The Pandemic and the Small Family Business: Stories of Family Business Resilience

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The Pandemic and the Small Family Business: Stories of Family Business Resilience

Operating a small business has always been difficult in the San Francisco Bay Area. Staying in business for many years, or even decades, with consistent success and profitability is a constant struggle in one of the most expensive parts of the country.

When the pandemic hit, the small family-owned businesses in our community faced so many hurdles. Food establishments were forced to offer only take-out/delivery and build expensive outdoor areas to serve their customers (that may now need to be removed). Retail stores had to restrict access and protect customers and workers with plexiglass shields, masks, and social distancing. Many businesses had to adjust to working from home instead of the office, with Zoom becoming the most essential business tool. Business owners and their employees had to juggle work with childcare and home-schooling responsibilities. Increased social isolation had both physical and mental affects.

Now we are dealing with supply chain problems and many businesses are having a very hard time finding and/or keeping employees. The pandemic and its cascading affects continue. Yet through it all, small family-owned businesses have shown incredible resilience. They have demonstrated their ability to adjust, to flex, and to recover. They have responded effectively to new economic conditions and tapped into their family foundations to leverage their strengths, build on lessons learned and stay in business.

We want to recognize the resilience of the small family business! Here are a few of the amazing family businesses in our community. Some have been forced to reduce services and change directions but they have found ways to pivot, survive and even thrive. Here are six local family business owners’ stories of resilience!

Denise collins Aunt Anns In House Staffing Family Business USF Gellert

Denise Collins, Aunt Ann’s In-House Staffing

Years in business: 60+

Aunt Ann’s is a family-owned referral agency that specializes in matching professional childcare, household, and estate staff with families in the San Francisco Bay Area. The business began with Denise’s grandmother in 1958, transitioned to her mother and father, and then Denise, who became the third-generation owner 1982. Denise works closely with her sister, Sue, to manage the office, employees, and placements.

What happened to your business when the pandemic hit? Prior to the pandemic shutdown, our office upgraded all the technology that we use for our business. These upgrades made it possible to immediately pivot from a brick and mortar office to all of us working remotely from home once stay-at-home orders went into effect. Our landlord reduced our office rent by 50% and we received two PPP loans (both forgiven), which gave us a financial buffer.

How has being a family-owned business affected how you’ve navigated through the pandemic so far? Being a family-owned business hasn’t made much of a difference to how we’ve worked during the pandemic, as our business values and core beliefs remain unchanged. We put people ahead of profit in what we do. This was reflected in our business practices before the pandemic and during the pandemic. We treat all our office employees as if they are family and support each of them in their personal and professional lives. I created a financial compensation structure that generously rewards performance.

This is the 40th year that I have worked in the family business. Working with family – my sister Sue, my mom Sophie, and my dad Tom – has been and continues to be the best experience of my working career. I came to the family business after a prior career in customer service, marketing, and human resources. I brought my professional skills to the family business and was able to create a marketing and business plan for business growth. My family members supported my vision and allowed me to take the company in a new direction. It has been a gift to have the opportunity to own and guide a generational business for so many years.
 
How are you and your business doing now? There has been a huge demand for our services during the pandemic. Many people were looking for cooks, nannies, and housekeepers. Families sought nanny educators for learning pods and there was a high demand for nannies so that children could be cared for at home instead of going to daycare. We also experienced a large growth in our estate management services with chefs and estate managers in demand due to all the venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs in the SF Bay Area. We are enjoying a better work-life balance now that we are all working from home. My personal stress has decreased 100%! We will finalize our decision to continue working remotely in 2022 and we still have the option to return to brick and mortar. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to expand our business. Without it, we may not have had the same level of growth. 2021 has been our best year yet!

Any specific services to promote? We are not a job listing service. We meet our candidates and our clients and take the time to match the employer’s needs to the candidate’s needs. Our process includes an extensive application, personal interview, employment eligibility verification, confirmed references, and independent background checks. Our focus is on long-term placements but we also help with temporary and on-call hires. Visit our website to learn more about our services and see a complete list of domestic, childcare, estate, and private office positions we staff.

