October 1, 2020

How 6 Central Florida businesses are surviving in the pandemic

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the quarantine lifestyle has drastically affected many Central Florida small businesses that depend on people leaving their homes. A family-owned dry cleaner no longer receives piles of work clothes. The owner of tattoo shop has put his life savings into saving it. A pet sitter finds there is little need for her services as area residents work from home – and don’t travel.



a group of people sitting at a table in front of a building: Left to Right, Maria Aguilar and Elida Román work in one of the greenhouses at Central Florida Ferns in Zellwood, on Friday, September 4, 2020. rThe Zellwood nursery's profits are up this year despite the coronavirus pandemic. The reason? People are stuck at home and plants provide an affordable way to decorate a space plus have health benefits.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Left to Right, Maria Aguilar and Elida Román work in one of the greenhouses at Central Florida Ferns in Zellwood, on Friday, September 4, 2020. rThe Zellwood nursery’s profits are up this year despite the coronavirus pandemic. The reason? People are stuck at home and plants provide an affordable way to decorate a space plus have health benefits.r



a man standing on a bridge: Matt Roberts, whose family owns the nursery, in one of the greenhouses at Central Florida Ferns in Zellwood, on Friday, September 4, 2020. rThe Zellwood nursery's profits are up this year despite the coronavirus pandemic. The reason? People are stuck at home and plants provide an affordable way to decorate a space plus have health benefits.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Matt Roberts, whose family owns the nursery, in one of the greenhouses at Central Florida Ferns in Zellwood, on Friday, September 4, 2020. rThe Zellwood nursery’s profits are up this year despite the coronavirus pandemic. The reason? People are stuck at home and plants provide an affordable way to decorate a space plus have health benefits.r

The safety nets of federal and state aid are gone, leaving some owners frantically trying to stockpile cash after draining their emergency funds. In the COVID-ravaged economy, consumers have changed the way they’re spending money – a crucial factor on whether a business survives.



a group of items on display: Awards and trophies on display at The Awards Store, at 736 North Mills Avenue, on Friday, August 21, 2020. rThe Awards Store has operated on Mills Avenue since 1993, providing custom plaques and trophies. But with no major events or sports seasons taking place because of the need for social distancing, business is very slow.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Awards and trophies on display at The Awards Store, at 736 North Mills Avenue, on Friday, August 21, 2020. rThe Awards Store has operated on Mills Avenue since 1993, providing custom plaques and trophies. But with no major events or sports seasons taking place because of the need for social distancing, business is very slow.r

Read the impact of coronavirus on their enterprises below, or click on an image to be taken directly to a particular story.

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‘I’ll sell everything if I have to’

Imperial Class Tattoo used to be slammed with walk-in clients, many of them seeking custom ink paying homage to Star Wars. After a two-month shutdown, the shop is still trying to recover.



a person standing in front of a store: Joseph Baker, owner of The Awards Store, at 736 North Mills Avenue, on Friday, August 21, 2020. rThe Awards Store has operated on Mills Avenue since 1993, providing custom plaques and trophies. But with no major events or sports seasons taking place because of the need for social distancing, business is very slow.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Joseph Baker, owner of The Awards Store, at 736 North Mills Avenue, on Friday, August 21, 2020. rThe Awards Store has operated on Mills Avenue since 1993, providing custom plaques and trophies. But with no major events or sports seasons taking place because of the need for social distancing, business is very slow.r

But for the customers who do venture in, self care is on their minds.

“People don’t realize how much therapy a tattoo is,” owner Patrick Dearman said. “Some people are really looking for the physical release to all the mental anguish they’re going through.”

To follow coronavirus protocols, customers at the Altamonte Springs shop now need an appointment to get inked or pierced.



a bunch of items that are on display in a store: Claudia Jacabo, owner of Mi Ceiba party supply store on West Lancaster Road in Orlando, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. rWith the cancellation this year of major events like quinceañeras and religious ceremonies such as baptisms, Mi Ceiba, a party supply store in the Sky Lake neighborhood of Orlando, has fewer customers.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Claudia Jacabo, owner of Mi Ceiba party supply store on West Lancaster Road in Orlando, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. rWith the cancellation this year of major events like quinceañeras and religious ceremonies such as baptisms, Mi Ceiba, a party supply store in the Sky Lake neighborhood of Orlando, has fewer customers.r

Other safety measures are in place, as well.

