Local small business owner Markeece Johnson shipping out orders for his online store, Finer Streetwear Co., during the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020. (Photo: Special to the Press-Citizen)
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series talking to small business owners and area experts about the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020.
While many local businesses have taken a hit, others have found a fresh market amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Such is the case for Finer Streetwear Co., which has not had to apply for financial aid. Sales have been up.
“Stuff has been skyrocketing online,” said Markeece Johnson, the owner of Finer Streetwear Co., a local clothing company. “It’s 50 to 75% more (business).”
Up until last year, Johnson had a physical location on Highway 1 in addition to his online store. Not feeling the Highway 1 location offered him the visibility he needed, he didn’t renew his lease there. Instead, he opted to seek out a new space.
For Black Friday last year, he tested the water with a pop-up store in the Coral Ridge Mall to great success. Now, with online sales booming, Johnson’s not as zealous about getting a physical location.
While he still hopes to have a physical storefront locally to complement his online shop, COVID-19’s effect on the world has meant it doesn’t seem as vital to Johnson as it perhaps once did.
Much the same can be said of Caribbean Kitchen, a Cedar Rapids Food truck owned by Patrick Rashed.
“When it hit, everybody started canceling and I got really nervous,” Rashed said.
In a typical year, Rashed gets most of his money from summer events like Hinterland Music Festival, Blues and BBQ and the various Summer of the Arts festivals. Even then, in the six or so years Rashed has owned his foot truck, business from those events isn’t enough for Caribbean Kitchen to be Rashed’s full-time job. With a teaching degree and a master’s in social work, he’s supplemented income by substitute teaching.
Patrick Rashed cooks jerk chicken at the Caribbean Kitchen tent at the Iowa Arts Festival on June 1, 2012. The food vendor returns to the 2016 festival June 3-5, 2016. (Photo: David Scrivner / Iowa City Press)
Because of the uncertainty brought by COVID-19, Rashed contacted the Cedar Rapids Autozone at 2714 Mount Vernon Road to see if he could set up his food truck there for lunch. Knowing that not as many full-fledged restaurants could be open at the time, he imagined he’d be able to pick up a little business in lieu of the big summer festivals.
Things went better than expected.
“I was shocked by how many people started showing up,” he said. “It’s been surprisingly good for me.”
According to Rashed, “surprisingly good” means he’s seeing about 50% more business than he was this time last year. It means he’s getting the profit he would expect during a particularly well-attended concert. It means he’s seeing the numbers he’d expect at a full-fledged restaurant.
“I would like to think a lot of that is my food and not convenience,” he said with a laugh.
So far it seems that a decent number of customers have continued to come back to him, even as other restaurants begin to reopen. While Rashed has seen a dropoff since last month, he reports his numbers are holding strong for the time being.
Strong enough that he’s begun kicking around the idea of opening a permanent location.
“My concept for this restaurant, the reason I call it Caribean Kitchen and not Jamaican Kitchen, would be to introduce a new dish from a different county in the Caribbean every week,” Rashed said.
He’d serve food from places like Hadi, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and other neighboring islands.
“I’m up at five in the morning sometimes and I got to bed at 11, prepping and cleaning, but I enjoy it, because that’s what I want to do. I always heard people say, ‘if you find something that you love you never work a day in your life,’” he said before laughing and adding, “which is mostly true.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet
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