When Kashawna Harling and Ralph Long III opened their pet supply store in Malden Center in August, the couple was fully aware of the risk they faced trying to build a new business during a pandemic. But they were determined to move forward.
“I did realize it was a huge gamble but I thought even with a pandemic, people love their pets — pets are like family,” Harling said. “They could come to our store and not have to worry about traveling to a big store for their pet needs.”
While COVID-19 has upended the economy in Greater Boston as elsewhere in the country, a number of local entrepreneurs have braved the dark times by opening stores and other small businesses. Whether it’s a pet supply store in Malden, a takeout restaurant in Framingham, or a custom printing shop in Brockton, they offer a sign of hope amid downtowns struggling to keep the lights on during the pandemic.
Harling and Long, who are pet lovers — the Malden home of the engaged couple includes two dogs and two cats — for several years had been informally providing pet services such as dog grooming for other residents in their neighborhood. In January, the duo decided to turn that avocation into a business, a decision they stuck to even when the pandemic struck.
“We figured it was a good way to have an income for ourselves while also helping the community,” Harling said.
Their Main Street store, Paws & Purrfection, sells products ranging from pet food to leashes, dog and cat treats and toys, grooming and cleaning tools, and dog sweaters, while also offering grooming and other services. Customers have the option to order online for most of the products.
Harling said she and Long — who formerly worked at Malden Animal Hospital — anticipated getting their business off the ground would be challenging, and that has proved the case.
In the early going, it was “extremely slow. I was very panicked,” confessed Harling, who is also a teacher at a Somerville Catholic school. “I do understand a lot of people don’t have money, so I was definitely worried. We had a couple of days where we didn’t have any customers.”
The store is not yet earning a profit, but Harling expects that to change, particularly as people learn about the dog grooming service she and Long have recently initiated. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
“I think it makes sense for certain types of businesses to pop up right now,” said Parvathi Jayamohan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Salem State University’s Bertolon School of Business.
For example, with so many people feeling isolated at home due to COVID-19, she said there is increased consumer interest in such products as exercise equipment, games, and patio furniture. Businesses established to meet those demands could prosper, she said, as could a business offering innovative solutions to child care.
Jayamohan said there are real challenges new businesses face, such as having to compete with existing sellers and the fact many consumers are price-sensitive. But she said such strategies as limiting inventory, carefully targeting the market, and enabling customers to make online purchases can help ease those problems.
“It pays to be innovative, always,” she said.
Jim Giammarinaro, president and CEO of MetroWest Chamber of Commerce, said that in the current bleak economic climate, it will be difficult for a business that relies on “brick and mortar” retail to succeed. “I wouldn’t recommend starting that kind of business now,” he said.
Businesses with a strong online presence, or those providing products — such as medical supplies — that currently have high demand might have a better chance, he said.
“If you can identify a need within this new economy that exists now, I would say, ‘go for it,’” Giammarinaro said. “But those businesses that rely on the general public to be inside, they are going to struggle.”
Ouahid Ouassaidi knows firsthand the travails of starting a business amid a health crisis. In late March, the Moroccan native opened Kous Kous, a takeout restaurant in Framingham center that features Mediterranean fare with Moroccan and Middle Eastern influences.
Ouassaidi, a former longtime restaurant consultant, had planned to open a catering business in an adjoining building — an expanded version of a service he had begun in Boston last year — and to possibly one day open a restaurant. But when the pandemic struck, he lost all his catering customers. Undaunted, he pivoted to opening the restaurant.
"Launching a business in the middle of the pandemic was extremely difficult, emotionally and financially,” said Ouassaidi, who has taken on all the work himself, from securing permits and building out the space to cooking, cleaning, serving, and making signs. “I’ve worked 15-16 hours a day without pay since March. I think I’m beyond burn-out.”
But Ouassaidi is hopeful the work will pay off, as word spreads in the city about his Hollis Street restaurant and its distinct dishes, which range from homemade falafel to cauliflower roll-ups and a Moroccan-style chicken plate. Already the business, which includes catering, has grown enough that he has hired two employees with a third on the way.
“I can see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
In September, James Bruce opened Printed Expressions & Gifts, a shop in Brockton near the Avon line that sells custom-printed products such as T-shirts, mugs, caps, banners, and currently masks, as well as imported gift items.
“I saw it as an opportunity to serve the business community and local residents, providing products they yearned to have,” said Bruce, who also viewed it as a chance to bring to a new venture skills he learned from running a Roxbury flower shop for 24 years until it closed in 2009.
Bruce said he realizes this is not an ideal time to launch a new store, but he said neither that nor the competition he faces from large nearby retailers worries him.
“I like the pressure,” he said, adding that his goals are modest. “I am very practical. I don’t want all the business. To me it’s not just about the money. I enjoy what I do, providing good services.”
Bruce, who is not yet breaking even, said he also believes some of his business strategy — which includes pursuing a goal of having 60 percent of his sales online, and hiring larger printing firms to handle his major orders — should help the North Main Street store succeed.
“I have a lot of support,” he added, noting that some of the loyal customers from his former flower shop have begun visiting his new store.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.