Before a storm trooper mannequin greets people in the lobby, everyone is asked COVID questions outside the front door. Hand sanitation and temperature checks are required. No mask means no service.

During the closure, Dearman had to lay off four employees and rehire them later as contractors.

At one point, he considered going back to work as a machinist but instead wiped out his personal savings and the shop’s reserves to keep the studio going.



a person holding a cat: Lisa Hollaender, owner of The Pet Sitters of Lake Nona, with Ollie, a foster kitten from Dexter Kitties, Inc., on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. rClients seeking services from the Pet Sitters of Lake Nona have mostly come back but about 30% who work from home do not have a need for dog walking or cat check-ins. r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Lisa Hollaender, owner of The Pet Sitters of Lake Nona, with Ollie, a foster kitten from Dexter Kitties, Inc., on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. rClients seeking services from the Pet Sitters of Lake Nona have mostly come back but about 30% who work from home do not have a need for dog walking or cat check-ins. r

“I don’t want to have to step away from this,” he said. “We draw on people for a living — this is much more fun.”

Dearman has been a tattoo artist for nearly 20 years and began doing cover-ups of botched ink.

“When you take someone’s horrible tattoo that somebody did in a kitchen, and you turn it into a beautiful thing they can be proud of … it changes their whole demeanor,” he said.



a group of people in a store: Left to Right, Alberto Yescas, Claudia Jacabo, owner of Mi Ceiba, and Brenda Torres, at the party supply store on West Lancaster Road in Orlando, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. The store has recently added jewelry to boost their declining party supply sales. With the cancellation this year of major events like quinceaeras and religious ceremonies such as baptisms, Mi Ceiba, a party supply store in the Sky Lake neighborhood of Orlando, has fewer customers.n


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Left to Right, Alberto Yescas, Claudia Jacabo, owner of Mi Ceiba, and Brenda Torres, at the party supply store on West Lancaster Road in Orlando, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. The store has recently added jewelry to boost their declining party supply sales. With the cancellation this year of major events like quinceaeras and religious ceremonies such as baptisms, Mi Ceiba, a party supply store in the Sky Lake neighborhood of Orlando, has fewer customers.n

After stints in South Carolina and Georgia, he moved to Central Florida and opened Imperial in 2012 as a cash-only shop.

His studio is “making enough to survive” during the pandemic, but he’s trying to replenish his savings in case his shop takes another financial hit.



a group of people wearing costumes: Left to Right, Valli Wade, Janet W. Lee, and Monica Lee, at Monica's Dry Cleaners in Avalon Park, on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. rJanet Lee's family is working together to keep Monica's dry cleaners afloat during this pandemic. Business has dropped about 75%.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Left to Right, Valli Wade, Janet W. Lee, and Monica Lee, at Monica’s Dry Cleaners in Avalon Park, on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. rJanet Lee’s family is working together to keep Monica’s dry cleaners afloat during this pandemic. Business has dropped about 75%.r

“I will personally sacrifice everything I have to make sure my business stays open. The people that work for me — their livelihood depends on it,” he said. “I’ll sell everything if I have to.”



a stack of flyers on a table: Tattoo artist Ms. Michelle's booth at Imperial Class Tattoo in Altamonte Springs, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. rTattoo shops weren't among the first wave of openings after the stay at home order was lifted, causing many owners to take a financial hit.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Tattoo artist Ms. Michelle’s booth at Imperial Class Tattoo in Altamonte Springs, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. rTattoo shops weren’t among the first wave of openings after the stay at home order was lifted, causing many owners to take a financial hit.r

‘Some shirts come in but barely any pants’



a person standing in front of a store: Patrick Dearman, owner of Imperial Class Tattoo in Altamonte Springs, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. rTattoo shops weren't among the first wave of openings after the stay at home order was lifted, causing many owners to take a financial hit.r


© Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
Patrick Dearman, owner of Imperial Class Tattoo in Altamonte Springs, on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. rTattoo shops weren’t among the first wave of openings after the stay at home order was lifted, causing many owners to take a financial hit.r

The number of customers dropping off piles of clothing at Monica’s Dry Cleaners in Avalon Park has dwindled — with the conspicuous absence of one type of garment.

