Despite the pandemic, Oregonians keep starting businesses

Clayton Riley holds ranunculuses, one type of flower offered at Flowers in the Alley, his new downtown Salem flower shop. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

Even with clamps on the economy because of the pandemic, Oregonians are still starting businesses.

In October, the state recorded 6,647 new business registrations. That’s up from 445 from a year ago an increase of 278 from the previous month.

“We have a number of requests every single day from people either starting a new business or expanding their current business,” said Veronica Molony, the co-chair of the Portland chapter of SCORE (which covers Salem), a nonprofit funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Molony’s group provides mentoring and other help to new business owners. She said that despite the uncertainty created by the pandemic, it’s created opportunities and aspiring business owners are willing to take risks. For instance, uncertainty in commercial real estate has opened up space for new business owners, she said.

She said acupuncturists, mental health experts and others in the health care field have started their own practice after seeing their services come into demand during the pandemic. People who’ve had their hours cut because of the pandemic have also gone into business for themselves, she said.

State economist Josh Lehner said in a blog post last month that it’s not clear how many businesses are closing because of the pandemic. But the numbers point to a bright spot in the economy. 

“Here we see encouraging news to date,” he said. “There has been no real drop-off in start-up activity in 2020.”

In Salem, a flower shop opened with a strong start after its owner saw his livelihood upended, a pair of established restaurant owners keep moving ahead with a plan hatched before the pandemic and a growing cheesemaker finds a home in the city. Each is trying to realize a vision in an unpredictable time.

The entrance to Alleycat, a new bar that saw its opening scuttled by new pandemic restrictions. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

‘One of those meant-to-be things’

On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Alena Stewart saw her vision become reality. Less than a week later, she shut it down.

Stewart and her mother Diana Ramollo operate Amadeus restaurant and Sweetsmith Desserts, located at 135 Liberty St N.E. Next to the parking lot where they parked each day sat an empty brick building they passed by on their way to work.

“It was just such a cool space,” said Stewart. “We thought it needed to be something really unique and different.”

Last fall, the two took a tour of the building, which had once been the storage area for the now-closed Old Spaghetti Warehouse.

It looked rough, recalled Stewart. Cement and metal could be seen in the exposed ceiling.

But she recalled how the building’s character shone through its austere appearance. She described its low ceilings and the wooden support beams rooted in the building’s basement. They thought it would be a unique place for a bar.

After their tour, everything started falling into place for what would become Alleycat Bar, located in the alleyway of 120 Commercial Street.

“It was kind of one of those meant-to-be things,” said Stewart.

They signed a lease over the winter and work began to get the building’s wiring and plumbing up to code along with other renovations. But then came the Covid pandemic and the governor’s order in March shutting down much of the state’s economy.

With work already in progress, Stewart said they decided to continue renovations despite the uncertainty that hung over the project. While the building was getting a make-over, Stewart said they deliberately kept some of its grit, including that exposed cement and wiring. The lighting fixtures and cables are brass colored, which she said look like “little pots of gold” against the newly painted dark chocolate brown walls.

The bar was stocked with liquor for Old Fashioneds, a range of tequila drinks and “She’s Spicy, a vodka drink infused with habanero. The day before opening Alleycat to the public, Stewart and Ramollo held a socially distanced party for friends and family on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

But just days later, Gov. Kate Brown announced a partial shutdown of the economy in response to a spike in Covid cases. That meant beginning on Wednesday, Nov. 18 bars and restaurants would be closed to in-person service – including Alleycat Bar.

The stocked bar stayed open six days days total until the governor’s order took force so two servers could make some money before closing down.. For a short while, Stewart saw her vision of people gathered in a bar with music playing in the background.

Stewart said they were disappointed and frustrated to close the new drinking establishment after bars and restaurants closely followed public health rules for months. It also wasn’t cheap, especially with upfront costs for liquor, she said.

“I was really, really happy that it was coming together the way we wanted,” she said.

After closing, Stewart took the lemons, limes and oranges for cocktails out of the bar and juiced them to use for cooking at Amadeus. Stewart said her landlord has been understanding and she has lots of support from customers and friends.

“We will make it through and we’ll open back up,” she said. “It’s just gonna take time. And we have to be okay with that.”

Clayton Riley stands in the doorway of his new shop, Flowers in the Alley, in downtown Salem. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

‘You don’t necessarily need an anniversary or a birthday’

When Clayton Riley prepared for the grand opening of Flowers in the Alley, located in Alley Suite No. 130 at 249 Liberty St. N.E., he had a delicate balancing act. He wanted to have enough flowers to sell. But he didn’t want to have too many flowers, which would wither after going unsold.

When Flowers in the Alley opened on Friday, Nov. 6, Riley said he sold out all of the 15 flower arrangements with roses and carnations he had prepared.

“I was in this frantic panic,” said Riley, who still needed to be stocked for Saturday weekend. So he drove to the flower market in Portland and bought more.

