COMEBACK KIDS OF 2021

Key West businesses and artists got creative to survive the pandemic


 

A SUDDEN EVENING CURFEW ON ST. PATRICK’S DAY 2020 meant to combat the spread of the coronavirus sent local industries into a tailspin.

While it seemed that more corporate businesses could remain afloat, navigating the world of art, Cuban eats, and even ice cream proved trickier.

Survival involved figuring out the limitation of no physical visitors and re-evaluating products on hand. Rent would prove to be one of the biggest immediate obstacles. Some businesses closed for good. Those that persisted often involved locals with strong ties to the community. Many hoped that beating the mayhem could net a profitable post-pandemic season.

While new variants of the coronavirus have forced residents to once again assess the safety of the upcoming season, the past few months heralded rebounding sales and professional opportunities.

Will Langley, principal broker of Berkshire Hathaway in the Florida Keys, shared his observations.

“Most businesses have come back very strong. It was also an opportunity for new businesses to come into our market to test the waters and I think most are very happy they did.”

The Studios of Key West tuned its laptop cameras to stream live shows, such as this concert by Lindsay Lou. COURTESY PHOTOS

The Studios of Key West tuned its laptop cameras to stream live shows, such as this concert by Lindsay Lou. COURTESY PHOTOS

“We saw all kinds of businesses come in, from large restaurants to small mom and pop retail. I love seeing the creativity of the new businesses coming in. It was like a reset for our market,” he continued.

Over a year later and here are some of the businesses and artists who often made very creative decisions to pivot and emerge stronger in many instances.

Lights, laptop cameras, action!

Unlike restaurants and other classified “essential services,” art galleries faced an overnight halt to in-store sales and gatherings with little alternatives.

Jed Dodds, executive director of The Studios of Key West (533 Eaton), confirmed the monumental task ahead.

“We’re not so much in the business of presenting art as we’re in the business of getting people together to appreciate art. So, when getting together is a problem, it’s not an easy one to solve.”

DODDS

DODDS

The Studios had the added element of being a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Sales could become more crucial in the event of a depleted donor base. Establishing a digital suite of programs would prove key.

Dodds explained that after ensuring the organization’s staff was still getting paid, everyone launched into a period of trial and error.

“We just started experimenting with the tools we had to see what worked. We pointed our laptop cameras at life drawing models, did Facebook Live events, and delivered mango margaritas to people on their porches when the exhibits opened.”

The Studios settled into a pattern of online programing that included lectures, classes, and its breakout interview series “Between Two Palms,” which featured celebrities Alyssa Milano, Tony Shalhoub, and Joy Behar. The proceeds from such initiatives would offset any dips in the sale of physical art and canceled on-site events. For now, Dodds expects to continue these offerings while using the organization’s new rooftop space: Hugh’s View.

Selling masks helped Frita’s Cuban Burger Cafe stay afloat during the lockdowns of the COVID- 19 pandemic.

Selling masks helped Frita’s Cuban Burger Cafe stay afloat during the lockdowns of the COVID- 19 pandemic.

“That was really a godsend this past year, since it gave us a place that felt safe and where you could look out over the rooftops during a reception or with some music playing and forget about all the things you couldn’t do for a while. Although we miss the big crowds, in some ways the experiences we had getting together in small groups were more special, more intentional. Or maybe we just appreciated them more. Of course, we all hope we’re not heading into another season quite like last year, but if we do, we’ll at least be ready for it.”

Tacos, with a side of masks

Tucked off Duval in a cottage filled with Frida Kahlo memorabilia and motifs, Marcia Weaver tapped into her resourcefulness to keep her restaurant Frita’s Cuban Burger Cafe (425 Southard) afloat.

Singer Bria Ansara performed live casts streamed from her Eaton Street balcony during lockdown. “I felt like Eva Perón,” she said.

Singer Bria Ansara performed live casts streamed from her Eaton Street balcony during lockdown. “I felt like Eva Perón,” she said.

