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Virtual happy hour, barbell rentals, DIY craft kits: Colorado businesses share their coronavirus survival strategies

In these trying times of COVID-19 and government-mandated business shut downs, small business owners are getting creative as they’re forced to pivot or else face layoffs or permanent closures

Connie Baker is co-owner of Marble Distilling Co. in Carbondale. The distiller started to use its booze to make hand sanitizer, which it's donating to local organizations but also selling it and giving proceeds to employees. (Provided by Marble Distilling Co.)
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At Project Rise Fitness in Denver this week, the gym began loaning out equipment in exchange for a cash deposit to keep members exercising at home — and cash flowing for the business.  Over in Carbondale, Marble Distilling Co. is making hand sanitizer with its liquor and including a bottle with booze purchases, which is encouraging sales.

And the Denver Beer Co. will host its first virtual happy hour Friday at 4 p.m., with tastings of five different brews — three are available from liquor delivery service Drizly or area grocery and liquor stores.

Before COVID-19 struck, Denver Beer Co. offered beer on tap at its facilities in Denver and Arvada (pictured). Forced to close for on-site gatherings, the company plans to host its first virtual happy hour on March 20, 2020. (Provided by Denver Beer Co.)
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“I’m going to talk about the history of them and how they’re made. And those beers are available to buy so hopefully some people buy some and taste them with us,” co-owner Patrick Crawford said. “We miss seeing everyone in the brewery taproom and would love to see everyone’s face and share a beer with them.”

In these trying times of COVID-19 and government-mandated business shutdowns, small business owners are getting creative as they’re forced to pivot or else face layoffs or permanent closures. More resources are becoming available, such as the Small Business Administration’s new emergency loans, but some companies can’t wait. They need cash to keep going because the monthly bills are still coming due.

“We served three dinners in the last two nights,” said Adam Alleman, owner of Game Lounge in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. 

The board game-themed eatery, like other restaurants statewide, is closed to most diners and can only offer take-out and delivery. So this week, it added board game sales and rentals for $5 overnight or $20 for unlimited use. There’s also gift cards. On Thursday night, Game Lounge got some help from the neighbors.

“I live in a cohousing community and a neighbor offered to pick up food and distribute it to the neighborhood,” Alleman said, “so we’re making dinner tonight. It almost feels like we’re open.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Curb-side pickup of craft kits for kids

Tracy duCharme, owner of the Color Me Mine store in Chapel Hills Mall in Colorado Springs, spent a big part of Thursday issuing refunds to customers whose events were canceled under Gov. Jared Polis’ orders to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people. She had to let two workers go, but she has a plan to keep the other five.

Staff at the store, which typically hosts ceramic painting parties, are packing up take-home painting kits for “bored kiddos,” duCharme said. For now, the mall is still open, so customers can get curbside delivery by calling ahead. If the mall closes, her staff can switch to home delivery for a fee.

She’s also changed all her Google and online ads to focus on the to-go kits, plus messaged her customers — and the ones whose parties were canceled — of the new option. 

“As people have their kids at home, they’re isolated. They can’t have play dates. Having an activity like this is a nice distraction,” said a hopeful duCharme. “I want to take care of my employees as best I can. I’m fortunate that I don’t have debt, but if this goes flat, I’ll have to try something else. I have employees that absolutely depend on each paycheck from me.”

MORE: Stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak but want to help here in Colorado? Here’s how.

What else is booze good for?

Lots of distilleries have turned to making hand sanitizers, partly to meet the demand in the world of COVID-19, but also to give employees something to do. Marble Distilling Co. made its first batch a few days ago, said Wm Carey Shanks, who owns Marble with his wife, Connie Baker. They’re offering a free bottle with the purchase of two bottles of Marble booze. 

“Any sales we make off these efforts are going straight to pay our staff and some incidental bills,” said Shanks in an email. “We have enough raw material supplies to build on if demand were to spike.”

The company is also donating sanitizer to the local police station. And it’s received requests from Whole Foods and the local hospital “asking if we can provide both hand sanitizer and high proof spirit so people can make their own sanitizer at home,” he wrote.

“We need people to buy our products of course, but I’ll be honest,” he wrote. “In light of the apparent (imminent) threats to our communities and most importantly our care providers like hospitals and doctor offices, Connie Baker and I and our company just want to be a part of positive efforts.  If we can make enough money to support the supply chain, support our team and keep the business going, what more is there?” 

