How three Pacific Beach businesses are surviving the pandemic
2020 was a turbulent year for small businesses, to say the least.
While the COVID-19 restrictions forced some Pacific Beach business to shutter, others were able to pivot and weather the storm. PB Monthly talked with three of them — custom framing shop Gallery At Land’s End, French cafe/bakery La Clochette du Coin, and sporting goods store Play It Again Sports — about how each survived the past year and what lessons were learned from the experience.
Gallery At Land’s End
Gallery At Land’s End, a custom framing shop on Cass Street, has been around since 1973. Fourteen years ago, the original owners sold the store to Thayne Yungman, who was 26 at the time. Yungman has become accustomed to adapting his local business over the years — but the pandemic took it to a new level.
“As a small business, evolution is the name of the game,” Yungman said. “What happened here with COVID is probably 20 years of evolution in a year.”
In addition to his custom framing services, Yungman’s store also has a retail section filled with a selection of gifts and goods, all handmade in San Diego by local artists and makers. But when the pandemic hit, he didn’t have a web presence to fall back on to sell that inventory.
The decision to stay offline was intentional. Since the beginning, Yungman wanted to offer the community an opportunity to shop local in-person. He didn’t have an interest in selling online, which would potentially take away the money these makers could earn directly through their own online shops. So once Yungman’s physical storefront closed, he offered the local artists and makers their product back for them to sell independently.
A few months later, when his suppliers began delivering materials again and the stay-at-home orders loosened up, he decided to cautiously open up the shop on an appointment-only basis.
Rather than holding regular business hours, he asks customers to go online and schedule a 30-minute custom framing design session or a 15-minute retail shopping appointment. Yungman said the appointment system was embraced by his customers, who were appreciative of his safety precautions and also eager to give him their business.
“There was some pent-up demand for custom framing (with) people who were stuck at home,” he said, adding that the quarantine had inspired many customers to start projects and redecorate their houses.
Though the system was born out of necessity, Yungman discovered it increased efficiency. By only coming into the store when needed, he can spend more time with his family while still keeping the store profitable. Moving forward, he anticipates the appointment-only system will continue to work for his framing services, but he’s unsure about the retail side of his business.
“I think that we will continue to always offer and (encourage) appointments so that we as a business can better plan the day. I kind of have to figure out how much of a retail store we are going to be,” Yungman said.
“I’d say (the retail section) was about 50 percent of our business (pre-pandemic) — and that part has been decimated by COVID,” he added.
La Clochette du Coin
Down the street from Gallery at Land’s End is La Clochette du Coin, a French cafe and bakery. While the framing shop has been around for decades, the cafe just joined the neighborhood last September.
Willy Wu Jye Hwa, who co-owns the business with his sister Karine Beers, opened their first location in La Jolla six years ago. In 2019, the sibling duo decided to expand and made plans to open a second cafe in Pacific Beach, complete with their own bakery: Hommage Bakehouse. They met with an architect and started construction, anticipating a June 2020 opening.
But then, of course, the pandemic hit. While construction on the Pacific Beach location slowed, the duo continued operating their La Jolla cafe in accordance to the public health orders and revised their expansion plans.
“We needed to innovate — not just in the short term, but I think probably in the long term,” Wu Jye Hwa said, adding that embracing flexibility has been one of the biggest changes they made in 2020.
Eventually, construction got back on track and the Pacific Beach location opened on Sept. 1. To reduce costs and simplify production, they condensed their offerings and got rid of menu items that required ingredients that were more expensive, limited in quantity or had a shorter shelf life.
They also made the decision not to sign up with big delivery companies like Grub Hub, Door Dash and Uber Eats — which take a cut from the business — and instead invested funds in marketing campaigns to help inform customers of their takeout/pickup options.
Though the business was still in survival mode, Wu Jye Hwa said that a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan helped them stay afloat and allowed them to invest in things like contact payment systems and plexiglass shields.
Unfortunately, after a few months of running both cafes, Wu Jye Hwa and his sister Beers realized they were stretched too thin during such an uncertain time.
“It was getting really complicated with two different neighborhoods — we made the hard decision to close,” he said of the La Jolla location, which officially shut its doors permanently on Feb. 5.
Currently, the Pacific Beach location is operating with 18 employees and offers takeout, pick-up and outdoor seating. Though hopeful for the vaccine, Wu Jye Hwa doesn’t plan on changing current operations anytime soon.
“In our mindset, we think 2021 is going to be the same as last year,” he said. “We’ll definitely be keeping all of these procedures until the end of this year, at the very least.”
Play It Again Sports
While 2020 got off to a rocky start for Play It Again Sports on Garnet Avenue, the year ended up surprising the store owner — in a good way.
At the beginning of the shutdown in March, Fred Princen said he was unsure whether his store, which sells new and used bikes and other sporting goods, was deemed essential or not. Bike shops were considered essential, but he didn’t know if shops that sold bikes were as well.
Without clear guidance, he decided to shut down for a few months, offering curbside pickup for online orders.
While they had the capability to sell online, website sales were previously not a priority for the store.
“It’s a lifeline — it’s not a way you do business ... we knew right away that it would work, but it would not be enough,” Princen said.
“March was a complete disaster, to be honest — we made barely enough for rent,” he continued, adding that the following month’s online sales increased, but only covered the rent and two salaries.
When rules relaxed in May, the store was able to reopen for in-person shopping with limited capacity and mandatory masks. Princen said he realized very quickly that the stay-at-home orders had made people antsy, inspiring many to be more active. Additionally, with the gyms closed, Princen saw more customers in the shop wanting to buy exercise equipment to work out at home.
“A lot of people started to bike, skateboard and rollerblade ... they turned to us to start to buy all that. Right off the bat, we did really well because people did a lot more sports than they used to,” he said.
What happened next was a surprise: a major issue the shop faced was too much businesses. While the customer demand was high, Princen could not get enough inventory to keep the shelves stocked. Popular items like dumbbells, bikes and rollerblades flew off the shelves.
“The rule now is because there is so much shortage everywhere, we would order 10 times more of what we need knowing that we would get 10 percent of what we order,” he said, saying that number would increase to 20 or 30 times more for fitness inventory.
“When we got a shipment of dumbbells, two days after, everything was gone — literally,” he added.
One of the lessons the pandemic taught him is to diversify his suppliers. Princen, who bought the 23-year-old shop six years ago, said that in addition to the variety of sports/athletic equipment they sell, offering both new and used products contributes to the diversity that keeps his store sustainable.
However, this meant that he usually only needed one or two vendors for each product, which limited the quantity and frequency of his inventory.
But despite inventory issues, 2020 was more successful than Princen could have imagined — and he thanks Pacific Beach for that.
“The Pacific Beach community has been very good to us,” he said. “I think they also have been very good with the other businesses, just because they understand that if they don’t support every single little business around, they’ll be gone. And you may not want to live in a place where there is only a Walmart and a Costco.”