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Palm Coast Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021 5 months ago

The pandemic entrepreneurs: Locals become business owners as COVID-19 shifts the economy

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The pandemic's effects on the economy brought challenges — but also opportunities.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

COVID-19 has made the past year and a half difficult for restaurants. But in the midst of the pandemic, Mike Wehde and his family, who already own the Waffle Cone ice cream shop in Flagler Beach, decided to create a new one. 

"Outdoor seating, outside, in the safe air. ... Holly and I were very entrepreneurial, so why not make the most of a pandemic?"

 

— MIKE WEHDE, Sunshine Crepes & Bubble Bar

“We had a lot of walk-up traffic, so about a year into the pandemic, my son from San Francisco moved back,” Mike Wehde said. “His strategy, working with us, was to create another takeout place: outdoor seating, outside, in the safe air. ... Holly and I were very entrepreneurial, so why not make the most of a pandemic?”

And so, about half a year ago, the family created the Sunshine Crepes & Bubble Bar, at 111 S. Fourth St. in Flagler Beach.

Mike Wehde and Holly Wehde. Photo by Jonathan Simmons

Wehde and his wife, Holly, own the business, and their sons, Dillon and Dakota, are general managers.

Dillon Wehde had been a photographer shooting weddings and product photography in San Francisco when the pandemic cut back his wedding photography work, he said.

So Dillon came back to Flagler County, where he’d grown up, and got to work with his family renovating the shopfront that would become Sunshine Crepes. 

Locals were welcoming of the soon-to-be restaurant, he said.

“The whole time we were trying to do those renovations, people would just walk in and say, ‘Are you guys open yet? We’re so excited!’ These small businesses are what people love in Flagler,” he said. “We have relationships with other business owners that would be, technically, our competition, and we’re friends with them. ... It’s amazing to have that camaraderie.”

 

NEW BUSINESS OWNERS

The Wehdes aren’t alone: Many locals who lost regular work or found their lives in other ways upended during the pandemic have reacted by forming their own small businesses. 

“There are different, alternative types of work for you to continue to earn the type of living that you did before the pandemic.”

 

— GREG BLOSÉ, president and CEO, Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce

In Palm Coast, the city government’s business tax receipt records bear this out. 

Starting in 2020, there was an uptick in the number of new local businesses, including small home-based ones. Then there was another spike in 2021. 

The rise in new business tax receipts, measured from January through October annually so that this year’s numbers can be compared with previous years,’ showed a gradual rise from 97 in 2015 to 212 in 2019. But the numbers rose to 266 in 2020, then to 467 this year.

Dillon Wehde. Courtesy photo

A look solely at home-based businesses showed a similar pattern, with a rise from 46 in the period of January to October 2015 to 114 in the same period of 2019. In 2020, the trend continued with a rise to 136; in 2021, it rose to 266.

Greg Blosé, president and CEO of the Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce, has noted the trend. 

Although people haven’t been returning to conventional work at the rate expected since pandemic stimulus payments ended, he said, there are many ways for workers who’ve lost their jobs to make up the income.

“There are different, alternative types of work for you to continue to earn the type of living that you did before the pandemic,” he said.  

Some people have turned to Uber, DoorDash, and other independent contractor gig work, making their own hours, while others go out on their own, he said.

“I’ve seen a lot of that in Flagler County,” Blosé said. “A lot of these super small businesses — one-employee deals.”

 

A PIVOT

Elizabeth Owens’ path fits that pattern. She’d been working at the Palm Coast Walmart, and her husband had worked for Coca Cola, when the pandemic hit.

His hours were reduced.

The family renovated the ice cream truck in their driveway until spring — redoing the floors, painting it, adding an extra freezer.

"Totally did a 360 on it, and we started taking it out," Elizabeth Owens said. 

She was seeing people laid off.

Then, last November, she saw an ad for an ice cream truck.

“And I was like, ‘I want this — I need this,’” she said.

The family renovated the truck in their driveway until spring — redoing the floors, painting it, adding an extra freezer. 

“Totally did a 360 on it, and we started taking it out,” she said. 

Owens usually starts in Palm Coast with her husband, then works her way north selling ice cream until she gets toward St. Augustine, where she’s been storing the truck.  

If not for the pandemic, she said, she probably wouldn’t have started her own business. Now, she’s looking into getting two more trucks by next summer.

