Ingenuity in the Face of a Shutdown:

How Community Businesses Found Their Way During the Pandemic

At the beginning of 2020, the American economy seemed stronger than it’s ever been in history. Businesses small and large were thriving.

Then, March happened.

Gd pushed the pause button on everyday life. The streets were empty. Every single brick-and-mortar business that was not absolutely essential to life, shut its doors.

All businesses, even those without physical buildings, were affected. For example, as all Broadway shows and sports games were cancelled, companies that operated online ticket sales lost their business. As all social events were cancelled, people like hair or makeup artists, DJs, and photographers were suddenly out of work. The U.S. plunged from the lowest unemployment rates in history to the highest. In April of 2020, the unemployment rate increased by a whopping 10.3 percent!

When both mom and dad lose their jobs or businesses, but rent, tuition, and credit card bills are still due, you either sink or get creative. Many had no choice but to call it quits, but others pivoted and conquered. Here’s an inside look at some of our community’s business heroes of the COVID-19 crisis.

Balloons of The Shore: Owner/Operator Jessica Esses

As a party planner, I’ve always been creative and been able to overcome adversity.  When Corona hit, I had a ton of cancellations, and all the upcoming events I was working on suddenly got put to a halt, indefinitely. My husband, Ricky Esses, is a DJ, and his events, too, were cancelled. We suddenly found ourselves in an impossible situation. We have children in school, bills to be paid, and I didn’t know how we were going to get through it, but I knew it couldn’t go on like this.

May 4, 2020 was my friend’s birthday. We couldn’t even dream about getting together then, but I really wanted to do something special for her, so I went to my basement and looked through my leftovers from parties past, trying to find anything to decorate my car with, to drive by and make her feel special. I made a sign and then kept digging, when I came across a bag of balloons I had left over from a previous event. I blew them up with my mouth, tied them together, and taped them to my car to make a festive garland. It was perfect! When I drove by, my friend was elated and impressed with what I had done. She convinced me to post it on a large community chat.

Never in a million years would I have imagined what happened next.

By the end of the day, I had two orders for these balloon garlands. I was hesitant to do it, but I knew that if I could cheer some people up during these trying times, it would be worth it. I took the orders, bought some more balloons and an air machine, and got to work blowing them up and putting together displays. Then I got a few more orders, and though it was difficult, I managed. I got a call that Hillel Yeshiva was planning an outdoor graduation and wanted to decorate with my balloon creations. All my children currently attend Hillel, and as an involved PTA parent, I will always be there to help Hillel. I knew I had to take this job. Things started getting hectic. Every parent wanted balloons for their child to come home to after graduation. These kids were deprived of the second half of their senior year, they couldn’t have any celebrations, and their parents really wanted them to feel special. I understood and wanted to be there for everyone. I was one person – one hard working, sleep deprived, determined person who was a mom on Zoom school by day, and blowing up hundreds of balloons by night. Sleeping one hour, waking up, serving breakfast, and out the door for that day’s deliveries and installations.

One night, at 3am, as I was listening to a balloon educational masterclass while blowing up balloons for an order, my body broke out in a rash. It was painful, distracting, and turned out to be an allergic reaction. The sudden overexposure to latex resulted in symptoms that I could no longer ignore. With a packed schedule ahead, I didn’t know how I was going to prepare these orders, but I feared this latex allergy could worsen or develop into something more dangerous. With Hashem’s help, I found the perfect assistant. She is my right-hand-person helping with everything from balloons, events, and scheduling, to driving my kids from point A to point B. I really could not have done all that I did without her. In that way, my allergy was a blessing in disguise. I needed help, and it pushed me to hire someone.

It was hard work, but it was very rewarding. I’ve gotten many texts from people saying, “You have no idea what you did! We had to cancel an Israel trip or a party with a bunch of guests, and you made my family feel so special.” Many people had to reduce important life occasions to drive-by events. When you can see a balloon arch from a block away, it makes it all the more exciting. The balloons make a huge impact, and in many instances, they are the focal point. People would drive up, wave hello, sometimes give a gift, and grab a goodie bag and be on their way. These balloon displays made the event more special, beautiful, and memorable. In more ways than I could explain, it gave people hope that everything was going to be ok.

Many semachot had to be cancelled or reimagined to something less then what was originally planned. The balloon decor I provided brought happiness to those individuals during unprecedented times, and that’s really why I believe they blew up like they did (pun fully intended).

The calls and messages of bookings were coming in from all directions, and I realized this was becoming its own entity, I could no longer just roll with it. I needed a business plan. I began to organize my schedule based on my new knowledge of how long certain installations take, and how much staff is required for certain jobs. I researched through trial-and-error the best materials for quality, lasting installations. I had to get the right equipment and transportation. Balloons and heat don’t go together, so I had to rent air-conditioned trucks to store the balloons between jobs. It was a lot, but with the help and support of those around me, baruch Hashem, this new venture took off.

My husband, Ricky, was very supportive throughout all the chaos, and he helped me when I needed it. He, too, adjusted his business to meet the needs of these unprecedented times. For example, he turned his work van into a mobile DJ booth bringing smiles to everyone he passed by while standing at the back of his truck with speakers hanging out the sides. He drove through community neighborhoods bringing joy and happiness to the many community members who were stuck home for months.

