Businesses Survive During a Pandemic

Key Words of Advice: Ask Questions, Budget, Be Patient, Keep Your Customers Happy

Vanessa Joy Domingo

Local businesses across the island face the predicament of adjusting to the effecs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maui favorites such as Poi by the Pound and Da Kitchen are restaurants that closed their doors due to the economic woes brought upon by COVID-19. Businesses in Lahaina and Pā‘ia are shuttered.

There are, however, local businesses still steadily making their way through.

After three months waiting for her truck, and four more months to get over the fear of COVID-19, Glory Bangasan finally snapped out of that mindset, and started her business.
Photo courtesy Glory Bangasan

Glory Bangasan has been aiming to also spread happiness and cheer during the pandemic with her foodtruck, DÔLISH. Her colorful trailer sits in Mā‘alaea, eager to spread dolishious happiness of edible cookie dough, Roselani ice cream, frappuccinos, coffee and cheese tea with monthly menu changes. “I really felt that my colorful, sweet li’l trailer could bring happiness to our Maui community during these uncertain times. I was happy to know that my Maui community could try my goodies first,” said Glory.

Her travels and love for food were a source of inspiration for her food truck. After encountering edible cookie dough in places like New York, Portland, Las Vegas and San Francisco, she was hooked. In Portland she visited The Cookie Dough Café—a business that received a deal through the show Shark Tank. After visiting the shop and finding its white walls and quiet atmosphere to be disappointing, she began thinking of her utilizing her culinary degree to create her own cookie dough business. She went back to school and joined the Maui Food Innovation Culinary Center at University of Hawai‘i Maui College to learn about starting a food business on Maui and conducted her research on finding the best ingredients for her menu. “I try my best to be different,” Glory explains. “I am the only business on Maui that serves Cheese Tea. A 24-hour cold brewed tea, flavor of the month syrup and a cream cheese fluff. It’s a spin on a milk tea. Huge Trend in Asia. Especially in Japan right now.” She followed all the latest food trends to build a menu of fun and unique items that her customers could enjoy. Another fun item she created is her Pog Boba Slushy, the only one of its kind on Maui.

Dôlish is the only business on Maui that serves Cheese Tea.
Photo courtesy Glory Bangasan

After being three months behind on the build of her food truck, it was finally delivered to her in March—one week before the COVID-19 shut-down and stay at home order for the State of Hawai‘i was in effect. “My trailer sat on my parents’ property for four months. Businesses were closing and yet I was planning to open up shop. I was scared, fearful and at times depressed not knowing what the future held. I snapped out of that mindset real quick. I saw opportunity. There weren’t many places open to eat or dine and I figured that it’s now or never. I have friends in the food truck business and they said they were having record days in sales in May. In June, I came across a parking spot for rent at the Maui Golf & Sports Park in Mā‘alaea. I decided to sign a lease and planned to open on August 1st. For me, I felt it was a safer time to open. Maui County has had few cases of COVID-19 cases and I felt like we’ve become used to taking precautions and social distancing.”

She did have concerns of how opening her business during the pandemic would affect her, her family and her revenue. She and her family would be at risk of contracting COVID-19 while serving their community. Her business was at risk. Would they have a successful opening? With people losing their jobs and being under financial stress still purchase her products? Was her location too tourist-driven and out of the way for locals? Despite all her concerns, she was proved wrong.

Glory’s piece of advice comes from her journey of venturing into the unknown during COVID-19. “You don’t need to have everything figured out to get your business started. Know the core basics to get your business going, some things you can learn as you go. Know what you’re good at and use resources for the things you’re not good at. Ask a lot of questions.”

B Sales Trucking Excavation, Plumbing, & Pumping Services has gradually added more equipment.
Photo courtesy Bobby Sales

B Sales Trucking Excavation, Plumbing, & Pumping Services was established in 2004 by Bobby Sales and his wife Fely. It has grown throughout the years, offering more services as they obtain more equipment. Their services include pumping cesspools, septic tanks and grease traps; plumbing service repairs that include hydro jet services and plumbing line location and installation and renovations of plumbing systems.

