Cookies to the RescueCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Diana Ho is keeping her indie shop afloat with some sweet subscriptions. Published: July 28, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
On an impromptu neighborhood walk last week, I came across a boutique on Dekalb Avenue with a slinky Dries Van Noten dress in the window. I stopped for a second to look longingly, imagining what it would feel like to run my fingers across the silk fabric. It didn’t even occur to me to walk inside the store, until I saw the “Open” sign on the door. (New York reopened non-essential businesses on June 22nd, but in my largely residential area, shopping opportunities are few and far between.) I stood for a moment waffling over whether or not to go in, my rational brain telling me, “It’s safe,” and my irrational one saying, “But are you sure?” I finally went in, only to discover that my muscle memory for “casual shopping” has atrophied. I didn’t know where to put my hands, what to look at, if it was okay to try something on. I left abruptly, feeling as awkward as I did at my first high school dance (I wore a pink tutu — that story is for my memoir).
While plenty of small business owners are jumping on the reopening bandwagon, many others are fearful of the safety risks (and girding themselves for a second wave). This week, I spoke with someone in the latter camp: Diana Ho, a Brooklyn-based artist and the owner of From Here to Sunday, a gift shop in Gowanus selling art, home goods, zines, and more. Since closing the shop in early March, Ho has watched sales drop across nearly every category… Except her homemade baked goods. Keep scrolling for our conversation on the connection between cookies and art, juggling social activism and business marketing, and why she’s hesitant to reopen.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did From Here to Sunday come about?
It started with me pairing baked goods that I made with my friends' art. At the time [summer 2016], I was working a gig for Tom Sachs at the Brooklyn Museum. I would bring in all my leftover baked goods and share them with my coworkers. At some point someone was like, You should sell these. I thought it would be more interesting to pair them with my coworkers’ zines. And then it evolved into pop-ups. For the first one, I hosted it at my studio and I reached out to my friends to make it a collaborative process. Then I just continued to do more of that at different markets or exhibitions.
As an artist, what drew you to baking?
I got into baking because it took the ego out of being an artist. It’s this down-to-earth way to express yourself. I think because I've worked with big artists and have been behind the scenes for many years, I didn't feel like I fit in or that there was a place for me. [Baking] made it easier for me to be creative, but without that aspect of ego in it. I think I struggle a lot with that in terms of art.
When did you open your brick-and-mortar storefront?
June 2018. I share the space with another brand, Even Keel [owned by En Tsao]. We split rent evenly. And when we were open, we would trade shifts and everything.
I’m assuming you closed up shop on March 22nd, when the city went into lockdown?
We actually shut down a week before then, out of caution.
How did you make that decision?
We were very concerned with spreading it and being responsible for that. And in the beginning of March, I was already feeling the impacts — my sales were going down. So it made sense to pivot the business [online]. It was difficult, though, because I was renovating my side of the shop to make a gallery. And we were supposed to have an opening in March for a show. Initially I was like, I have to have this because my sales are going down. And then as I learned more about COVID, it didn't make any sense. And so that didn't happen, but I'm glad it didn't because that would have been a bad idea.
It's funny to think about the quaint ideas we all had in early March…
Right, yeah. I was like, Maybe I could still pull it off right before everything shuts down. Things happened so quickly. If you view some of my posts from around that time on Instagram, first it was me acknowledging that my sales are going to be down, and so I was offering free shipping on everything, trying to pivot to online sales. Then we shut down the shop and I had to change the website so it was easier to shop and I put gift certificates up quickly. One of the things I offer that has been keeping the business afloat is the cookie subscription, which is a monthly box that you get with a dozen or more cookies. It’s an easy way for people to support the business, and it's been really helpful in this process. Just getting some income in, regardless of what happens. And people get to have delicious cookies.
A sample cookie subscription box / Photography via Diana Ho
Everyone wins! Did you have the cookie subscription before the pandemic?
It existed before the pandemic, but most of the subscribers were just a few friends of mine. People didn't know about it because I didn't really advertise it. In the first couple of months [of the pandemic], the subscribers tripled, which I was blown away by and I'm so grateful for that.
Before the lockdown, how important was your website for sales?
It was semi-shoppable, but I didn't categorize things as thoroughly as they are now. I still have work to do, but it's definitely at a better place. The storefront occupied so much of my time [that] I wasn't able to focus as much energy on the online shop, but the lockdown gave me an opportunity to address that. Also, I had no choice.
