Unsung Heroes Rally During COVID-19

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As the coronavirus takes its toll on small businesses throughout the five-county region, The Business Journal caught up with a few of last year’s Unsung Heroes nominees from the Rally Around Small Business campaign to see how they were faring during the pandemic.

Restaurants were among the first to feel the brunt of the stay-at-home orders issued by state governments in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Almost immediately, dine-in services were halted and restaurateurs had to adapt to offering just takeout and delivery services.

For Melissa Poland, that meant returning to her roots. In 2017, when Poland first opened Sweet Melissa’s Good Eats at 6810 Market St., Boardman, she only offered takeout service. The restaurant drew a loyal customer base that allowed for a dine-in section to be added. 

Last year, the restaurant enjoyed a 35% increase in sales, which Poland attributed more to catering and takeout via the ChowNow app. Though Sweet Melissa’s isn’t as busy as it usually is, online orders via the app have “really increased” over the last three weeks.

“This is a great feature to the business because you can order online, pay online and either come in and pick your order up or there’s an option for curbside service where we will bring the order to the customer’s car,” Poland says. “I recently installed a protective Plexiglass shield at the register and implemented credit/debit card payment or Apple Pay only, no more paper money exchanges.”

Despite the drop in business, Poland says she likely won’t be applying for loans through the Small Business Administration. 

“At this time, I feel like it doesn’t apply to my business as it does for other businesses who are completely closed,” Poland says. “I’m OK without the assistance at this time.”

The same goes for Paris Perry of Perry’s Pristine Clean. The owner of the Columbiana-based cleaning company says “we have been fortunate enough to maintain our business” and doesn’t feel it’s necessary to take out loans. 

The company is promoting its spring cleaning and floor care services. It’s also offering extra disinfecting procedures for its customers who were forced to close because of COVID-19, the disease spread by the coronavirus.

Among the types of businesses forced to close are shops and boutiques not deemed “essential” by the stay-at-home orders. Though soap is considered an essential product, Maison de Savon opted to close its shop at 1526 E. State St. in Hermitage, Pa., to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

However, Maison de Savon, which received the most nominations for the 2019 Rally Around Small Business Unsung Heroes promotion last year, has kept the manufacturing side of its business operational, says Gia Hart-Kokor, who owns the business with her daughter, Gillian Hart-O’Brien.

The business is still taking orders online, as well as by phone, email and text, and has introduced curbside and delivery services.

“We have also started Facebook Live sales of our products on a bi-weekly basis, and also have increased our presence on social media,” Hart-Kokor says. “Anything to get us new exposure and keep our faithful customers informed and stocked up on our products.”

After four years of business, the company opened its Hermitage location in September. Maison de Savon will be applying for an SBA loan to keep up with rent and invest in new product development, Hart-Kokor says. While revenue is down significantly for the business, its owners remain optimistic and encourages small businesses to help each other however possible.

“Continue to move forward, even if its an inch for your business. Keep that vision for your business always in front of you, even when the road gets bumpy,” Hart-Kokor says. “You are not alone. Every business is feeling this. Stay positive. Help others when you can, it will always come back to you.”

Perry agrees and encourages residents to continue to support the small businesses that remain open.

“Small businesses are the backbone of America. By supporting small businesses in your area, you are making your community stronger,” Perry says. “Small business owners need to stay positive, support and encourage each other.”

But possibly the most heartfelt words are from Kelan Bilal, owner of Excalibur Barber Grooming Lounge in the Southern Park Mall in Boardman. Excalibur has been closed completely since March 14 and Bilal has applied for SBA loans and has encouraged his employees to do the same.

“Hopefully we hear back from the state with good news about funding. If not, we will just keep on pushing forward,” Bilal says.

For encouragement to other small-business owners and those in the barbering industry – another sector among the first to be shuttered – Bilal offers a selection from “The Optimist Creed” by poet Christian D. Larson.

“I promise myself to be so strong that nothing can disturb my peace of mind. To talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person I meet. To make all my friends feel that there is something special in them. To look at the sunny side of everything and make my optimism come true. To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and expect only the best. To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as I am about my own. To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature I meet a smile. To give so much time to the improvement of myself that I have no time to criticize others. To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble. My attitude is my life.”

Nominate an Unsung Hero!

The Business Journal is accepting nominations for this year’s Unsung Heroes. We want to hear about businesses that are stepping up during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the individuals who have gone above and beyond to serve their customers at this time. CLICK HERE to nominate your Unsung Hero!

Pictured: Gillian Hart-O’Brien, co-owner of Maison de Savon in Hermitage, Pa., prepares an order for delivery to a customer. (Image: Maison de Savon)