Her children, ages 9 and 5, have learned something, too.

“It’s taught my kids about entrepreneurial business,” she said. 

Her 9-year-old son has been wanting to start his own business selling light-up toys like light wands.

“He came to us with a whole business plan,” she said. 

"One patient turned into two, and two turned into 10, and it’s been going strong ever since."

 

— Dr. MICHAEL LYNCH, physical therapist

Like Owens, Dr. Michael Lynch formed his own business after COVID-19 threatened his income. 

But unlike ice cream salesmanship, Lynch’s field isn’t so social-distance friendly: Lynch is a physical therapist.

He was working for a home health company when the pandemic began, and appointments plummeted. 

He knew that some patients were avoiding physical therapy because they were concerned about potential COVID-19 exposure. He believed he could reassure them.

And he has, offering in-home physical therapy with his new business Mobile Therapy Services. 

He wears an N-95 mask, double-masks, and in some cases adds a face shield. 

Michael Lynch. Courtesy photo

Some patients prefer to see him take a COVID test in front of them and then wait until it comes back negative before he enters their home. 

“I probably get COVID tested, on an average week, three to five times, sometimes twice in one day,” he said. “Rapid tests — lots of them. ... One patient turned into two, and two turned into 10, and it’s been going strong ever since,” he said. 

Lynch, an Ormond-by-the-Sea resident, serves Flagler County and Volusia County. That’s sometimes meant long days, with 100-some miles of driving and 10-12 patients.

But, he said, “I’m definitely in a better position than a lot of business people, because I can be mobile.”

 

CHALLENGES

The uncertainties of the pandemic can make business planning tough.

For instance, Lynch just bought a specialized laser for use in his therapy practice — a major expense. 

“It’s a huge risk doing that, because now we have a new [COVID-19] variant that might shut everything down again,” Lynch said. “It’s a nerve-wracking time to invest in your business.”

Owens saw delays getting paperwork approved, and found it tough to schedule a health inspector to inspect the ice cream truck.

The Wehdes have had trouble finding workers and have been fighting supply chain issues. 

Dillon Wehde scours Amazon.com and other website for supplies daily, and has sometimes sent staff members running to Publix to grab ingredients. 

It’s been especially tough with the bubble tea, since ingredients come from Asia, he said.

“It’s constant,” Dillon Wehde said. “Every day I look online. ... I’m just constantly looking at different sites. You’re trying to buy months in advance. It gets pretty tricky.”

 

FRESH AIR

Dru Williams opened his business during the pandemic, but not because of it.

Like Owens and the Wehdes, though, his business is social-distance friendly, and he was able to move forward with it despite the upheaval caused in the economy by COVID-19.

"I think it was a relief for a lot of people to get out on the water and see the dolphins and the manatees and not have to worry about wearing a mask inside, and who you’re going to offend."

 

— DRU WILLIAMS, Crescent WaterSports

Williams had started planning to form a small business offering boat charters and boat, jet ski and paddle board rentals after he and his wife, Kelly, decided to move to Palm Coast from South Carolina to take care of Kelly’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s. 

The move from Charleston meant leaving his position at a boat dealership there and finding new work. 

He bought some boats before he left, and arrived in Palm Coast in March 2020 — just as things were shutting down and restaurants were switching to takeout only.

“It was just such an incredible time — nobody knew what to do,” Dru Williams said. 

Kelly and Dru Williams and Kevin Scott Freeland. Photo by Jonathan Simmons

But it worked out for his new business, Crescent WaterSports. 

“Being on a boat is about as much social distancing as you can do, and with everything shutting down, I think it was a relief for a lot of people to get out on the water and see the dolphins and the manatees and not have to worry about wearing a mask inside, and who you’re going to offend,” he said.

He has regulars who book every three weeks, which helped the fledgling business in its first few months.

“Really, that’s kind of what made us get through,” he said. “And then when summer hit … our boat rental business started doing extremely well.”

The Wehdes have also noticed that people are eager to get out in the open air with friends and family.

“People are so happy to get out and eat outside,” Mike Wehde said. “It’s been beautiful weather, and it creates a lot of smiles.”

Dru and Kelly Williams and Kevin Scott Freeland. Photo by Jonathan Simmons

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