To-go orders and delivery maintained some sales momentum throughout the pandemic. But the real boost came from transforming the business into a face mask factory of sorts at a time when PPE was backlogged and unavailable.

The modest but steady output of face coverings helped cover payroll. This in turn allowed Weaver to engage in charitable endeavors including the provision of free food to those who found themselves unemployed.

“It also helped that we are one of the least expensive places on the island. The goal was to keep going so we could start again when we pulled out of the pandemic. We were successful. The hidden benefit was that opportunity to bond with our community and get food to those quarantined as well,” Weaver said.

Although she made few adjustments to her menu in an attempt to maintain familiarity, Weaver did expand her outdoor patio and only uses indoor seating during rainy weather. She expects some modifications, but is happy with the result.

The takeout window at Keys Coffee Co.

The takeout window at Keys Coffee Co.

Ice cream parlor’s innovative scoop

Wicked Lick (335 Duval) is one of Old Town’s newest ice cream parlors. One with a liquid nitrogen spin. The owner, John Smotryski, did not anticipate any crises this early on in his venture. He knew that failure to quickly renegotiate the terms of his lease could result in closure. While a landlord granted him an early reprieve, challenges trickled in. Employees became infected. Sanitization grew stricter. There even was an encounter with code enforcement.

“We had one incident where a high school employee took off his mask to take a drink and forgot to put it back on when he was checking nitrogen levels with his coworker in the tank. Code Enforcement approached him and gave him a ticket without a warning. That cost me $250,” Smotryski remembered.

The difficulty of delivering ice cream in a tropical climate further impressed the need for operational and product tweaks. A redesign of merchandise led to it eventually accounting for 30% of all sales. Plus, a change to the production process enabled the business to more efficiently absorb this year’s crowds.

“We used to make each serving to order, but it takes a lot of nitrogen and time to do this. Liquid nitrogen evaporates quickly. So, we bought an ice cream freezer and now we make the ice cream in small batches, saving about half the liquid nitrogen and a lot less labor to serve customers. We are able to greatly benefit from the changes we made, making us more profitable.”

Luxe pretty parties

“Barb” Grob originally moved to Key West in the ’90s and later established Key West Local Luxe (515 Fleming). The jewelry store was experiencing one of its best sales periods just before the onset of the pandemic. Grob’s extensive time on the island meant that she had already experimented with many of the media — pre-fashion — that would rescue her business. Namely, weekly sales live streams dubbed “The Pretty Party.”

“At first, it was easy to get discouraged. It takes incredible discipline, time, and money to grow your audience — that’s for sure! But we’re so glad we stuck with it. Now, it’s a given,” Grob explained.

Her online showings drummed up support from previous clients and a surprising number of “incognito” viewers. Meeting the face of Local Luxe became one of the store’s attractions, something Grob welcomes.

“We have folks come into the store, who tell us that they came to Key West just to meet us and shop the store in person because they’ve been watching the show. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Another new measure that’s here to stay is Grob’s control of the foot traffic. Potential customers must now ring a bell and be let into the showroom. The result has been fewer casual browsers and more attention to each person. This has allowed her to comfortably raise the bar and include more gold and pearl selections, such as Japanese Akoyas, Tahitians, and South Sea Goldens.

Fortune sides with she who dares

The unexpected turns brought on by the coronavirus took a lot out of artist Kassandra Burnette.

“I nearly hit rock bottom in both business and life throughout the pandemic, but I have three sayings that I live by. Fortune sides with she who dares. Still I rise. And find a way,” she said.

Burnette recounts her experience of opening her new store (291 Front St.) as totally random. A breakfast date with a friend (who now shares said gallery space) coincidentally revealed a mutual interest in exploring The Shops at Mallory Square. Somewhere that now had vacancy due to businesses closing and leaving. Things moved fast.

“I suggested we do it together. Then we signed a lease in a week and opened the doors four weeks later. We both have zero regrets as of now. It’s working for both of us,” said Burnette.

