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Some Twin Cities businesses are quietly thriving amid the coronavirus pandemic

31August 2020

Paulita LaPlante isn’t comfortable talking about coronavirus.

“It’s hard to say anything positive right now,” said LaPlante, co-owner of Prescription Landscape. Despite the pandemic, LaPlante’s company has boosted revenue and opened up new doors for its future.

In fact, Prescription may never return to its pre-COVID ways of operating. “We don’t even get colds any more,” said LaPlante. “I don’t see us going back, ever.”

Prescription Landscape was one of several businesses the Pioneer Press recently checked in with that seem to be doing well in the era of COVID-19. Here’s the list:

ARTSCRAPS REUSE STORE

The ArtScraps Reuse Store is a center for creativity, so it’s no surprise that its response during the pandemic was creative.

“We are trucking along,” said employee Brittany Reif-Wenner.

The non-profit St. Paul store sells used and donated art supplies, and was hammered by the statewide shut-down in March. But nation-wide, arts-and-crafts stores have bounced back, as coronavirus shut-ins seek activities in their homes.

Walk-in clients are no longer allowed in the store, said Reif-Wenner, so the store has pivoted to on-line sales. Customers go to the ArtScraps website, submit their shopping lists, then pick up their orders curbside.

A big seller is the new Creativity Kit, which is packaged for specific art projects. The Georgia O’Keefe kit, for example, has paints in the right colors, canvases and brushes to replicate a classic O’Keefe painting of flowers.

ArtScraps employs other survival tactics. It sells donated supplies, and benefits from stay-at-homes who discover forgotten art projects. “We get college students who have cleaned out their parents’ basements,” said Reif-Wenner.

Coming soon is another ArtScraps innovation — on-line art lessons, taught privately in groups.

1UP VIDEO GAMES

1UP Video Games specializes in virtual reality, simulated games and artificial warfare — and completely real profits.

The 14-month-old game shop in North St. Paul took a real-world beating when the state shut down businesses in March. But since then, the pandemic has sent people into their homes – where they are now looking for something to do.

“They say, ‘I need something to forget the craziness of the world,’ ” said employee Michaela Coony.

The customers “come in and say they are locked in their houses,” said Coony.

The store’s hottest selling items are the Sony PlayStation4 and the retro game Super Nintendo.

PLAY IT AGAIN SPORTS

Alex Selim is scoring big with some sports equipment, and striking out with others.

He owns two Play It Again Sports franchises. Business in his Chaska store isn’t great because it specializes in high school sports equipment — and many athletic seasons have been canceled.

“They are drowning in inventory,” said Selim.

But business in his St. Paul store has made up for the shortfall. Selim said he has been stunned by the surge in demand for bikes, skateboards, Frisbees and in-line skates.

Flabby shut-ins want equipment for in-home workouts — such as weights.

“Our weights suppliers have been out for months,” he said. “And golf has just exploded.”

UNIVERSITY AUTO SALES

Coronavirus has slammed the brakes on new-car sales — but not sales of used cars.

At University Auto Sales in St. Paul, manager Mohsen Aghamirzai said that even with the pandemic, his sales will be equal to last year’s.

Workers without cars usually take mass transit, he said, but now they are afraid of catching the virus on trains and buses. That’s pushing them into his used-car lots, he said.

The business, with five metro locations, also benefited from the stimulus payments from the federal government to boost state unemployment insurance. The $600 in federal funding ran out at the end of July.

“For us, it’s all about the $600 per week,” said Aghamirzai. “It adds up quickly. They feel that their pockets are padded with cash.”

Customers who don’t usually have money on hand now walk in, ready to buy wheels of their own. “I notice large down payments,” said Aghamirzai, “from unlikely customers.”

ROBERTS’ RESIDENTIAL REMODELING

The COVID-confined masses are stuck in their homes — and noticing what needs improving.

That’s why the home-remodeling industry is thriving.

“We are very thankful, for sure,” said Robyn Kurtz, administrator of Roberts’ Residential Remodeling in Burnsville.

The business was lucky, she said, to have six months of backlogged work when the coronavirus shutdown was declared in March.

And since then, the stream of customers has been steady. They ask for remodeled kitchens, bathrooms, basements, and even new second-floor levels on top of their one-story homes.

Kurtz said the business has a competitive advantage — its own millwork shop. That allows the business to quickly custom-make doors, flooring, trim and molding.

She’s not quite ready to declare victory over COVID, however. Critical to the industry, she said, is the Remodelers Showcase trade show scheduled for Oct. 2-4. If that is canceled, she said, it will be a hammer-blow to businesses like hers.