“They do most of their work through Zoom meetings,” co-owner Janet Lee said. “So some shirts come in but barely any pants.”

Janet and her husband, Charlie, now both 59, moved from New York to Florida so Charlie could pursue his dream of being a professional golfer.

The golfing career didn’t work out. But Charlie grew up around his parents’ dry cleaning business and knows what it takes to be a “dry cleaning guru,” Janet said, so the couple decided to open their own shop in 2006 in east Orange County.

It takes a lot to run a dry cleaning business, Janet said.

Machines need to be maintained. Clothes must be pressed without scorching the material. A perfect cocktail of solvents is required to remove stains without damaging clothes.

“I don’t think many people understand the sweat and work that it is — between the heat and the noise, it is hard, physical labor,” Janet said.

“We are praying and hoping to be able to service the community and stay open.””,”additional_properties”:{“comments”:1/83/8,”inline_comments”:1/83/83/4,”_id”:”6UWEDVQMUJEAHPFWQTNA56ZGWA

Janet Lee

The severe drop in customers has forced the couple to lay off several employees, so now every member of the Lee family is pitching in to keep the business from going under.

Their sons Christopher and Ryan take shifts. And their daughter Monica, 29, for whom the shop is named, has been working there since she was laid off from her job as a nurse practitioner.

“It was in God’s plan,” Janet said. “Without her help, I don’t know if I could stay open as many hours as I’ve been putting in.”

The couple hasn’t received a paycheck since March in order to make rent, and pay their employees and utility bills.

Still, Janet said it’s important to maintain relationships with customers.

Although the shop typically doesn’t make clothing items from scratch, they created a pillowcase for a customer whose mother died from the coronavirus and wanted a keepsake using her pajamas.

“We are praying and hoping to be able to service the community and stay open,” Janet said.

‘We can’t make it on party supplies alone’

Claudia Jacabo enjoys watching the smiles on customers’ faces when they walk into her party store, Mi Ceiba, and recognize hundreds of colorful items used in Mexican celebrations and religious ceremonies.

Dolls wearing ball gowns and tiaras sit on top shelves, a custom that represents the end of childhood at a quinceañera. White gowns for baptisms and Holy Communion are wrapped in plastic garment bags. Lotería cards are available for party games.

Until the pandemic, there were plenty of occasions to pick up supplies at the shop on Lancaster Road in south Orange.

But with county health officials strongly urging the public to avoid large gatherings, Mi Ceiba has taken a huge financial hit.

Jacabo said September — Hispanic Heritage Month — is typically busy because students come to her store for supplies to make a school project.

“This September is scary because school is not open completely,” she said. “We probably won’t sell anything.”

Scrambling to find ways to bring in more customers, Jacabo has started selling gold and silver jewelry.

“We can’t make it on party supplies alone,” she said.

And Alberto Yescas, whom Jacabo calls the “Picasso of Piñatas,” began spending hours creating custom paper mache cartoon characters and animals — a staple at Mexican parties.

Customers who are hosting small celebrations are buying them, Jacabo said.

“Some people destroy it, but others keep them in their rooms,” she said.

Jacabo is working to keep her shop open so she can preserve the sense of community for her customers. Many of them are Mexico natives and said the shop evokes a sense of home.

Mi Ceiba is a nod to a mystical tree in La Antigua, a city in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz where Jacabo is from.

The bulk of her inventory, which also includes leather boots, clay cooking pots and candy like Mazapan and chicle, are from Mexico.

“A lot of them come in here and they don’t have a lot of money [for a party]. I help them find something,” Jacabo said. “I like being in touch with people, being a part of their lives.”

‘Business didn’t gradually go down – it just stopped overnight’

Joseph Baker spent hours organizing trophies and plaques at the Awards Store before he noticed the silence at his trophy shop on Mills Avenue in Orlando.

“The phone never rang,” he said. “It was just dead.”

Sports leagues, corporations and schools nationwide had kept him busy since he opened the shop in 1993. But canceled seasons and virtual graduations caused the usual stream of orders for trophies and plaques to dry up.

“It was unusual because business didn’t gradually go down – it just stopped overnight,” Baker said. “Before this [pandemic] happened, we were going around the clock, like most people. Seven days a week, staying late.”