Although their services would be perceived as essential for homes and commercial businesses to operate properly, their workload has slowed down. “Our revenue has dropped about 30%. We used to have to work seven days a week to complete jobs and keep up with the workload. We feel fortunate that even if we’ve slowed down, we guarantee our employees full time hours and haven’t had to lay anyone off,” said their son Bryan. With the pandemic, they have been cautious about sanitizing and utilizing face masks and staying on top of local news for COVID-19 updates.

Photo courtesy Bobby Sales
Although business has declined due to the Pandemic, the business has not applied for any Federal money.
Photo courtesy Bobby Sales

Earlier in the year, the company planned to obtain new equipment—a service truck and an excavator. With the decrease in revenue they experienced, however, the company decided to hold off on those plans. Bryan knows his Dad views the equipment they obtain as business milestones and reflections of the hard work they have accomplished. And he’s right. “I’m proud of being a plumber and becoming a contractor and building my business so I can offer more services,” said Bobby. He is hoping to pass the business on to his children. “I hope they are better than me when they take over the business in the future. I want to see them be successful. I want them to learn now.” As they’ve grown, he’s involved his children—Bryan, Fayma and Faylin into learning the ropes of the business. Bryan has taken an active role with being onsite and supervising employees, Fayma has been maintaining accounts and Faylin assists her mom Fely with billing and invoicing.

As a family, they decided not to seek government assistance or apply for the grants made available through the CARES Act. “No, we didn’t apply. At some point, we’ll have to worry about paying back that money and we’re doing good. Plus, a lot of our jobs have been sourced from ‘word-of-mouth’ recommendations,” explained Bryan. They do run into families struggling because of the pandemic but are in need of their plumbing services. “I try to help them if can, kind of hard when you see how these families are struggling and we get customers that cry because of stress with paying for their bill. But we try to meet them halfway.” Bryan’s piece of advice for Filipino business owners: “Be aware of how you spend your money. Budgeting makes all the difference.”

Melen Magbual Agcolicol of Copy Services is shown here with her family during a recent Gintong Pamana Leadership & Scholarship Awards ceremony.
Photo: Ceasar Lizada

Melen Magbual Agcolicol has also had to assess their finances to survive the pandemic. She received funds from PUA—Pandemic Unemployment Assistance made available through the CARES Act. “Collecting PUA—it’s helped me. It’s not enough but it does offset our business costs. It gives me some relief to know that I have help to pay our bills.”

She and her husband Mike opened their Copy Services shop in 1992. At the time, Mike was working full-time and Melen had the idea of opening Copy Services to provide for her family and also care for her two sons at the time. “Being a mother, I wanted a way to work for myself and take care of my kids at the same time. I had a crib and everything here. Mike would come in during his lunch hour from work to take over and let me breastfeed my boys in the back of the shop.” Since then, she has been able to provide for her family and fund her kids’ college education. She feels fortunate their business provided them with financial stability for her family throughout the years. “This is our bread and butter,” she says proudly.

This year, however, is rough. “We’ve had about a 50% decrease in revenues compared to last year. There are two components to our business. The drafting and design that Mike takes care of and the printing, which I manage. Drafting and design has been unaffected revenue wise. It has however, slowed down the process of our orders. Owners might not have the money to move forward with their plans due to COVID. These drafting plans must be on hold because of this. Printing wise—we were really affected. A lot of my copying jobs involved making booklets and mass printing projects for events. Some of the booklets that I’ve made are for events that were cancelled because of the pandemic. I also do mass copies for flyers and things like that for sports—but even that has been put on hold. The workload has decreased a lot. Our market has been limited and I feel that there’s no other way around it and there’s not much that we can do.”

Melen still finds ways to keep busy and have positivity during this economic downtime. She assists families with their unemployment compensation applications. “There’s families out there that do not have computer access. I don’t charge. I just want to help them.” Her advice for Filipinos with small business: “Just hang in there. Keep tight and hopefully by January, we’ll have a bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Tia Trotter of Geeky Mama Studios sales has actually increased during this time of Pandemic.
Photos courtesy Tia Trotter

Tia of Geeky Mama Studios was determined to find that bright light of success for her business. Geeky Mama Studios was established in October 2018 by Tia Trotter and is a creative agency on Maui providing digital support services for business owners, entrepreneurs and creatives. They cover graphic design services, website design & development and social media management training.

