“The name of the game is adapt”COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A multi-hyphenate record shop in Carroll Gardens digs deep to survive. Published: December 22, 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!
This is my last newsletter of 2020, which has me in a reflective mood. I’ve spoken with over 30 small business owners since January, and they’ve been some of my most rewarding conversations this year. Beyond learning from so many exceptionally resilient individuals, it has been such a joy to connect with you, dear readers, around a beat I care about deeply. Thank you for reading and forwarding (special shoutout to my friends and family in Canada!). I am so grateful for this space.
I’ll be back in January, but before then: This week’s interview is with Jeff Ogiba and Mike Polnasek, friends and co-owners of Black Gold Records, a record, coffee, and antiques shop in Carroll Gardens that’s been around for 10 years. Thanks to the coffee component, Ogiba and Polnasek were able to keep their doors open throughout the shutdown, but they had to completely restructure how they do business to keep selling records and antiques. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the March shutdown impact you?
Mike: When the shutdown started going into effect, we didn't know where we stood. And we didn't know what to do. So we completely shut the shop down for one day because we weren't sure if we were allowed to be open.
Jeff: We put our heads together and reached out to some people who were in the same business as us, and the general consensus was that our coffee sales fit the category of essential business.
Mike: We were like, We need to stay alive, but we also need to keep everyone safe. We [reopened with] four-hour days. We began converting a lot of our business online. People looking at records inside wasn't allowed, but we set up the coffee so you could order online and just pick it up.
Were your supply chains impacted at all?
Jeff: Yeah, pretty much everything. The snacks [vendor] closed down. Record distributors were shutting down. We had to talk to our coffee roasters and make sure that everything was going to be all right with them. It started to get really bare bones in here. I don't even know how we were paying bills; it became very, very difficult, to the point where we're still on a long path to recovery. We were just shipping, shipping, shipping, and hoping for the best.
Did you have an e-commerce website before the pandemic?
Jeff: We did have a website, but it was not as streamlined as the one we have now and it could not integrate our POS that we use at the front counter. It was a Stone Age scenario.
What did it take to update it?
Jeff: A lot of trial and error. A lot of frustration, a lot of people getting free products because we didn't know how to adjust the numbers yet for shipping things to the other side of the country.
Mike: For a while, every day was like a brand new, fresh start. How do we adjust? How do we let our customers know that we're still open? How do we let other people around the country know that we can ship to them? It made us really good at promotion and figuring things out by the seat of our pants. It was a real sink-or-swim situation. We operate best when the pressure is on, so I feel like that actually helped us in some way where we were like, There is no failing.
Did you start using social media differently to reach customers from afar?
Jeff: We figured out how to use some of the social media platforms a little better. At one point we were making such little money that we started a record of the day [hashtag] where we cleared out obscure records from the store to make an extra $20 to $100 a day, just to keep the lights on. We would do it on Instagram and link directly to our website. And it worked, it picked up really quickly and people started fighting over the records. It was pretty cool to have a new revenue stream during everything that was going on. The name of the game is adapt. There’s been a lot of trial and error and a lot of failure, but I can hear the register going right now, so that’s a good sign.
And from a financial perspective, how are you making it work?
Jeff: We applied for every [relief package] we possibly could. Very few things were successful. We got a signed letter from the President that said [something like], "Congratulations on your application, unfortunately we can only give you this much money" and basically gave us enough money for one month's rent. That was the extent of our help. We've been paying our dues and taxes for a decade and nobody cared. The people who saved us were our friends, family, and our customer base, which are starting to feel like the same at this point. We had to go on payment plans with vendors and even at one point with the landlord. We’re [making sure] everybody's getting paid; the people that aren't getting paid are me and Mike. How's that for your decade-old business, to stop getting a paycheck? It's like, I've come up with a weird analogy, I shouldn't say it …
Weird analogies are welcome here.
Jeff: It's like Grandma's still alive, but she doesn't talk much. That was the first thing that popped into my head.
What was the rent negotiation process like with your landlord?
Jeff: He said, “Here's what you owe me, pay me.” We said, “Okay, how about this?” And he said, “Fine.” The [difference] became tacked onto our [subsequent payments] for the course of several months.
You mentioned the generosity of friends, family, and customers; has that been with sales or donations through other channels?
Jeff: We didn't set anything up donation- or GoFundMe-wise. A few people bought gift certificates that they didn’t redeem, which is extremely generous. Others just showed up or ordered coffee and continue to order coffee. We have regulars in our online shipping program that are essentially subscribed to us, so we see their name pop up every couple of weeks.
Mike: Our friends and our regulars and the people in the neighborhood are literally the reason we're still open right now. They all became overly supportive in terms of giving us their business, understanding that it was a hard time for us.
What kind of foot traffic are you seeing right now?
Mike: It was really good during the warm months ... But when the schools are shut down and it's cold outside, it gets a little desolate.
I'm going to be working for 30 more years to get back to where we want to be.
What’s your take on the government’s response to this crisis in terms of small business support?
Jeff: I don't even know what we deserve. I understand that this is a gigantic catastrophe and there are a lot of people out there in a much worse spot than us. We are bitter and we are disappointed, however, we're super grateful that we are still open and making it work. I'm honestly more upset about some of the response that has come to our friends who own businesses and restaurants who are rapidly sinking and going into debt. I don't know much about what's going on outside of America right now, but it feels like a massive financial enslavement is upon us. It's terrifying. I mean, we're getting old, I'm trying to start thinking about retirement. I'm going to be working for 30 more years to get back to where we want to be. I don't know if that's an exaggeration, but it's how I feel.
Mike: It also became more disappointing when we found out that for the first round of help to small businesses, only about 15 percent of actual small businesses got help. And who knows what the real truth is. But I heard that a lot of money went to chain restaurants; I even heard publicly traded companies were getting small business funding from the government.
How do you think this crisis will impact your business in the coming months and even years?
Mike: I'm trying to reach for positivity here ... The real silver lining for us is that, trial by fire, we’ve taught ourselves a lot about advertising and how to get better at shipping and online stuff. If and when we return to something that seems like normal, I believe that extra work ethic will lead us to a place where business will actually be better in the end. And we always have to keep remembering to be safe, even after this is over. We've learned a lot about what we can do better in terms of taking care of each other as a society.
Jeff: I had a boss years ago who said that he only worries about things he has immediate control over, and one thing he does not have immediate control over is the economy. When we started this small business, we knew it was a risk. We have to accept the fact that there are going to be challenges and changes, and it's our responsibility to figure out how to adapt. It would have been nice to have a little more help from the infrastructure of our country and more specifically, our state, for something on a scope of this nature; however, it's just not there. So we go on. This is a big hurdle, but we'll make it. There's no reason that we can't make it. Even though it's not exactly paying the bills for us personally right now, it will again. We can't be selfish and we can't be impatient because there are way more people going through worse than us out there. That's where my head's at.
How to help:
Until next time,