the needs to protect personnel from contracting the disease.
To get a better idea of how the pandemic affected independent businesses, it’s best to listen to some business owners and medical professionals describe how things have gone for them this pandemic year.
And remember: whatever “normal” is, we are not there yet.
Susan Lee, owner, Halvorson’s Cleaners: “We went down about 80% last April from pre-COVID days,” she said. “Now it’s at 50% of what it was. People don’t go out. There are no parties. There is no reason to dress up. People are working at home, so they are not bringing clothes to the dry cleaner.”
Alice McIntosh, owner, the Red Shoes: “There have been many days when there are no customers and no phone calls,” said McIntosh, who, at 82 isn’t ready to retire. “Some days, I come in just so I don’t have to sit at home. Most ballet lessons are either now by Zoom, or have been put on hold.
“I’m just hoping the schools open and customers come back,” she added.
Her big months are traditionally September and again in January, and there was hardly any business either month. She’s also been hurt by Amazon and noted that since 2019, at least three area ballet stores have closed.
“They were already hurt by Amazon,” McIntosh said, “which is putting small ballet stores out of business.”
Jean Boujekian, owner, Vana watch and jewelry shop: Vana had to let go of a watch repair person and things were difficult during the early days following the shutdown. Boujekian received an SBA loan and said that stimulus money seems to have been a shot in the arm for his business — especially in terms of customers buying jewelry.
“People are in a better mood and are more positive,” he said. “I’m hoping that things kick in faster and that the latest round of stimulus money kicks things into a higher gear.”
Carlos Jimenez, owner, Swarthy’s barbershop: “Things have been pretty grim. We started off the year great — the best in five years,” Jimenez said, “and then went down to nearly zero. We were closed, then open, then closed again.”
Jimenez and his family are hosting a taco Tuesday night in the parking lot in the back of his store, and he and his son are washing cars by appointment to make extra money. He’s also hoping that he can make enough money to diversify and sell custom shirts and ties.
“At first, some clients had me come over to do their hair, but there weren’t a lot of them,” Jimenez said. “I’m just getting by on the loyalty of my clients.”
He was denied for the first two PPP loans and is still waiting to hear on a third.
“It’s a very confusing procedure, for sure,” he said. “I don’t really understand it.
“I want to stay here,” Jimenez added. “I want to put down roots in South Pasadena and I’m going to do everything that I can to be just where I am.”
Stella Binns, owner, Barristers Nursery: The nursery did excellent business throughout most of 2020, and there were landscape jobs even during the shutdown period.
“We had a really good year and then things fell off in January and February, and now they are picking up again. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. I don’t know what it is. It wasn’t nursery sales so much as it was that landscape jobs kept coming in, one after the other. And now there are people on the street, walkingaround, and there is foot traffic now.”
Brandon Shahniani, co-owner, Fair Oaks Pharmacy: “The pandemic has changed us a lot,” he said. “We were really three businesses in one — pharmacy, retail and soda fountain. Two of the businesses took complete hits. It was like if you had three roommates occupying one apartment, and suddenly two of the roommates stopped paying the rent.”
That put a lot of pressure on the pharmacy.
“People were going nuts during those early days,” Shahniani said. “Just like people were stocking up on toilet tissue, some people were calling and wanting to get all their refills done at the same time, which of course we couldn’t do.
“We were just keeping afloat and trying to tread water the best we could,” he added.
Shahniani said that the establishment has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and he is planning its future, with a changed present. Two restaurants and a coffee shop are now in the spots right across the street, where Citizens Business Bank once operated.
What the new Fair Oaks Pharmacy will look like is in the planning stage.
“We know the operation of the soda fountain will be different, but we want to remain classic and nostalgic and not change that. But we must be shape-shifted,” Shahniani said. “That’s the reason the drug store has survived for over a century. There will be change, but the music and magic will always be there.”
Bruno Marin, master chef and owner, Bistro de la Gare: “We’re having to train a new staff,” Marin said. “We lost three people, and it is hard to find good help now. People I lost were veterans of the house. I have to rebuild a whole new team.
“Business has been upside down,” he added. “With takeout, you aren’t making any money on alcohol and people are not getting the same quality as if it came straight from the kitchen.”
Marin noted that in addition to everything else, taxes on wine have bumped up the cost of a bottle. Plus, he now has the added expense of gloves, disinfectant and masks.
