New Norms, New Possibilities: During these unprecedented times, small businesses need to pivot and adapt more than ever. Many gyms are doing virtual workouts, many restaurants and retail shops are offering curbside pickups. Online has been the new normal for meetings, buying products, and providing services. However, what about entertainment businesses? What are they doing to stay ahead of the game to be able to offer their product to the public? Wunderbar, a new LGBTQ bar and theatre near Armory Square, was forced to close on the one-year anniversary of their soft opening.
Wunderbar is a radically inclusive space that celebrates LGBTQ+ people and supports the development and sustainability of local artists. They advocate for the intersectionality of all people and encourage everyone, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, to come, connect and strengthen the cultural economy in Syracuse.
On March 16, 2020 it was with a heavy heart that Tanner Efinger and Nicholas West, co-owners of Wunderbar, laid off their staff with the promise to re-hire everyone as soon as they could. But with no idea how long the closure would last, mounting bills and wastage, just to name a few of the immediate challenges, the promise to re-hire staff was one they only hoped they could keep.
Within days Efinger donated all perishable goods to ACR Health and set up a GoFundMe campaign to support their staff. With the generous help of loyal customers, friends and family, Wunderbar sent a total of $2000 to their employees in Wegmans gift cards over four weeks. “This was one small thing we could do,” says West. “It took over a month for many of our staff to get on unemployment and we wanted to help bridge that gap.” They also began a campaign to add support for the LGBTQ community and will launch a queer library to their space, already receiving donations of over eighty books.
In times like these, businesses need to consider all opportunities. In Wunderbar’s case, Upstate Medical’s PrEP Program reached out to see how they could provide support, having worked together last summer during CNY Pride. In partnership, the two developed a series of sponsored Instagram Live videos which disseminates sex education and information to the LGBTQ community during quarantine. This brought in a different revenue source for Wunderbar, one that was not there pre pandemic. This new revenue source will continue throughout the reopening phase and hopefully grow into new patron awareness as well. A concept that would not have been possible if the pandemic didn’t occur. A concept that now brings in additional revenue and additional awareness of their business.
Efinger and West then applied for and were successful in obtaining two loans, one from SEDCO (Syracuse Economic Development Corporation) and another from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Efinger laughed, “Someone give the folks over at the city a high-five, because we would not have been able to reopen if it were not for these programs.”
With the ability to reopen as soon as quarantine lifts and the resources to hire back their staff, Efinger and West are feeling a little more relaxed. Efinger first came into SBDC in the summer of 2018 seeking support in developing a business plan, and has visited SBDC often over the past year, including during this most recent challenge of COVID-19.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Efinger said. “What happens next is the real test.”
In its first year, Wunderbar made the majority of its profit on big dance parties and large event hires. But with social distancing still in place and no vaccine against coronavirus, Wunderbar needs to turn a big profit to make up for months of lost income, but also wants to be part of the long-term solution to ending coronavirus.
Enter Julie Leone, stage right. Leone is the owner of 443 Social Club, which opened around the same time as Wunderbar. Seeking ideas for how to move forward, Efinger reached out to Leone who was preparing to reopen with a considerably new approach. 443 Social Club is focused on showing their guests that they are safe, clean and taking social distancing seriously. Among other ideas, they are replacing upholstered furniture with easy-to-sanitize chairs and tables which will be spread well apart for practical distancing. Servers will wear face shields instead of masks, “so that you can see them smiling,” said Leone.
And Wunderbar is following suit. To encourage guests to stay at their tables, Wunderbar has moved to cocktail service only for the time being, with servers wearing face shields. The first floor, including two bar areas, and sizeable black box theatre, is transformed into a wonderland of 17 small-party tables, largely available by reservation only. Their lush furniture has been replaced by practical tables and chairs, which are spaced further apart so it is easy to keep to your space with your small party.
Each table will connect to an LGBTQ person from history. For example, one table for a maximum of two guests is decorated with one hundred silk green carnations representing Oscar Wilde, which famously he wore on his lapel in 1895 while standing on trial for homosexuality (“gross indecency”). You can read all about this on the plaque at your private table. If you’re there on a dance night with a local DJ, each table will be equipped with its own private dance space, and they will occasionally take over the parking lot to allow for larger events where everyone can safely distance with air circulation. To support local artists, their programming will feature resourceful and inspired performances which can be seen both online and in-person – all at careful distances, using audio and visual effects.
During this time, Efinger and West have been looking more critically at the viability of their business which relies heavily on dance nights and large audiences for survival. They know that diversifying revenue streams and gathering community support will be fundamental during this time. To that end, Wunderbar plans to integrate their online efforts with Upstate Medical’s PrEP Program into more regular programming as well as develop healthy symbiotic relationships with other large organizations in Syracuse with shared interests and goals.
The true success story of Wunderbar has yet to be written. Local businesses are pivoting quickly to meet these new demands, but whether any of this pivoting really works will rely completely on you, the consumer.
“Pride has been cancelled which is the biggest event of the year for us. Summer is traditionally quiet and who knows how long it will be before we can get back to normal. We received a few loans which will allow us to open, but we have to pay those loans back alarmingly soon. We’re going to be walking this tightrope for a while,” Efinger laughed nervously.
West and Efinger are like so many others throughout our community. They want to continue to do the good work they have been doing and with these changes, these pivots in their business they should be able to. Small businesses will have to promote health and safety like never before and with the collaborative efforts that these businesses have done, it appears that they will be paving the way for others. It is a time to work together and hear what other businesses are doing to stay alive. A little thing like a pandemic isn’t going to stand in the way of these two business owners from continuing to live out their dream of owning their own business. So please go out and support your local establishments once we are free to do so in a safe and healthy way.
Article published in the 'The Central New York Business Journal' on June 15, 2020
Melissa Zomro Davis is an Advanced NYS Certified Business Advisor at the Small Business Development Center located at Onondaga Community College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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