Kyle and Fallene Wells own three small businesses: Torpedo Coffee in Oneida Park, Let ’Em Have It Salon in Uptown and the new Close Quarters coffee and cocktail bar at the Alameda light-rail station. All three establishments have been affected by the coronavirus shutdown and stay-at-home order, and now the Wellses are working side by side for the first time in years, to support their staff and do what they can.
"We ended up closing all three businesses on [March] 17th...because we kept reading all this stuff about social distancing," recalls Kyle. "The government hadn’t officially said, 'You should do this,' but it was a matter of days before they announced it. But we wanted to be able to do it on our terms. We felt that we were better off being proactive about how we communicated to our teams and customers." Although Torpedo reopened on a limited basis (from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday), and Close Quarters will soon reopen (from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays), Let ’Em Have It will remain closed through at least April 30.
You can find Kyle and Fallene every weekday morning at Torpedo, cooking up breakfast burritos (a new breakfast item), working on small projects to enhance the businesses when they reopen, and doing their best to live by Torpedo's slogan: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
But uncertainty makes it challenging. "We're hanging in there. It's a day-by-day emotional roller coaster, just like it is for others, but it's tough having all three shops shut down," notes Kyle.
The salon isn't considered essential, and therefore it's unable to open at all for the time being. "We pre-book all of our clients, so I’ve been rescheduling everyone for May," says Fallene, who started the salon seven years ago. In order to secure a little income to tide them over, a $25 deposit is required for those appointments.
"Everybody wants to get their hair colored, but in the meantime they're going to box color, which is damaging for the industry," Fallene notes, not to mention often damaging to hair. She worries that the hit to salon businesses as a whole may be irreversible once the pandemic is over.
A certified B-Corp small business, the salon takes extra care in the hiring and training of its staff, an investment that Fallene doesn't take lightly. The training program lasts five to eight months, and she has a year-long wait list for new hires. "This isn’t just a job; this is their livelihood, passion and career. To go without six weeks for a stylist causes major withdrawals," Fallene explains, so she's trying to supplement as much as possible by providing mannequins, homework assignments for recent hires and weekly Zoom teaching sessions.
"We want to keep as much of our teams together as much as possible," she says. The couple shares a philosophy about looking out for their twenty or so employees and maintaining the communities they've worked hard to build.
"We really believe in keeping our team happy," says Kyle. So cafe employees have a weekly virtual happy hour to see how everyone’s doing, and they communicate through Slack, "so we can keep that banter with each other, so we’re not forgetting about one another," he says.
Unfortunately, Close Quarters was only open for about a month before being forced to close, so foot traffic and a regular customer base hadn't yet been established, but Torpedo and Let ’Em Have It both have solid foundations. A salon client who works in the health-care field offered to pay for full service up front, while another client purchased coffee from Torpedo for the staff at St. Luke's Hospital. The outpouring of support from their communities is something they're paying forward to their employees.
"We are giving our teams a small financial gift to try to help bridge the gap to unemployment and before we get the shops going again," Kyle explains. "And our customers have been great with donating to our virtual tips for the baristas and stylists. We've had huge support from Torpedo customers ordering extra merch, tips have been much higher percentage than regular days, and we are getting the best compliments and comments we’ve had. [Customers] are saying, 'We want to make sure you’re here after this is all done.'"
Tips, sales revenue and deposits from pre-booked salon appointments are currently going toward staff, augmented by money from the Wellses' savings. They've applied for several small-businesses loans and a local grant, and are hoping it will be enough to see them through.
"By the time we can finally open our doors, it's going to be summer, and people are going to be having cabin fever, they’re going to want to go out and get their hair done," Fallene says. "I think people will appreciate small businesses — at least that’s the hope."