FOUR PAWS AND A TAIL

Kristin Smith does not have bad days at work.

“How can you have a bad day when all the puppies are glad to see you?” said Smith, owner of Four Paws and a Tail in Blaine.

Thanks to the pandemic, pet stores and animal-rescue groups are reporting a surge in demand for animals. Lonely stay-at-homes want to put some love into their lives.

“They like having a puppy rather than an adult dog,” said Smith. Puppies are the store’s specialty, adorable fur-balls costing between $1,500 and $5,000.

Customers go to the store’s website, select a puppy, then make a reservation to come see the dog. Smith only allows two customers in the store at a time.

Or she can make an entirely COVID-correct transaction. Customers can pay for their puppy over the phone, then pick it up at the store’s back entrance.

She has employed the usual masks and social-distancing rules. “These are only small hardships for us,” said Smith. “Some businesses can’t operate at all.”

CLEAN CREW

Cleaning businesses are cleaning up, financially-speaking.

Carlos Maldonado, owner of the St. Paul-based Clean Crew, said coronavirus is creating headaches for him, but also more business.

COVID has kept him and his eight employees busy, keeping up with the demands of the house-bound.

“They are getting a lot more messy in the kitchens and bathrooms,” said Maldonado.

More people are moving out of houses into apartments, he said, so they call Clean Crew to help with prepping their homes for open-house events.

In addition to the usual masks and gloves, he has taken an extra step to keep workers healthy. He has told them to avoid public transportation – and picks them up in his own car.

“A lot of them are seniors, very afraid of COVID,” he said. But so far, not one employee has become ill.

His secret to success? “If you just follow the guidelines, you will keep your business.”

WAHOO! ADVENTURES

It pays to adapt, according to Kerri Kolstad, founder of Wahoo! Adventures in White Bear Lake.

The 11-year-old business sagged with the state-wide shutdown, but now it is booming. The revenue from the company’s biking and kayaking tours will even exceed last year’s pace, she said.

Before the pandemic, she would offer bike and kayak tours on a walk-up basis, so strangers would be grouped in the same tour. Now she handles larger groups of people who want to take their own tours.

“People want to do their thing with their bubble of people,” said Kolstad. “So we are re-thinking what we do.”

She allows groups to create their own tours. For example, she recently dropped off a load of rented bikes for a group on its own beer-and-biking tour of Minneapolis.

“I just did one with an 80-year-old grandpa, with four kids and grandkids,” said Kolstad. One group has an annual Father’s Day kayak event.

She said she has noticed a big drop-off in interstate tourism, but strong business from local people on “staycations.”

Her favorite spots for kayaking are Square Lake in Stillwater, with a swimming beach for kids; and William O’Brien State Park, for kayaking and lunches on islands in the St. Croix River.

“On the risk scale, outdoor is way less risky than indoor,” said Kolstad.

SOLDIER DELIVERY

COVID has delivered a truckload of business for Soldier Delivery.

At the company branches in Eagan and Mendota Heights, business has jumped by one-third, according to company COO Dean Zuleger.

Nationwide, the company drives 280 routes for Amazon, including 49 in Minnesota.

Zuleger can hardly hire drivers quickly enough. “We could use 20 more, right now,” he said.

The company delivers critical health supplies with hundreds of drivers, 40 percent of which are veterans.  “We call our drivers COVID warriors,” said Zuleger.

All employees wear masks, and their temperature is taken daily. In addition, they are monitored with video cameras. If anyone contracts the virus, he said, the company has a record of who came in contact with them.

“No one does a better job of protecting employees from COVID,” said Zuleger.

PRESCRIPTION LANDSCAPE

When most of the state’s businesses were locked down in March, Prescription Landscape was not. The business was deemed an essential service, because it serviced hospitals.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” said co-owner LaPlante. “The fact of the matter is grass keeps on growing.”

Out of the company’s 200 employees, two employees have had COVID since March. But the company’s aggressive testing policies spotted the outbreak early, and it did not spread.

“We make you stay home if you have the sniffles,” said LaPlante.

Faced with a health crisis, the company developed a system to dry-steam the interiors of its roughly 100 vehicles.

Workers use wands to blast the steam onto keyboards, touch-pads — any exterior surface that can be touched. They then follow-up with a sterilizing solution applied as a mist.

Now, that technique has opened up a new business for the company – marketing it to other businesses, under the name RX Clean 360.

The company monitors health of employees every day, sterilizes picnic tables where they eat, and cleans doorknobs that they touch.

As a result, morale is high, turnover is low, and the business is humming along. “People appreciate it,” said LaPlante.

 

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