Are you able to make ends meet right now?
Sort of. In the beginning, a lot of returning customers bought stuff online, and with the cookie subscription, the sales went down, but not by too much. And then in the last month or two, [sales] have been down a lot more. I think people don't have as much money to spend or they're focusing their energy on other things.
Have you applied for any loans or grants?
I recently applied for the PPP loan [when] they opened it up to self-employed people. I am collecting unemployment, so that helps me make ends meet. Editorial note: a day after our interview, Ho emailed me to say that her PPP application was denied.
What about your landlord: are they allowing rent deferrals or other concessions?
Our landlord has been really accommodating. We're so lucky. He's reduced our rent by half and it's month-to-month, so I don't know how long it will last, but I'm happy to take whatever we can get.
As a small business owner, do you feel like you've had adequate support from the government to navigate this crisis?
I don't feel like they've done enough. I mean, unemployment is helping, but that’s just the bare minimum. I've been lucky because I've had an understanding landlord. All the support I've received was from friends and family and customers, especially returning customers, to keep going. I'm in a luckier position — I don’t think that a lot of other businesses can say the same.
Before the pandemic, you hosted a number of events to bring people together around art. Do you have plans to pivot your in-person programming online?
I'm trying to figure out the best way to approach that. It's on the list, [but] there's only so much I can do at a time. For now, I'm trying to pivot more towards humanity work, given all the protests and the anti-racism dialogue that's happening. I want to be more involved in that and make it a sustainable effort. So if I do have an event, it would be related to anti-racism or decolonization. I recently started something called the Sunday Collaborative Action Fund: it’s collected for efforts like making educational materials that will be distributed at the shop or towards events like a letter writing campaign if we have any events outdoors. Hopefully that will subsidize some of these things, because I'm still struggling in terms of sales. But it seems like that's one way I can use the platform for good.
How has your social media approach evolved over the last few months?
In the beginning, I spent more time posting about the business, and that was really helpful: I noticed that sales would go up anytime I would post more about the products. And then once the protests started, it [the brand’s social presence] shifted toward education and re-posting a lot of the information I found. I'm trying to figure out a way to balance that, because I do feel like my business is struggling because I'm not posting about [inventory] as much. But at the same time, I think it's important to spread the word about these other causes. I've been trying to figure out a way to balance that or incorporate it into the business itself. I've gotten a lot of messages where people thank me for posting something that they haven't seen, so I feel like there is a demand for it in some capacity.
I think it's a dilemma that every business, small or large, is grappling with: how to engage with issues of social justice in a meaningful way, but still take care of the bottom line. What, if anything, feels like a solution for you right now?
I think if I do more community work, it'll just happen organically where they go hand in hand. Hopefully it'll get to that point. But in this transitional period, I feel like I'm stumbling a little bit. I just have to keep reminding myself that it's a continuous effort. It's not this thing that happens once and then that's it. I have to keep making an effort and I think that counts for something.
With New York in Stage 3 of reopening, how do you feel about the prospect of reopening your brick and mortar space?
I have a lot of hesitations about reopening. But I feel adamant about keeping the space, even if it's a struggle, just because I am one of the few businesses owned by a person of color [in the neighborhood]. I feel a responsibility to maintain a foothold in that space.
Tell me more about the hesitations you’re feeling.
With all the spikes going up around the country, it feels inevitable that it will hit us again. I don't want to contribute to the spread at all. I have limited resources, and I feel this pressure to make the right decision. But there is no one right decision. One week I’ll feel confident about reopening and how important that is. And then another week I’ll feel like it's not safe enough. I try not to look too far ahead, which is antithetical to my existence because I am a planner. This whole process has been about adaptability. I'm hoping that the online sales will continue regardless, and that our customers will make responsible decisions in terms of reducing contact. And I hope that we'll be able to engage with the community on a more direct level.
"Without small businesses, New York is not New York."
Longterm, how do you see this crisis impacting your business?
I just hope it will survive the pandemic. It's been a shame to see all the businesses that have shut down already from it. I feel like New York's life force is being slowly drained. Just seeing what's happening in Chinatown and all of that, it's really heartbreaking. I want to do everything in my power to keep some of that small business spirit alive. And hopefully we'll be able to bounce back because without small businesses, New York is not New York.
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Until next time,