The drop in customers meant two workers had to be let go. He tries not to order new items and focuses on selling from a stockpile displayed floor to ceiling around the store.

Shelves are lined with lucite, glass and crystal awards. There are traditional plaques with laser-etched engravings. A bronze front end of a classic car is perched on a window sill. A maroon boxing glove sculpture is displayed next to a case of football and basketball trophies.

Baker is meticulous about double-checking orders to ensure all of the engraved information is correct.

“I can spot a misspell from a mile away,” he said.

Orders have been trickling in but not at the volume he’s used to seeing during peak months like May when school years end.

Still, Baker said he’s grateful for longtime customers, who place orders for awards that will be mailed to recipients instead of presented onstage in front of a crowd.

The virus has changed how multiple industries operate, he said, and it’s possible the demand for his services will never completely bounce back.

“What this has forced us to do is conduct business everywhere in a way we didn’t before,” he said. “I think even when this ends — whenever it does — we’re going to keep doing things the way we’re doing them now.”

‘Crazy busier than any year we’ve ever had’

Six months ago, sales at Central Florida Ferns & Foliage plummeted. The Zellwood nursery lost about 75% of its business and had to lay off a few employees.

“We were just scared like everybody else, trying to stay ahead of the curve,” said Matt Roberts, whose parents Ray and Kathy opened the fernery 30 years ago and have 250,000 square feet of greenhouse space.

But the “initial shock of COVID” only lasted several weeks. By the time Easter rolled around, it was like nothing happened.

Roberts said house plants were already trendy before the pandemic, but their sales boomed after quarantine became a new way of life. Their former employees were hired back and four more were added to the staff.

“It’s been absolutely insane,” he said. “Crazy busier than any year we’ve ever had.”

The fernery grows nearly 100 types of plants, which have health benefits and pull double-duty as decor.

“Plants provide oxygen — they purify the air,” Roberts said. “If you have a blank area in your home, it’s a cheap kind of fix rather than painting or constructing. Adding a pop of color with a big green plant or multiple plants can really change the dynamic of your home.”

The bulk of fern orders are shipped from Zellwood out of state so there’s no customer interaction during a time when social distancing is constantly encouraged.

The rest are wholesale customers, people who own garden centers or plant shops, who can pick out ferns at the nursery if they wear a mask.

Roberts said he knows his family is lucky that their agriculture business is thriving when other industries are collapsing and so many local shops and restaurants have closed.

There’s likely smaller nurseries that depend on local sales and are struggling because of farmer’s markets shutdowns.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Roberts said. “I’ll be the first one to say, looking around, it almost makes us feel guilty.”

‘A lot of my clients are still at home, so that base I haven’t got back yet’

Lisa Hollaender’s team at the Pet Sitters of Lake Nona weren’t booked solid during Labor Day weekend, and she worries that could mean bad news for the upcoming holiday season.

“People as far as traveling are taking it more day by day instead of planning it out,” she said. “Usually I’ll have clients already on my schedule for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. But I haven’t heard from anybody yet wanting to reserve a spot.”

Weekday requests for dog walking services, which range from 15 minutes to an hour, aren’t rolling in like they were before people began working remotely.

“A lot of my clients are still at home, so that base I haven’t got back yet,” she said.

Over the past 20 years, Hollaender has operated pet care services in New York and Washington, D.C., before moving to Florida in 2012.

She used to have a pet sitting service in Waterford Lakes before selling it and switching to the Lake Nona area, where she lives.

Hollaender said geography has played a crucial role in her ability to maintain at least some of her customers and recognizes that pet sitters in other neighborhoods may not be so lucky.

About half of her clients are medical professionals or airline workers who frequently leave their Lake Nona or Storey Park homes.

Hollaender has been taking care of people’s pets as a professional service since she graduated college. Before social media, she posted flyers in laundromats and coffee shops and worked alone. Now, she manages a team of two employees.

Over the years, she’s learned it’s important that a pet sitter be a good fit for a client because every animal has its own personality and temperament.

“I do have a sense of empathy and compassion for pets,” Hollaender said. “I haven’t yet met a pet that I haven’t found a connection with it.”

lgarza@orlandosentinel.com

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