“COVID-19 has affected my business like many other businesses; it has forced me to get creative in figuring out how to still offer my services, still drive sales, while under guidelines. I have pivoted my workshops and gatherings to smaller attendees in person as well as hosting virtual events,” said Tia. “I did apply for the CARES Act loan and received minimal funding.”

“With the new COVID-19 protocols, I have had to restructure my community workshops and events to smaller groups or virtual events or meetings. One pivot that has occurred directly from COVID-19 is my newly launched 6-week in-person Social Media Training Course. Instead of my normally scheduled three hour social media workshops that are usually filled with anywhere from 30-50 in attendance, I have shifted my focus to work with smaller groups (9 seats limit) over a 6-week course. We are just finishing our first course training and really enjoyed the 1-to-1 connections that have been formed over this course!”

Her business operation adjustments have been worthwhile—resulting in a little over than 50% increase in revenue in comparison to last year. She has kept her focus on growing and building her business despite the circumstances and she intends to continue doing so as it is the sole source of income for her and her family.

“One of my greatest milestones that I achieved with Geeky Mamas Studios has to be that I have been able to grow my business from nothing to now earning 6-figure revenues in just two short years of business! And I now can afford to employ a small staff and growing!”

Her secret? “My advice for Filipinos with small businesses or any business owners during this pandemic time would be to have grace and patience for themselves and their businesses. Understand that we are ALL in difficult and challenging times for all business owners. Take time to work on parts of your business that during ‘normal’ operating hours you as a business owner could never get to! And of course, more than ever, if your business does not have a digital presence like a website, social media accounts, or a digital marketing strategy, get to it quick! The world is and has officially gone ‘viral’ creating your business online whether it is just a way for your customers to contact you is a MUST!” And of course, if you need help with getting your business up to date, she can definitely point you in the right direction.

Listening to her customers is a great strength of Leonida Salaguinto’s successful JMA Imports business.
Photo courtesy Leonida Salaguinto

Leonida Salaguinto and her husband Herman know a thing or two about going in the right direction. They opened in 2000 selling furniture and figurines and switched to food items in 2012. Their business—JMA Imports is named after their children—Junior (Herman, Jr.), Michelle and Arnel. Over the years, they’ve listened to their customers and provided the imported frozen fish and Filipino goods, and fresh produce requested. “Our greatest achievement is just being able to make our customers happy. We’ve been able to sell our produce and products in a short amount of time. They don’t last too long in the store.”

Because they are so attuned to their customers’ needs, they have seen an increase of 25% in revenue in comparison to last year. “I’m surprised. We are busier. But I realized with people staying home, they have time to cook. Everybody’s into cooking now. So, they’re always coming to the store to get the ingredients that they need.” They have been busy stocking their store with ingredients for almost every Filipino quarantine recipe—puto, bibingka, ube pan de sal, ensemada, and empanada.

“We offer wholesale pricing for people that end up buying ingredients by the case. I’ve seen a lot of that because they are trying to cook or bake as a home business and generate income.” At times, she becomes their customer too. “I support my customers. I’ll also buy the items that they make. Once a week, I’ll buy something to try it out. Just today, I bought four bags of empanadas for my kids, grandkids, and workers. We like to enjoy it.” She knows times have been tough for some of her shoppers and does her best to help them if she can.

Surprisingly, her hot items are marinated bangus from the Philippines and bagoong. “We’ve had to order one whole container of just bagoong. That’s 1,000 boxes in that container. The bangus from the Philippines is what my customers request. They like the flavor and the taste compared to brands from other countries like Thailand.”

And if you haven’t already guessed, her number one piece of advice is solely about the customer. “Make your customers happy and be willing to negotiate,” she says.

With grit and positivity, it looks like these Filipino-owned businesses are determined to thrive.

Vanessa Joy Domingo is a graduate of Maui High School and is employed with the County of Maui – Department of Management, IT Services and Coldwell Banker as a Realtor. She and her husband Mark Domingo also made the same leap with going into business during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, their marriage has survived their business partnership. Their piece of advice for Filipino Business owners is: Keep pushing towards your goals!