Small Business v. Pandemic

Last week, I wrote about my favorite places to get a latte in Baltimore. Earlier this week, I wrote about “The Last Dance” from ESPN. Today, I’m writing about something arguably more important. I hate to say “more important”, so let me just say that this week’s topic is a < b r o a d e r > theme. One that very much applies to the coffee shops I cherish — small business.

This morning, I went for a bike ride around Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor, and the Under Armour Headquarters in Locust Point. On that ride, I listened to two episodes of Erika Nardini’s (CEO of Barstool Sports) new podcast, Token CEO. The 10-minute podcast offers a rundown of Nardini’s quarantine daily routine, some good things, future outlooks, and lots of honesty.

Of the two episodes I listened to, one focused on the current constraints that most of us are facing — closed storefronts, working from home, limited resources, etc. The second focused on how businesses are planning to make money during a pandemic — businesses that are closed, businesses that have fragile supply chains, businesses ready to take on additional market share, etc. Both episodes, clearly very relevant. 

As I was finishing my ride, a third episode began with Frankie Borelli and his father. They were beginning to discuss how the world’s current health and economic climate is impacting small business — their small business. Full disclosure, I paused the episode less than 30 seconds into the conversation and carried my bike upstairs. Before I listen, I wanted to put down some words about what I’m thinking and feeling about small business.

Small business is very important to myself, and the rest of my family. If you’re reading this (and you’ve made it to the third paragraph), I would wager that that you already knew that. When we’re not in a global pandemic, I spend my days at Baltimore T-Shirt Company, a business my dad has worked to build over the course of nearly 10 years.

237 Main Street in Reisterstown, MD — this building has been a hardware store, antique store, and no doubt many other businesses before becoming the home of BTC. At the time of purchase, we were one of the few interested parties who had no interest in demolishing the building for the lot. Being an existing local business, voilah!

Neither, my dad nor I would ever argue with BTC being considered “non-essential.” In fact, for as long as I can remember, one of my dad’s most impactful quotes has been, “there is no such thing as a t-shirt emergency.” There really isn’t. All of this said, this is a very hard time for us, as well as other neighborhood small businesses across Maryland, the U.S., and around the world.

Despite being able to work with customers through email from home, fulfilling orders with a one-man printing team, and shipping all orders, we’ve seen the impact. As a business, we know everyone is looking to cut costs. We know that some of our customers are looking elsewhere. Probably to a large online corporate printer (you know the one – 🐙) that are able to drastically cut their margins in times like this. Cuts far deeper than a small business would ever be able to make. I don’t write this to shame those people. Why would I waste the keystrokes on something like that? I write this only because 1) it’s a ~sort of~ calming mental exercise and 2) maybe, just maybe, there are still people that don’t see the impact of small business in their communities.

“there is no such thing as

a t-shirt emergency.”

Steve Sherfey

Surely, this too shall pass. Right? But when it does, what will be left? We won’t emerge from this hibernation to the same world. We have been in business for nearly 10 years. The Borellis have been in business for 65 years. We will be ok — you can believe that when this is over, we will be as involved as ever with our community. We’ll sponsor local recreation programs, donate to schools, and work with other small business owners. But what about the others? How about restaurants? Or the coffee shops we love? Unless you’ve been under a rock (may or may not be a good hiding place from COVID-19) for the past month, you’ve read some sort of article on restaurant margins and the mounting challenges for these businesses.

The Small Business Administration has put together important funding through the Paycheck Protection Program to help people in those shoes. Unfortunately, while the PPP was designed to help companies with less than 500 employees, we’ve watched companies such as Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris, and Shake Shack suck up $40 million worth of the fund (PPPlease Fund, Morning Brew). Crazy, right? Some of the companies in question have more than 10,000 employees and have annual revenue amounting to over $100M. Whew!

These behemoth chains haven’t been the only trouble…

Screenshot from Morning Brew newsletter.
Image and Snippet via Morning Brew
Ben Popken and Stephanie Ruhle, NBC News
Hugh Son, CNBC

Ok, ok… Got away from myself for a paragraph, or so. I’m hereby subscribing to that whole “worry about what you can control” thing. What can I do? What can I control? I can read the news, have an opinion, and move on. What can BTC do? What can BTC control? We can continue to weather the storm, provide our customers with the best possible service/products, and make preparations for a return to “normal.” Whatever “normal” may mean.

To bring this full-circle, I can relate this back to Token CEO in two ways. Introducing some much needed focus…

“…current constraints that most of us are facing — closed storefronts, working from home, limited resources, etc… how businesses are planning to make money during a pandemic — businesses that are closed, businesses that have fragile supply chains, businesses ready to take on additional market share, etc…”

Erika Nardini, Token CEO

We are all of the above (quote), but it’s time to start planning how to make money after the pandemic too. We have limited resources, as do most small businesses. Comparing our resources to big business is out of the question. Like Under Armour, our offices are empty. While we are similar in this one single way, we are different in infinite ways. We are not, for example, a publicly traded company… Nor do we have the capital to launch large-scale campaigns to attract hoards of customers.

Post-pandemic, we’ll probably be looking to formalize our online presence — something that often falls to the wayside for small businesses. What are our goals on social media? Should our site include an online store? Would an email newsletter help us stay connected with customers? These are all questions we are asking. They probably all deserve some attention.

While I had no idea that this is the destination I had intended when I decided to sit down and write, this is where I’ve landed. Before I stray any further off track, it’s probably as good a time as any to go check out that conversation between Nardini and the Borellis.

*** If you haven’t heard this 5984372 times before, or even if you have, don’t forget… Shop small. Shop local. Buy a gift card, order takeout, or pay $6.00 for a cold brew — Starbucks would have been $5.75 anyway.


I listened to the Borellis’ episode. They are good people. Don’t take it from me though. Give it a listen yourself. I promise you can find 10 minutes in your busy day of sitting on the couch, eating, and wandering around your dining room table.