With the summer heat rolling in, outdoor parties began. People would safely assemble outdoors for events, and my party planning business started up again, but with a twist. I was now able to provide more value to my clients by offering grand balloon decor for their parties, while also planning every last detail. I began to realize through planning parties with balloon décor that I can do a lot more. I started offering customized balloons with event logos and incorporating them into the designs, making gorgeous backdrops and more. Each event was truly unique.

I am so grateful to have been able to build a new business out of the rubble that was 2020, and I truly believe that everything is from Hashem. I hope to keep growing and learning and showing my children that with determination, anything is possible. I have so much more to give, and with Hashem’s help, I hope to continue to inspire and provide more beautiful events and one-of-a-kind balloon décor for my community.

C is for Cookiez: Celia Pollack 

Before COVID, I was a stay-at-home wife and mom. I always struggled with anxiety, but once the pandemic hit, it got way worse. Every day was the same. I needed something to change up the day. I needed to feel better. The world was home, and the world was baking, and so I did, too. I started to bake. And it worked. I began to feel better.

My family couldn’t possibly consume the amount of baked goods I was pumping out, so I decided to make an Instagram account and sell my creations.

Baking kept my mind busy, and was the perfect distraction from what was going on in the world. Finding something to help improve my mental health was so gratifying, but this was more than that. I always felt I was missing something, and this makes me feel fulfilled.

I seek to create unique bites that no one has thought of before with my desserts. I make little cute bites with yummy flavors. Sometimes I recreate favorites like Dunkaroo bites or rainbow cookies. Soon I am getting my packaging and labels redone. I’m also excited to announce that after Pesach, my products will be JSOR certified and will be sold in local stores, so keep your eyes open! Owner/Operator: Anonymous

I started my business a few years before COVID-19 hit, and built a large Instagram following. My business plan is relatively simple: I run a social media account, pumping out good content all day, and build a following. Once I had enough eyes, I began to sell advertisements. My content is Jewish-related news and hot topics that I gather from multiple outlets and bring to one page for the community to read and comment on.

When the virus hit and people stopped working, they turned to their phones. With news moving at the speed of light, I had so much content, and began to build an even larger following. For me and many other social media accounts, business was booming. I began selling more ads than ever before. I started offering advertising packages so people could more affordably showcase their businesses with me.

It is super rewarding because I am able to help people with my following. When people ask me to help fundraise, my followers are super generous. And when someone is in need, I send out a name and ask for their prayers.

I want to thank all my followers for putting me in this position. I read and appreciate all the beautiful comments that they write. I’m also very grateful to them for supporting my advertisers and community-owned businesses.

I have now begun to expand. I recently started @communitynewsrealty which is aimed at creating one page where people can advertise houses, apartments, and summer and winter rentals in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Aventura FL, and the Jersey Shore area, focusing on our community hot spots.

Lynda Levy 

Before COVID, I was well known in the community as a party planner, entertainer, and Zumba teacher. During the pandemic, I realized I needed to switch gears (though perhaps not fully). At the time Corona hit, I was planning a birthday party, and when it became clear the party wouldn’t happen, the birthday girl was devastated. I knew I had to do something for her, so rather than cancel, I adjusted the plan. That’s when I hosted my first Zoom party. I created a personalized scavenger hunt for her and her friends to do in their own homes together, over Zoom. It was very successful, and everyone had a great time. Word spread, and I began planning and hosting more virtual parties.

Another revenue stream I built during the pandemic was singing telegrams. This is something I normally do for my friends and family. As time went on, and people were stuck home with no real entertainment, I decided it would be a great surprise for other people’s friends and families, too. I would get the name, favorite song, and some details about a person celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or other occasion. I would knock on their door with my portable mic and speaker, and I would sing a funny song written just for them. The songs really lifted everyone’s spirits during those tough, uncertain months. I was posting them on Instagram and getting such great feedback. I wrote and performed over 50 telegrams during the lockdown.

Since I’m a Zumba teacher, I really wanted to get moving, and I knew I wasn’t alone. I noticed that many gyms and fitness instructors were pumping out content to help adults keep active, but kids were being forgotten. Our kids were sitting on Zoom all day with no physical activity, no gym class, and I felt that if I was going to do online Zumba classes, I had to incorporate them. I began doing live, family-friendly virtual Zumba classes using Instagram live – after Zoom school, of course. I would announce that whoever joined should Venmo me a certain amount per participant. Then I got moving, and the community moved with me. Whole families would dance together with me. It was another way I lifted the spirits of our community members during lockdown through my work, and it was very rewarding.

Somehow, I managed to party plan, entertain, and teach Zumba to hundreds of people, all from home, during a pandemic. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

The Take-Away Message

We can all learn some lessons from these entrepreneurs, those who have been able to brainstorm ways to modify their business model to survive the “new normal.” It should give us all hope, that even when we hit a wall, know that there is a way around it, over it, or through it. It takes trust in Gd and some pro-active changes on our part.