Gwen kaplan Ace Mailing Family Business USF Gellert

Gwen Kaplan,Ace Mailing

Years in business: 43

Located in the Mission District of San Francisco, Ace Mailing is a full-service direct marketing company offering list acquisition, database creation, management and maintenance, creative services, graphic design, printing, email and postal mail services, fulfillment, and warehousing. Ace Mailing’s clients range from large businesses and the federal government to small firms and non-profits. Gwen and her mother, Royce Dyer, started the business in 1977 and they were soon joined by Gwen’s husband, Steve, a graphic designer. Their sons Miles and Matt grew up with the business, working at Ace Mailing during the summers and after school. After graduating from college, they both joined the business full-time. Ace is widely recognized in the community for its humanitarian efforts in creating jobs for disadvantaged people and for its commitment to economic development programs. 

What happened to your business when the pandemic hit? Ace Mailing was considered an “official essential business” and remained in full operation during the pandemic. We continued to work with many of our existing clients and also attract new clients during the pandemic, as businesses needed to fully communicate by all media opportunities.

How has being a family-owned business affected how you’ve navigated through the pandemic so far? We look at our business as a three-legged stool. We each contribute our strengths to the business. Matt excels at graphics, printing, marketing, and sales. Miles excels at IT, business management, marketing, and sales. My sweet spot is sales, marketing and government and client relations. We each have our specialty areas and overlapping skill areas so that we can support each other. And all three of us can operate the machines! This is how we can be competent and results-oriented for our clients. The business has always been a team effort and that has continued throughout the pandemic.


How are you and your business doing now? Ace is doing well and we are on target with our business goals this year. We continue to stay very involved with Mission District merchant organizations and the Chamber of Commerce. We are proud to have been located in the Mission since 1983 and on the vibrant 16th Street corridor since 1986. Our hearts are in San Francisco and our deep roots are in the Mission! Our commitment is stronger than ever to create quality, sustainable jobs for our employees and support the community around us.

Any specific services to promote? We are list specialists and list brokers for postal and email marketing. Our goal is to drive traffic to your website and foot traffic to your location. For more information about our services, check out our website. To reach us directly, call me at 415-863-4223!

Deborah bowes Feldenkrais Movement and Awareness Family Business USF Gellert

Deborah Bowes,Feldenkrais Movement & Awareness

Years in business: 33

Deborah founded the Feldenkrais Center for Movement & Awareness in 1988 with Julie Casson Rubin to offer Feldenkrais lessons, classes and workshops to adults and children. Cliff Smyth joined the Center in 1996when he relocated from Melbourne, Australia.Deborah and Cliff have operated the business together since 1996. They are married with 2 adult children. The Center site in Glen Park closed in August 2020 due to the pandemic.

What happened to your business when the pandemic hit? It was a very stressful time. We could no longer offer in-person classes and workshops or see clients for individual Feldenkrais sessions. We didn’t know when or if we would be able to re-open safely. Our rent was high and all of our subcontracted staff left due to Covid. We weren’t sure if we should try to stay open, move to a smaller space or close the Center. In August 2020, we closed the Center in Glen Park and scrambled to move our teaching online. We put our equipment in a storage space and will clear that out in January 2021. I sublet a treatment room at Noe Integrative Health at 1199 Sanchez Street, to continue to work part-time and work with vaccinated clients. I shifted all my Feldenkrais teaching to Zoom in December 2021, and no longer have an in-person practice. Cliff decided to stop in-person work and he was able to increase his teaching hours at Saybrook University. We re-branded to Feldenkrais Movement & Awareness, dropping the word ‘Center’ from the business.

How has being a family-owned business affected how you’ve navigated through the pandemic so far?

We had so many discussions during walks in the park about income streams, how to pivot our business model, and manage the change to online work. We made agreements about who would do what to move everything online. We both took on tasks we didn’t like to do, for example, I improved my computer skills to find the appropriate software programs and learn to use them, and I consulted with other online business owners. Cliff managed the website updates and newsletter emails.