The new location is light and airy with ample square footage to host both members’ work. The building has experienced something of a creative renaissance as numerous other artists move in to take advantage of current space and favorable renting terms. Burnette does recognize that while leasing deals were to be had early on in the pandemic, things can change.

“We know one year from now, the rates could skyrocket. Just hoping not too much and that we are OK. But the risk of one year and out is possible.”

Coffee with a splash of DIY adjustments

“What timing.” That’s exactly how co-owner Dan Mathers felt after increasing his stake in the downtown coffee spot and eatery, Keys Coffee Co. (505 Southard) mere weeks before the world caught on to the severity of the pandemic.

The business initially went from being fully staffed to two people. Customer compliance proved difficult.

According to Mathers, “rather than ask them to comply, we created systems that forced them to do so.”

He got creative.

“Initially, we let people place their order in the restaurant, then would ask them to wait outside. We got a lot of pushback from customers about not being allowed to wait in the air conditioning. In response, we basically barricaded the entryway with a sheet of plywood, in which we cut out a window and built a shelf. We ran sales off an iPad through this takeout window for several weeks,” Mathers explained.

He also took the time to implement renovations and changes to marketing and operations. Things that laid an even better foundation in time for the boom of earlier this year.

Mathers acknowledges that Keys Coffee ultimately benefited from a model that already emphasized delivery and takeout. Still, he plans to take everything day by day in light of ongoing labor shortages and the spread of new strains of the coronavirus.

“I don’t like to get caught up in any particular vision for the future, because things can change in an instant. My five-year plan is for the business to provide better service to more people.”

A crucial move for needed laughs

After modest beginnings, Comedy Key West finally had found its footing with weekly sold-out shows and increasingly popular open mic nights. However, the initial wave of outbreaks and shutdowns shook the future of the venue.

According to co-owners Nathan Knight and Joe Madaus, management of the previous location they were renting was not yet certain of the path it wanted to take. It forced them to consider whether their business could truly stand on its own.

The core group of comedic founders and management did not want to be placed in another scenario where an overseeing business could control their terms of operation.

The new location, at 218 Whitehead St., allowed them to emphasize individual guest safety and more nimbly adapt to fluctuating local restrictions. Cancelation policies were jettisoned for ticket holders in favor of flexible rescheduling. Guests were offered refunds if seating arrangements proved too close for comfort. Knight credits community support as an important lifeline.

“We were constantly teetering on the edge of closure as the financial burdens continued to roll in. Through additional investors and some creative critical thinking, we were able to weather the storm. The Key West community really had our back and we couldn’t have done it without them. Not only through showing up for our events but constantly reaching out asking for us to continue.”

Art, and a bit of Eva Perón

Working from home provided a continued sense of normalcy and welcomed buffer from the ensuing health crisis for artist Kristyn LaMoia. The lack of distractions motivated her to focus on her debut show, which was slated for the first fall season of COVID.

“Had the pandemic not happened, I probably would not have had the discipline to create 21 pieces of art in nine months,” she said.

LaMoia mined the pandemic for inspiration for a second show earlier this spring. Themes of death, rebirth, and the human psyche featured throughout her colorful graphic designs and drawings. While safety precautions likely tamped down in-person sales, the professional opportunities and chance to creatively grow were worth it. She’ll continue to use this moment to experiment and expand the range of her art.

Meanwhile, singer and entertainer Bria Ansara decided to bring her art form right to her audience’s homes with engaging live streams broadcast from her Eaton Street balcony. She never anticipated the hundreds of viewers who followed and the socially distanced onlookers who gathered at her curb complete with lawn chairs and drinks.

“To this day, I run into people who tell me that they put my shows on their TV screens and danced at home with cocktails and their family and roommates. It ended up being a lot of fun. I felt like Eva Perón,” Ansara said.

While she believes the live streams were a product of the times, she has not ruled out a return.

“If we lockdown again, I promise to do an all-metal show from my balcony.” ¦

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