Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Small Businesses, Big Problems: The pandemic forces owners to adapt, get creative to survive

Elementary Coffee’s Andrea Grove makes a delivery in Harrisburg.

About eight months ago, Andrea Grove, the owner of Elementary Coffee Co., was sitting in her newly opened storefront in Harrisburg’s Capitol district.

It capped a years-long process of searching for a location—then building out the space—to add to her growing business in the Broad Street Market.

Little did she know what lay ahead—that’s she’d be forced to close just months later.

With the COVID-19 crisis hitting small businesses hard, many owners found themselves in Grove’s position, offering limited services or having to close completely.

“We weren’t on our feet yet with opening up the shop,” Grove said. “I love to take care of the community, and, if I can’t in some way, that’s really terrifying for me.”

Stuck in a similar situation, El Rancho Restaurante and Pupuseria opened less than a year ago. Husband and wife team Manuel Ambrocio and Maria Ramirez dreamt of opening their own place—and they had. But they now faced an unusual, completely unpredictable situation.

“When this started [the crisis], I got really worried,” Ambrocio said. “We just started so not a lot of people knew about us.”

One of the few restaurants in the area specializing in Salvadoran cuisine, El Rancho was still building up its reputation. The owners wanted to be known for their authentic dishes and welcoming atmosphere.

Now, they’ve had to find alternative ways to do that with takeout boxes and deliveries.


Online Switch

The coronavirus crisis has forced many small businesses to get creative—very creative. Things had to operate differently than before, whether that meant limiting hours, moving sales online or closing completely.

Grove decided to close both Elementary locations in the Broad Street Market and the new North Street shop. She furloughed all of her employees and applied for a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Now, each day, Grove gets up early, deals with online orders, and works on a roasting schedule. She still brews coffee regularly, sometimes fueling those still working at the market or sharing with friends at Knead Pizza.

“It’s essentially just me doing everything,” Grove said.

Online wholesale orders remained strong. Fortunately, Elementary already had a substantial online presence before the crisis.

The switch to online didn’t come as easily for other businesses.

Emily Drobnock, owner of Knock Knock Boutique in Hershey and Elizabethtown, was never a fan of online shopping.

“I love the experience of shopping, being able to see items in person and touch them,” Drobnock said.

She had a limited amount of her jewelry and beauty items online, but, with her shops closed, she needed to add more.

So, now, Drobnock photographs and uploads products to Knock Knock’s online store every day. It’s tedious work and takes time, but it’s worth it.

“I’m thrilled we have any online sales,” she said. “I’ve felt supported by customers and the community since we had to close.”


Really Cool

At the beginning of the crisis, Ambrocio was worried. Hardly anyone came to El Rancho and, with state government offices closed, a large chunk of their customer base was gone.

With slowing business, Ambrocio and Ramirez closed their dining room and resorted to takeout and curbside pickup. They adjusted their hours to mainly dinner only, but kept their full menu available.

Ambrocio understands that many people are facing unemployment, and money is tight. He began offering discounts on family meals and promoted specials to help customers.

Mobile ordering platforms like Grubhub, Doordash and Uber Eats have handled much of El Rancho’s deliveries. Ambrocio thinks this has helped increase their capacity for delivery and will extend beyond the crisis. However, nothing can substitute for the sit-down dining experience.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of familiar faces, but I miss seeing everyone from lunch,” he said. “We got used to seeing the same people every day.”

Keeping in touch with customers has been more important than ever for these businesses. For all three, social media has played a big role in communicating with patrons.

“What we are going through right now is actually really cool,” Grove said. “We have the opportunity to serve the community even if we aren’t serving coffee.”

Elementary broadcasts “brewing sessions” on Instagram Live to showcase their own baristas and guest hosts. Artists, poets and local leaders from Harrisburg and around the country have joined the sessions.

“Spreading positivity is our underlying purpose,” she said.

Knock Knock Boutique has been posting on social media often, as well. Drobnock utilized Facebook Live to interview one of their vendors, a candle-maker.

“We have so many products that are handmade,” she said. “I love encouraging people to shop small.”

Being a small business during this time has caused restaurants, coffee shops and retailers to worry. What will business look like when they can fully open again? How long will it take for customers to come back?

While the wellbeing of their business has remained a concern for all of them, they’ve been able to hold on to hope.

“You can only put your best foot forward, and that has to be good enough,” Grove said.

Elementary Coffee Co. is located in the Broad Street Market and at 256 North St., Harrisburg. Visit

El Rancho Restaurante and Pupuseria is located at 210 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. Visit

Knock Knock Boutique has locations at 110 W. Chocolate Ave., Hershey and 8 S. Market St., Elizabethtown. Visit

Continue Reading