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COVID IN KERN: ONE YEAR LATER

Kern's small businesses adapt to survive the pandemic

Great Change Brewing had only been open about a year and was just gaining momentum when the pandemic slammed it and just about every other small business in Kern County.

The Resnik Court beermaker had a business model that revolved around indoor service and sales to sit-down restaurants. Suddenly that wasn't going to work and it was time to adapt to an unprecedented disruption to modern life — or die.

Great Change turned to canning, which ended up working well with its restaurant partners' shift to outdoor and to-go service, while also advancing the brewery's own branding strategy. Government grants and loans helped with payroll and other expenses such that the brewery's owners now expect to pull through the pandemic.

"It makes you focus and that's part of operating a business," co-owner Tim Belmont said. "You've got to find a way to be nimble enough to survive."

The coronavirus crisis has pulled the carpet out from under U.S. small businesses, and not all have landed on their feet. But many in Kern County have, some through happenstance and some thanks to government support. In other cases it was bold, reflexive action that made the difference.

QUICK CHANGE

Bakersfield wedding-planner Colleen Bauer had learned from her East Coast contacts about the tsunami that was coming and so she took steps to reposition her business, Fairy Godmother Events.

She learned from mentors how to put on "micro-weddings" and began hosting those and, for corporate clients, virtual employee events.

It worked: Couples still wanted to get married and large businesses still needed to recognize its workers. The business didn't grow or make as much money as it had before, Bauer said, but it was able to keep going at a time others didn't. Now she said she's filling her 2022 events calendar.

"If you sit and have a pity party and said, 'COVID shut my business down,' then it will shut your business down," she said.

ONLINE SENSATION

Then there were businesses like Taco Bros on 23rd Street downtown. It was well-positioned with a drive-thru window but at five employees wasn't living up to its full potential as a fresh, attractively priced restaurant offering what at the time was a unique product in Bakersfield: tacos of birria, a Mexican delicacy traditionally reserved for special events like baptisms.

Last summer, the owner brought aboard Baylee McCool, a 23-year-old former restaurant server with a highly personal touch, social-media savvy and an eye for efficiency. She made a series of operational and marketing changes, and before long had customers from as far away as Los Angeles waiting in lines stretching a block or more.

The restaurant has become an online sensation, now employing 20-plus workers, and plans are underway for a second location in southwest Bakersfield. McCool credits her focus on customer service and heavy use of Instagram.

"You can have the best food but it's actually how you get it out there," said McCool, now the restaurant's co-owner. She added that, in an ironic way, the pandemic "helps us a lot."

OPENING ANYWAY

It was a different story for hair salons like Panache A Mark Lamas Salon. State government twice shut down local salons, costing the business on Empire Drive four months of income.

Owner Mark Lamas recalled two key decisions that helped turn things around. One was that he decided to reopen despite state rules, which meant living in fear that regulators could pull his license at any moment.

"It was nice that they didn't bother us but it was scary," he said.

Lamas said he remains grateful for various federal and local government financial support that helped his stylists and allowed him to keep up with utilities.

The other big step he took was to reach out to salon owners he wasn't used to speaking with. They launched a social media hashtag, #openoursalons, that brought together former competitors.

"This brought us together," he said. "If we all stand together we will all be successful."

PAYING OFF

Kim Belmont, co-owner of Great Change Brewing along with brother-in-law Tim and two others, said the company's hard work is at last coming to fruition. Customers she hasn't seen in a year or more are returning to the brewery to buy its craft beer.

"It has taken a lot of perseverance to be able to keep things going. I think it's all paying off. I think we're going to be able to get back on track here, hopefully by summer," she said.

"I never would've guessed I'd have experienced something like this in my lifetime," she said. "It's like something in a movie."