How are you and your business doing now? We loved our little Center and so did our students and clients. It was a special place, comfortable, and set up just the way we liked. It felt like a place for healing to happen. It was traumatic at first to make so many decisions and changes, not only for us, but for our students as well. Now we are all online, using Zoom, and it’s going smoothly and is satisfying, although quite different. I developed a successful collaboration with a burgeoning online Feldenkrais program. Since August 2020, I have developed 6 self-paced Feldenkrais learning courses that are hosted on www.movementandcreativity.com. These courses are very popular, and through this affiliation, I have increased my national and international student following. Cliff is a full-time professor at Saybrook University in the Department of Mind-Body Medicine teaching online. He also teaches a weekly Zoom Feldenkrais class.  

Any specific services to promote? Yes, you can go to our website to sign up for an online class and access our free recorded classes and guided meditations. Then you can visit my page on the Movement and Creativity website to learn about my courses for pain, pelvic floor issues and more. You can also find me on YouTube!

Edgar Barrios Painting Family Business USF Gellert edited

Edgar Barrios, Barrios Painting

Years in business: 22

Barrios Painting provides professional residential and commercial painting services to homeowners, businesses, designers, developers, and contractors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Founder Clodulfo Barrios established the company in 1999 after working for many painting and remodeling companies. Clodulfo slowly grew the business to about 20 employees, with his son Edgar working with him every Saturday and every summer starting at age 15. In 2011 Edgar became a licensed contractor and joined the family business as a co-owner.

What happened to your business when the pandemic hit? At first, we did not feel the impact. We had just started painting a new 40-unit building on Market and Gough Street and a Victorian house in Pacific Heights. Both jobs were big enough to have our teams work separately. We could avoid close contact for months. However, I began to notice that I was receiving less and less calls for estimates. I reached out to many clients and a lot of projects got put on hold or fell through all together. We felt the impact the most at the beginning of 2021 when we had almost no work for an entire month. 

How has being a family-owned business affected how you’ve navigated through the pandemic so far? The pandemic has made us appreciate one another more knowing that something like Covid could end our lives in a blink of an eye. My father got very sick with the virus and we almost lost him. I am so thankful that he has recovered and I can continue to work with him and learn from him.

How are you and your business doing now? Our family is doing a lot better. Our business is starting to pick up again and we are receiving more phone calls and have signed more contracts. It is almost like pre-Covid days. However, now we are dealing with supply chain issues, including paint and supply shortages, delays, and increased material costs of 20-30%.

Any specific services to promote? We are mainly a full interior, exterior, and custom cabinet painting company. We also do small remodels for clients including wood floor refinishing, adding/removing walls, drywall, siding, and trim. We like to plan these jobs in combination with painting when possible. Learn more about our services on our website, and give us a call for a free estimate: 415-424-2470.

Prerna Sethi Couture Family Business USF Gellert edited

Prerna Sethi, Sethi Couture

Years in business: 9

Sethi Couture was founded in 2012 in San Francisco by sisters Pratima and Prerna Sethi. They opened their first brick-and-mortar location in 2017. Raised by parents who are purveyors of rare and unusual diamonds, they were surrounded by exquisite stones at an early age. Growing up in California, the sisters took many trips to India to visit their grandmothers in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The combination of California’s nature-inspired motifs and intricate details of Indian architecture can be seen throughout their jewelry collection.

What happened to your business when the pandemic hit? The pandemic really impacted our momentum. We were in growth trajectory and suddenly everything halted. Our wholesale business which was dependent on tradeshows and travel took a big hit. Ultimately, we were unsure on how things would play out, but it forced us to be creative. We quickly pivoted to a digital presence and creating more digital content. We shifted our focus to ecommerce and heavily invested in our social media channels. We also found new ways to connect with our clients and created customized delivery services so that people could continue to celebrate special occasions with meaningful jewelry. Fortunately, although we had some soft sales in the beginning, we were able to quickly recover by the end of 2020. 2021 has been an exceptional year for us.

