How alumni business owners are weathering the COVID-19 storm

by Chuck Gordon

When North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper implemented a stay-at-home order at the end of March, Adam Reed (’06 MBA) didn’t take a few days off to consider his options. He leapt in with both feet, knowing he’d figure it out as he went along.

Reed kept his fine-dining restaurant – Sante, in downtown Matthews – open for business. He posted a daily menu on social media and wound up doing a brisk takeout/delivery business. Reed, a New York-trained chef who got his MBA to help him run Sante better, even flexed his entrepreneurial chops. He turned the front of his restaurant into a Saturday-morning mini-market, selling meat and fish, vegetables, honey, mixers, wine, even toilet paper. The market gave local vendors a place to sell their wares and put a little extra in Reed’s pocket along the way.“We actually did more revenue during April and May than we did during that time period last year,” Reed says.

Now that North Carolina has cautiously entered phase 2 of reopening and Reed has started serving customers in his dining room again, his business has, counterintuitively, suffered. “We were actually making more money being closed than being open,” he says. “It’s a kick in the pants.”

Reed and other Wingate alums have been navigating the strange economics of the coronavirus for the past few months. Some have grasped at straws (and PPP loans). Others have adapted on the fly. All have pined for the good old days.

Brandon Crumpton in front of a stage

Brandon Crumpton (’03) runs one of the top entertainment and events businesses in Charlotte, and 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year. His Key Signature Entertainment is on retainer with Mecklenburg County to put on shows in Romare Bearden Park, he annually produces three jazz festivals in Freedom Park, and he handles all the acts for the four-day Matthews Alive festival each year. Between festivals, corporate events and weddings, he’s normally working almost every weekend from March through October.

Right now? Crumpton has had more than 75 events canceled, and that doesn’t even count Matthews Alive, for which he hadn’t completed the entertainment schedule. That would add 40 acts to his “canceled” tally.

And then there’s the Republican National Convention, a massive potential source of income that is now off the table, after Cooper was unable to provide the GOP with assurances that 20,000 people would be able to pack Charlotte’s Spectrum Arena safely in August. Key Signature made its name in 2012 when the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte – Crumpton’s company handled several delegate parties and all of CarolinaFest – and the RNC was a potential bonanza.

COVID-19 has erased all of Crumpton’s business. He’s teamed up with other local events companies to showcase artists digitally, but the return has been minuscule. For March, April and May, Key Signature brought in revenues equal to “maybe one percent of what we would have been doing,” Crumpton says. “Which is basically zero.”

Despite the lack of business, Crumpton, a music business major at Wingate, has remained solvent – for now. He applied quickly for a Small Business Administration loan and hasn’t had to lay off either of his full-time employees. And, he says, he’s a habitual saver. “I’ve always put money away for a rainy day,” Crumpton says, “and that rainy day came. Right now we’re surviving on money we made years ago.”

How long that can continue he doesn’t know, but a little help from the governor would be welcome. Crumpton says he understands the initial stay-at-home order and many of the other restrictions still in place in phase 2. But it’s frustrating for him to see restaurants opening at 50 percent capacity while his bread-and-butter events remain shuttered.

“Do I think people should pack Bank of America stadium? No. That’s a bad idea,” he says. “But can you have a couple of hundred folks at a large, outdoor field spread out? You can.”

Below-par spring

Billy (’99) and Dayna Irby (’00) were more fortunate when North Carolina entered phase 2. Their side business, Lake Norman Mini Golf, was allowed to reopen in early May, and business has been brisk, Billy says.

“That first weekend was kind of slow, and so we were a little apprehensive about, ‘Did we open too soon? Are people not comfortable getting out?’” Billy says. “But by that next weekend, it was starting to pick up. I feel really good about the summer, just looking at the traffic counts for June.”

Billy and Dayna Irby at Lake Norman Mini Golf

To get ready to welcome customers back, the Irbys had to make minimal changes to their operations, mainly cleaning the equipment more often, adding hand-sanitizer stations, putting out decals promoting social distancing and limiting groups to no more than six people.

But minigolf is an outdoor activity anyway, and their course is spread over more than two acres, so social distancing is naturally occurring.

The Irbys both work full-time jobs, but Billy earned a business degree from Wingate, with an emphasis in marketing, and they’ve always operated some type of business on the side.

While searching for a tire business to buy a couple of years ago, they stumbled on the minigolf operation for sale. “On a whim we went up there and visited it,” Billy says. “We just kind of fell in love with it.”

Minigolf appeals especially to kids, but the Irbys have taken a different approach to the business, getting an ABC permit in order to serve alcohol and recently adding axe-throwing lanes. Their biggest customer base is still families, but they’ve marketed Lake Norman Mini Golf as a great place for a date night or a corporate outing.

For now the birthday parties are gone, but with a Paycheck Protection Program loan and the business that has trickled back in, Billy believes they’ll be able to make it.

Of course, a second wave of COVID-19 – and the number of cases is on the rise in North Carolina over the past three weeks – could throw businesses for a loop again. Billy says that if a second wave occurs once the weather cools off in late fall, Lake Norman Mini Golf will be fine, since they’re typically closed in the winter anyway.

Of course, the first wave was bad enough. “We’re fortunate that we still have full-time jobs, but the impact was still pretty significant financially,” Billy says.

Still cooking

Reed could also make a second stay-at-home order work, considering how he handled it the first time around. There have been ups and downs, but Reed says he never had to lay anyone off, and at times he’s been at full strength.

“We were jamming in the kitchen,” he says. “There were nights I needed four people on the line on a Saturday night. It was unbelievable.”

Adam Reed in front of his restaurant, Sante

Reed is fortunate in one respect: He owns the building that houses his restaurant and has already paid off the mortgage. Restaurants that rent their space – and that’s the norm, not the exception – are in a different boat.

Reed says he knows of about 10 restaurants that have closed for good in the past couple of months. Other businesses, such as the Manor Theater in Charlotte, have also shut their doors permanently, and longtime local music venues are trying to hang on by raising money through GoFundMe campaigns.

“Honestly, I wasn’t nervous about our business,” Reed says. “We own the building. We don’t owe anybody any rent. A lot of people, I don’t know how they’re going to make it.”

Even for Reed it’s been hard work. He has always used as many local ingredients as possible and likes to change up his menu periodically. But the availability of supplies has been especially unpredictable during the pandemic, which means he’s had to be even more creative than usual.

“It was like a battle every day,” Reed says. “The hardest part was probably managing the proteins coming in for entrees. There was a time around Mother’s Day where proteins were drying up. It was time to pivot again. ‘This week, we’re going to focus on vegetarian food.’ We still were successful, still generating the revenue.”

Fingers crossed business will return to normal soon, for everyone.

“I miss being outside and interacting with people and just seeing the fruits of our labor,” Crumpton says.

June 15, 2020