Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Dreams Don’t Wait: Despite a year of the pandemic, many small businesses chose to open up shop

For Shawn Durborow-Bowersox, opening a business this past year wasn’t all sunshine and roses—even if it was a flower shop he was opening.

Paper Moon Flowers, Durborow-Bowersox’s flower and décor shop in Midtown Harrisburg, was set to open in March 2020. He had the shop decked out for Easter with coolers stuffed with brightly colored fresh flowers for the holiday.

Little did he know he’d have to keep his doors shut as the pandemic grew and state shutdowns began.

Not long after all the Easter décor went up in the shop, it all came down. Durborow-Bowersox estimated that he lost at least $2,000 worth of flowers.

But he bounced back, again filling the shop with fresh flowers and decorating his huge storefront windows with flowers, plants and giant papier mâché mushrooms straight out of a fairy tale. Ready for summer, Paper Moon Flowers’ doors were finally open in June.

The commonly told story of small businesses during the pandemic has included reduced foot traffic, financial loss and even permanent closures. It’s a true story, one that Harrisburg has seen play out for itself. But there’s another story in the capital city—one where many new small businesses have opened despite the pandemic.

Paper Moon Flowers was one of those businesses, and Durborow-Bowersox had to navigate each unique challenge the pandemic brought, since day one, literally.

“I remember the first day. I sat there and nothing happened,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Is this what the rest of my life will be like?’”

But by the next month, more and more people came in. He started hearing from customers who wanted to shop small and shop local, a movement that took hold nationally, as cities encouraged customers to support struggling local businesses.

Through Christmas and Valentine’s Day this year, Durborow-Bowersox said Paper Moon Flowers was doing great.

“I feel like I’m in a good place now heading into this Easter,” he said.


Different Story

According to Jamal Jones, director of business development for Harrisburg, there are a significant number of new businesses that opened in the city during 2020.

In 2018, 501 businesses applied for licenses and, in 2019, 520 did. Last year, there were 537, he said.

These numbers include existing businesses that were required to renew their business licenses, he said. Additionally, he noted that there may have been some businesses that weren’t licensed and completed the paperwork in order to become eligible for COVID relief grants.

But overall, Jones said there has been an increase in new businesses. From conversations he’s had with business owners, he believes that some are opening because they’ve had more free time during the pandemic to pursue a business idea. Others may be opening out of necessity, due to a job loss.

During a year when the story has been about businesses closing, many, like Paper Moon, were actually opening.

About a month after Paper Moon Flowers opened, another business opened in Midtown, but with a different first day experience.

At House of Vegans restaurant, a line formed down the block on opening day. People had caught word of the unique vegan soul food joint and showed up to support owners Stefan Hawkins and Laquana Barber, who were already known in the community for cooking for neighbors out of their house.

Hawkins said that COVID wasn’t much of a concern for him when he opened. He wasn’t seeing an end date in sight for the pandemic, and he wasn’t going to put the opportunity on hold. Plus, he had already signed the lease.

For the first few months, business was great—so good that Hawkins decided to lease another shop across the street and begin planning for a second business—Good Brotha’s Book Café.

But as the winter months rolled in, and Gov. Tom Wolf enacted a second shutdown, business started to freeze up.

“I didn’t think the hype was going to end, and that was my problem,” Hawkins said. “Eventually, people just weren’t as excited as they were before about vegan soul food.”

House of Vegans ended up closing in February, becoming another fatality during COVID.

“I stretched myself too thin,” Hawkins said.

He hopes to re-open House of Vegans in the future, but for now, he can focus all of his efforts on the success of Good Brotha’s, a café focused on promoting African American literature and art. So far, business is going well.

“It’s been great,” he said. “People see the vision and have been supportive.”


New Beginnings

According to Jones, businesses that are more pandemic-friendly, ones with online sales or delivery services, have seen more demand during COVID and have fared better. This includes small restaurants that rely on takeout.

This is exactly what Callie Alvanitakis decided to do with her new café, Deco Grab & Go.

“I saw restaurants closing around me,” she said. “That created a space for me to focus on COVID-safe dining.”

Deco Grab & Go, located in downtown Harrisburg, caters to those looking to grab lunch or one of Alvanitakis’ popular “cinnie buns” and continue on their way.

The restaurateur had 20 years of experience working at Harrisburg restaurants before opening Deco, so she knew what she was getting herself into. Alvanitakis tailored her business plan around a growing trend she saw that favored fast, casual dining, which fit perfectly within COVID restrictions and the small storefront she was in.

Alvanitakis is an optimist. She tries to see the silver lining in situations, but balance it with reality.

“My mother taught me to always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said.

So far, business has been good, not booming by any means, but it’s what she expected.

“I obviously didn’t start this business to get rich,” Alvanitakis said. “I’m pretty adaptable. I think that’s why I will continue to succeed.”

Paper Moon Flowers is located at 916 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their Facebook page.

Good Brotha’s Book Café is located at 1419 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their Facebook page.

Deco Grab & Go is located at 240 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their Facebook page.

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