How has being a family-owned business affected how you’ve navigated through the pandemic so far? Being a family-owned business gives us the freedom to prioritize what we value. By this I mean ensuring that we invest in social causes important to us and making sure our teams and their families are taken care of during this challenging time. My sister and business partner has two young children and navigating through remote learning during the pandemic was challenging at first while running a business. We were able to lean on each other, however, and figure out efficient ways to manage our work while minimizing the impact the new normal had on her family. We also ensured our team could prioritized their well-being and their families during a challenging time for all families. Our business is doing well right now and in part, it is because we learned how to work more efficiently and focus on priorities.

How are you, your family, and your business doing now?  We have learned so much in the last two years from our community and each other. By having to look at our business more closely and identify strengths and weaknesses, we have been able to invest in the right areas and be more intentional in our growth plan. Things are going well!

Any specific products you would like to promote?  Our stacking rings are the most meaningful expression of our brand. Whether it is a sentimental reminder of a milestone in your life or a way to celebrate your personal journey, each Sethi Couture band tells a story of the past, the present, and the future that can be cherished every day. See our complete online store at sethicouture.com.

Jenny trotter Kibo Farm Family Business USF Gellert edited

Jenny Trotter, Kibo Farm

Years in business: 7

Husband and wife, Vince and Jenny Trotter grow mixed vegetables and tree fruit on their Sonoma County farm, selling primarily to restaurants and other wholesale customers throughout the Bay Area. They farm on the Belden Barns estate winery property on Sonoma Mountain outside of Santa Rosa, CA, and partner with Belden Barns to sell their pantry goods and cider direct to customers.

What happened to your business when the pandemic hit? We crop plan with restaurant partners and we were just getting ready to sow seeds when the pandemic hit. With restaurants closed or doing only take-out service we had to adjust our crop plan and reduce what we had planned to grow by about 50%. Because of the pandemic we decided not to hire seasonal employees.

How has being a family-owned business affected how you’ve navigated through the pandemic so far? It’s been both positive and negative. Being a husband-wife team has meant we haven’t had the same workplace safety worries related to the virus as other businesses with employees who must work in close proximity. But with schools closed last year, one of us always needed to be home with our son to manage his remote-learning and that put a strain on our business.

How are you and your business doing now? We are doing well. We sell the majority of our produce through the distributor/food hub FEED Cooperative. Before the pandemic, FEED sold exclusively to wholesale customers (restaurants, markets, and corporate kitchens) but made a quick pivot to selling produce directly to consumers during the pandemic. That quick shift helped small farms like ours stay viable in 2020. FEED is continuing its direct-to-consumer program and its wholesale customers are coming back. All the restaurants we work with closely have managed to stay in business. For us, 2021 has been our most profitable year yet! But farming is a very risky business and drought and wildfires are now an almost constant concern. So we must always prepare for future upsets to the business and mitigate risks wherever we can.

Any specific products to promote? We are excited about the cider, made from 25 varieties of heirloom apples plus pears and quince from our orchard. Also, our pantry goods (stone-ground polenta, heirloom beans, and popcorn) are perfect for the winter table and for sharing with friends and family as gifts. We encourage Bay Area folks to sign up to receive the multi-farm FEED Bin direct to your door – a $38.50 per week investment in our regional food system. FEED is California’s first farmer- and worker-owned fresh produce cooperative!


Paul Terry Headshot2Paul Terry is principal of Paul Terry & Associates, providing management consulting and training to small business owners and emerging entrepreneurs. Paul and his team specialize in business management transitions related to partnerships, joint ventures and exit or succession plans, and they work with many family businesses. Paul is also an experienced teacher of entrepreneurship, and has designed, coordinated and taught business planning classes for many years. Prior to Paul Terry & Associates, Paul owned and managed a wholesale distribution company and two retail food businesses. Paul has been honored with many awards over the years including the Small Business Advocate Award from the San Francisco Small Business Network, the Outstanding Service Award from Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, and Entrepreneurship Educator of the Year from Inc. Magazine, Ernst & Young, the Kauffman Foundation and Merrill Lynch.

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