And one other thing: He’s looking for a supplier of 8- and 32-ounce bottles. Know anyone?

MORE: Colorado governor opens special health insurance enrollment period, closes salons, tattoo and massage parlors

Exercise at home

Caleb and Ericka Sommer, owners of Project Rise Fitness in Denver, had already been pushing daily workouts to its virtual portal that members could access at home.

On Tuesday, after Polis ordered gyms to close, Caleb Sommer said he realized he’d have an 8,000-square-foot facility full of exercise equipment but no people.

So he told members he’d rent out whatever they needed for a refundable deposit. About 70 members took the gym up on its offer. Customers about 8 feet from one another waited in line in the parking lot. 

“Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, slam balls, jump ropes, rollers, bikes — we  probably had 60% of our equipment out,” said Caleb Sommer. “I thought, ‘Why is it any different (now)? Just because we’re not training in person doesn’t mean we can’t help these people with their health.’ …We’ve had three new members join this week.”

Project Rise Fitness in Denver had to close its doors to members as part of a statewide order. So instead of having its equipment go unused, it began loaning it out to members to work out at home in exchange for a refundable deposit that will bring in some cash for the business. On Tuesday, March 16, 2020, members lined up in the gym’s parking lot to pick up equipment. (Provided by Project Rise Fitness)

The gym has been able to keep its full-time employees busy conducting the classes online. And staff and some of the part-timers are helping out with personalized training, which is also virtual.

“One way it helps us is it gives our members more access to working out,” he said “If we can keep them engaged and working out and staying healthy, the chances of them staying engaged and involved with our business are very high.” 

Machines as a service 

It’s not just the service industry feeling the pain. Longmont manufacturer Diabase Engineering builds laboratory-scale CNC machines, or computerized tools used by big companies and researchers to develop prototypes. But sales dropped off in the past week so the company tried something new: It could make those prototypes for clients who are now working from home because of coronavirus, said Stephen Heston, a cofounder. 

“Everyone’s in this same situation of trying to get the work that they would be doing in the office done from home. But the hardest part of that is, you actually need to run the equipment and make parts so you can’t be at home,” Heston said. “We’re trying to step in and fill that gap.”

It’s been an interesting twist to the business, which had focused entirely on making the machines. Adding machines as a service means a new revenue stream and keeps workers employed. To stick to the guidelines for distancing, however, employees are working different hours so there’s only one person on site at a time but the facility is open longer. 

Stephen Heston, a cofounder of Diabase Engineering in Longmont, had to rethink his manufacturing business in the era of COVID-19. The company is now offering services, instead of just making machines. And Heston moved a machine to his garage so he could work at home while an employee works on site. (Provided by Diabase Engineering)

Heston also has a machine in his garage so he can work from home but still help with orders, which includes anything from making parts for robotics and automation to medical devices (and yes, he said, his company is capable of making components for ventilators if clients needed them). He finds that this has become a time when people are really trying to help one another.

“We have suppliers all over the world,” he said. “One of our Chinese suppliers just contacted us and asked if we’d like them to send a bulk order of medical masks to us. We’re going to donate those to a local hospital. We don’t know how many will be in that bulk order but I just thought it was cool the way the whole world is trying to deal with this thing and trying to work together.”

CHART: We’re tracking the surge in Colorado unemployment claims amid the coronavirus crisis

More strategies

Buy local: Denver Beer Company did have to lay off its bartenders since the brewery shut down in-person drinking. But a large order it just received from Costco means the company is able to temporarily bring back some of those workers to help package beer. 

Buy gift cards: Sites like helpmainstreet.com help communities map out local businesses that rely on cash to keep going. Buying a gift card can help a business immediately. Staff at the Downtown Boulder Partnership put an extra 80 hours into getting its business community updated this week.

Employee fund: At Five Wellbeing Studio+Spa in Littleton, owner Betsy Abrams set up the Employee Wellbeing Relief Fund and seeded it with $10,000. For any one who buys a gift card, 25% of the proceeds will go to lessen the financial impact to staff.

Rally the local business community: The Broomfield Chamber of Commerce is posting updates from local businesses to share hours, specials and delivery options on the Chamber’s Facebook page.


Do you have a business survival strategy to share? Email reporter Tamara Chuang at tamara@coloradosun.com


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