Think back to just over a year ago: empty streets, shuttered businesses, layoffs, furloughs and widespread fear of a virus we knew little about — so many struggles at that moment. One group that faced some unique challenges were small business owners.
Vermont Small Business Development Center advisor Deborah Boudrieau put it this way: “Suddenly, every business in the country, in the world actually got a new CEO, and his name or her name or their name was COVID.”
Boudrieau’s organization helps business owners at many different stages. And she says COVID is a terrible CEO: “They’re mercurial and difficult, and they don't go away and they make terrible decisions.”
But that's what every business had to deal with: navigating shutdowns, changing public health rules, federal assistance programs. All of that added a layer of complexity to the already complicated job of running a small business. And a lot of entities didn't make it.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many Vermont businesses closed for good over the last year. According to the secretary of state's office, a little more than 2,500 entities ended their registration with the state between March 2020 and April 2021. But the pandemic also presented an opportunity.
“Vermonters are really sort of entrepreneurial by nature, in a way,” Boudrieau said. “You know, they like to take care of themselves. And so sometimes, it's just that opportunity of, you've been thinking about it for a long time. And now here it is, because you've been sort of, in a way, forced to do it by circumstance.”
In fact, according to the Tax Department, slightly more new businesses registered to pay taxes in the state over the past year than in any of the previous three years, about 5,200 new businesses in total. That's about 100 more than the year before.
And Linda Rossi, who's Deborah Boudrieau’s boss and head of the Vermont Small Business Development Center, expects that to continue.
“Vermont, I think, is poised to look really good, in terms of the pandemic, as an attractive place to live and to start and run a business, because of how our numbers have looked during the pandemic,” Rossi said. “So, a little too early to tell, but I would say at the end of this year, we'll be able to look back and see higher numbers of businesses started.”
So who are those business owners who've taken the leap during this chaotic pandemic year? We're going to hear some of their stories over the next few weeks. We'll hear from business owners who've started something new, taken over an existing business or substantially changed their operation. The trendy word for that is “pivoting.”
We start with Erica and Ed McClain. The couple are owners and operators of Hangry The Donut Bar.
“Hangry started right before the pandemic, actually,” Erica said.
“Like, maybe two weeks, we started before everything shut down,” Ed added.
The McClains live in St. Albans. They moved up from Florida about six years ago. Their idea to start a doughnut company goes back a few years, to when Erica was visiting New York City. She had a craving for doughnuts and found some at a place called the Doughnut Project.
“And so I went in, I brought some home to Ed because I was like, ‘Ed, these are so good!’ I was like, ‘Honey, I think this is it. I think this is what I could do,’” she said.
“And she’s always been a baker, but she’d never tried doughnuts,” Ed said.
Erica says making her own doughnuts took lots of trial and error — and praying. But by mid-March of 2020, she and Ed were ready to take their sweets to the public.
“We actually were supposed to be in the St. Albans St. Patrick's Day parade as our debut, and like, the pandemic hit and that got canceled,” Erica said. "So we were like, “Oh, what are we going to do?’ And so we put up a Facebook ad, on Facebook Marketplace, like, ‘Hey, does anyone want to buy doughnuts?’ And we ended up meeting this guy at the Mobile gas station here in St. Albans, and he was our first customer. And it just kind of spiraled from there. Just like, word of mouth and amazing people.”
That word of mouth led them to their business model, which launched in the spring of 2020: doughnuts made in their home kitchen, delivered directly to customers. And while their doughnuts were almost immediately popular, it wasn't an easy start.
“And we had a lot of failures,” Ed said. “The first time we had a big kind of weekend was like Mother's Day of last year. And I mean, we were up for like three days prepping because this is a long process, it’s not like a quick process to make a dozen doughnuts. And everything is hand-cut. And I want to say we started actually delivering it probably about 7 a.m., and we didn't finish until almost 11 p.m.”
Keep in mind, this is a side project for the McClains. Erica works for the public defender's office, and Ed is in welding school. And at first they were making contactless deliveries to individual houses all over northwestern Vermont.
“The business started increasing and it became more increasing on the car,” Erica said.
Last year, she and Ed said, they put 12,000 miles on their car “on just doughnuts.”
As word spread, the McClains say it just wasn't possible to get to every house that ordered doughnuts. So they devised a plan to meet people at park and ride lots.
“That right there changed everything, because we were able to deliver twice as many doughnuts, you know, to people, and we were able to get ‘em to ‘em fresher,” Ed said.
And that freshness is key. Erica says she holds her baking to a high standard.
“We both grew up in a very like, food-oriented family,” she said. “Down south, food is it, and if your food is nasty, you will get talked about. That’s a thing, you know. I think about it, I’m like, ‘Oh, my parents are going to have to taste this one day. What are they going to think?’ You know, our dream with Hangry is to have people come to Vermont just to, like, try this, and then they'll fall in love with it like we did.”
The McClains' doughnuts are very popular, and they’re still baking out of their home kitchen. They say they’re on the lookout for ways to expand.
“We're trying to get a food truck,” Erica said. “That's our next venture. Just kind of getting it out of here, because our kitchen is very tiny.”
“You know, it would definitely be nice when we're able to move out,” Ed added. “It'll be a food truck, and maybe later on we could open up a storefront. We're still trying to figure things out.”
The pair both work full-time on top of their doughnut business, and as Ed points out, they “don’t get a lot of sleep.”
“Yeah, it's been challenging, like we've had our moments,” Erica said. But, you know, we just come from a background where we are used to working very hard, especially to get the things that you want in life. You know, it is definitely so much more rewarding having this knowing like, hey, we put our true blood, sweat and tears into this. And, you know, we truly accomplished something that I definitely didn't think was going to get this big... I was like, ‘What? Us?’”
Next in our series, we'll hear from another baker, one who went from getting laid off to starting up her own baked goods delivery business in a matter of days.
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