Local Small Businesses Get Creative to Survive the Coronavirus Closures

Levon Akopyan, owner of European Shoe Repair

It is now going on six weeks since Malibu and the rest of the state closed down “non-essential” businesses to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus—a long time without income for a small business that still has to pay rent, business loans and other expenses. 

Malibu Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Bruderlin said small business owners affected by the COVID-19 shutdown that she’s spoken to seem hopeful that if they get help from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and if businesses begin re-opening on May 15, “they’ll be able to make it.”

Kecia Heinz, owner, hair stylist and colorist of Kecia Heinz Studio in the 24955 PCH building, had just opened her business three months before the coronavirus emergency with the aim of providing a new kind of one-on-one service for customers. 

She came from Napa Valley where she ran a successful salon for 15 years, spent several weeks redecorating the new Malibu ocean view studio, and was just beginning to build up a local clientele when the shutdown occurred. 

“The landlord hasn’t said, ‘We’ll give you a break on the rent,’ so far,” Heinz said. “I think I’ll have to borrow more money.” 

She has been able to help make ends meet by cutting friends’ and neighbors’ hair from home, and hopes things work out. “I love the studio and I really love Malibu—the sense of community and the customers taking a personal interest in me … My biggest fear in coming here was the wildfires, and this was something I never anticipated.”

A longtime local small business, European Shoe Repair, closed just a couple weeks ago after county officials told owner Levon Akopyan that shoe repair was not an essential business. He takes issue with that, but there was nothing he could do.

“You’d think shoes are part of life because people wear shoes; they don’t go barefoot,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. How is it that marijuana dispensaries are essential, but shoes aren’t? It drives me crazy.

“We have to work to make the rent, and if you don’t work, you can’t pay rent,” Akopyan continued. “There’s no free lunch—even if the landlord isn’t allowed to evict people for a month or two, you still have to pay back the rent you missed.”

Even though Akopyan applied for both government PPP and unemployment benefits, he has not “seen a dollar” yet. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 closures came so soon after the Woolsey Fire burned nearly 500 homes in November 2018, that some of Malibu’s small businesses have now been hit with a double whammy.

Sherman’s Place, a long-standing dog grooming and doggie day care business at 29575 PCH, was one of those. Owner Sherman Baylin said she’s never fully closed her business during the quarantine; she devised safety protocols for owners to drop their dogs off for grooming and daycare and maintain social distancing.  

“It took some convincing of the older clients,” she said. “A lot of customers are terrified, but their dogs have issues like skin allergies and really need to come in.”

The quarantine came as her business had not yet bounced back from Woolsey. 

“Business is probably down about 80 percent from what it used to be,” she said. “This may finish me off.”

Malibu Wine Hikes, a small business opened in 2016 by Shane Semler, is completely shut down for the time being. When the state began announcing closures, Semler assumed his outdoor business could continue operating, but realized he was wrong when officials began shutting down local public hiking trails and parks. He employs two fulltime and 10 part-time employees. 

Semler applied for PPP and hopes to receive some money in a few days. In the meantime, Malibu Wine Hikes is betting on a May 15 reopening and Semler is working on getting hiking guides and supplies ready to go—hoping to “bounce back quickly.”

“But who knows if people will be willing to go out on hikes by that time?” Semler wondered, even though he intends to introduce new safety protocols.

What has helped his business weather the storm is the fact they collect money for the hikes upfront. His employees reached out to all of the customers with prepaid hikes and asked if their outings could be rescheduled rather than refunded. To his relief, most of the customers rescheduled.

“The Woolsey Fire kind of prepared us to be tough,” he said. “We already went through one thing, and now this.”