“Things are much better outside,” he conceded. “I’ve got a big space outside, so I am extremely, extremely lucky.
“I’m looking to get a government loan … Our rent has been cut in half for now, but I’m going to have to pay it back,” Marin concluded. “It’s been a brutal, brutal year. Whatever is lost, is lost.”
Bill Hamal, general manager, Twohey’s Restaurant: The local favorite restaurant moved to its new spot on Fair Oaks Avenue from its former location on Huntington Drive. The shutdown caused all sorts of problems for the reopening.
“It all was so frustrating,” said Hamal, who said he was about four months from hiring when the shutdown hit.
The restaurant finally opened in October and then was hit with more bad COVID-19 news after the holidays when it was forced to close for a short time again. Fortunately, the business had a well-earned reputation for carryout and old fashioned drive-in car service.
“We looked at the cars as tables,” Hamal said. “Things are great and getting better every day. We’re looking forward to opening inside.”
Mimo Boghossian, owner, Rue de Mimo women’s clothing: “During the worst of the pandemic, we were very unsure of the future of the store and the impact it would have on our customers to do something as natural as shopping,” Boghossian said. “I suffered a loss of purpose. As an entrepreneur, it was unsettling and confusing.
“We went through various phases,” she continued. “When we reopened, we had to reinvent how we could do business and how to be accessible to our loyal clientele and we knew we were in jeopardy of our own health. We did more Facetiming. Remote shopping was instrumental in conveying the message of supporting small business.”
Boghossian noticed that some of her clientele did shop online, but her business dipped during the annual holiday sale in November and in December when compared to 12 months earlier.
“My best month was November and business was off 40%,” she said. “I’ve had to reconstruct my staff. I lost three people in the last quarter of the year. Now I’m going to have to train them to work in a small boutique environment.”
On applying for PPP loans, Boghossian said it “was one of the scariest attempts I’ve ever done. The rules changed every day.”
Janet Lynn Hoyman, Bissell House bed and breakfast:
“We are only now seeing a return of confidence by guests to venture out and confidently stay at our B&B again,” said Hoyman, whose brother William is proprietor of Bissell House. “Some are still extremely shell-shocked and frightened. Most are first-time guests to our B&B and, frankly, first-time guests to bed and breakfast, period. Most are sick of being stuck at home and looking for relief from the boredom, a sense of being trapped.
“The vast majority of our recent business has essentially been locals, more specifically from Southern California,” she added. “One reservation was three foster sisters from childhood, now all in their 50s, who haven’t spent quality time together, just the three of them, ever.”
The B&B is purchasing all new beds and has been gradually phasing back to pre-COVID conditions.
“We can only hope things are going to continue such that people feel confident traveling and staying with us again,” Hoyman said.
Dr. Gary Seto, family practice physician:
Seto calls his practice a “unique” one where people pay to join his practice and he has no receptionist and nurse. He is not currently taking patients.
“I stopped seeing patients in the office [during the pandemic] as much as possible,” he explained. “Most things were done by computer. Anyone who asked for a physical, I suggested they postpone it. Some people wanted to come in even when it was the worst for routine visits.”
He traditionally spent time at the beginning of a physical talking to the patient. He said that he often has the patient stay at home, and they do the chat from there. Then the patient comes in to the office for the rest of the physical.
Although he does not know of any of his patients dying of COVID-19, many of them, he said, have lost family and/or friends due to the virus.
“So even for those who have not personally been infected by the COVID virus, we all know someone who has been,” Seto added. “The toll on all of our lives has been heavy. Hopefully, with everyone working together, and with the help of the vaccines, our lives can get back to normal soon.”
Charlene Williams, dental hygienist:
Williams said she noticed that in the first months after the shutdown, half of her patients canceled for cleaning and there were some days that no one came in. The dentist would see patients coming in only for emergencies during that first month.
“When the pandemic hit, it was a whole new ballgame for us,” she said. “Now people are calling quite a bit. My schedule is getting filled again. There’s a whole new attitude. People are more confident now.
“Some of my patients have gone a year and a half between cleanings,” Williams added. “There have been some gum issues, but mostly nothing that can’t be fixed. People would put off getting fillings done or having crowns repaired when they thought of going to the dentist, but they would come in if they had pain.”