Promoted by word of mouth and social media posts featuring his floral arrangements, Riley has had to hustle to keep up with the steady stream of customers he’s had since opening. Tucked away in an alley downtown, the shop is packed with orchids, air plants, single-stem ranunculuses and other flowers, along with soaps and bistro tables.

A first-time business owner, Riley said there have been a few hiccups. The point-of-sale stand he bought doesn’t fit his iPad. The pandemic has meant slowed deliveries he only had half of his products in stock two weeks before the grand opening.

Despite the unpredictability of starting a business in unusual times, Riley, 34, said “it’s been amazing.”

He and his now-husband — Aaron Naden, the owner of local grooming products company Bearded Oregon — moved to Salem about a year and a half ago to be closer to family. After moving, Riley was working as a jeweler until his work hours were severely cut because of the pandemic.

The location of his future store was a yoga studio that couldn’t operate because of the pandemic. Riley said he saw a good opportunity to create full-time work and start his own business.

Standing in his shop wearing a canvas work apron, Riley said that he had other business ideas (he wouldn’t say what they are) but settled on the idea of a flower shop.

Riley said that he developed his passion for flowers while in high school working at his aunt’s Prineville store, Flowers in the Attic. He said he was drawn to taking raw materials and turning them into something beautiful that people were excited to give to others. While Riley said he’s not looking to compete with established flower shops downtown, he said he was confident his flower selection and arrangements would sell.

The store also sells candles and home decor items including bistro tables made by French company Fermob and a portable fireplace.

 “These are just thing I’ve really enjoyed and want to share with people,” said.

After striking a deal with the landlord, he was on his way to opening Flowers in the Alley.

Unlike other places that only sell large quantities of flowers or expensive arrangements that cost hundreds of dollars, Riley said he has a different business model.

“I think flowers get over complicated, right?” said Riley. “You don’t necessarily need an anniversary or a birthday to pick up a bright little bunch of flowers that are gonna make you smile or change your mood.”

Riley said that he sells arrangements for around $25, making them regularly affordable. He added that he’ll work with anyone’s budget in hopes of developing a relationship with customers.

“I’m really open to what Salem is asking for,” he said.

While living in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, Riley said there was a flower shop in the city offering a subscription service to bring fresh blooms to businesses. He’s adapted the idea to his business, offering a regular pickup or delivery (for a $10 fee within a 5-mile radius) of fresh flowers to local businesses. Riley said businesses place the flowers in their bathrooms or around cash registers to improve the experience of shoppers.

“Salem is excited, ready for something different, something fun and new,” he said. “And I am really excited to see where this takes me.”

Francisco Ochoa, the head of Don Froylan Creamery, stands in its new Salem location. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

‘Just get out there and get the product out’

As Francisco Ochoa’s business got bigger, his work space shrank.  

Since becoming the owner of Don Froylan Creamery in 2010, Ochoa has watched the family business grow, selling its queso fresco, Oaxacan and other handmade Mexican-style cheeses to restaurants and grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the years, the increased production at its Albany-based creamery meant it had to upgrade its 500-gallon vat to a 1,000-gallon one and eventually a 2,000-gallon vat.

“Then the building gets smaller and smaller inside,” said Ochoa.

Finally, it was time to find a bigger building, he said. The creamery found the space it needed in Salem in a new nearly 9,000-square-foot facility located at 3310 Portland Rd. N.E.

The bigger building is more visible and allowed the company to increase staff from 14 to 22 while adding more cheese-making equipment. The new location also had enough room to sell quesadillas, nachos and ice cream as well as a retail area for customers to buy cheese while watching the products being made.

For now, customers can order cheeses and quesadillas only through a to-go window because of state pandemic restrictions.

“It’s hard for us to close the door,” said Ochoa. “But it’s for the best.”

Despite the restrictions, Ochoa said that the creamery has done well in its Salem location since opening on Oct. 31.

The new creamery had been in the works since before the pandemic struck. The city of Salem began working with Ochoa in 2017. The city helped him find a vacant area for the creamery and supported its construction with a $300,000 grant in urban renewal funds. After securing the location, the creamery began working with its bank and an architect.

Construction began in late 2019. But then the pandemic hit in March and the creamery stopped production for a week, said Ochoa.

“It was pretty scary,” said Ochoa, who recalled getting a wave of phone calls canceling orders while he was still operating in his Albany location.  

The construction was far along on the new location so it wasn’t feasible to pullout, said Ochoa. About a week after, orders from grocery stores picked up and construction finished in September, he said.

The creamery goes through 10,000 gallons of milk a week but Ochoa said the shutdown has cut into the amount of cheese it sells to restaurants. In the meantime, the creamery’s walk-up window has been busy with customers buying wheels of its cheeses and quesadillas.

The creamery is named after Ochoa’s father, who started the cheese-making business out of the family’s home in Eugene. Ochoa recalled going door-to-door with his father after school selling the cheeses.

“Just get out there and get the product out,” said Ochoa, recalling his father’s approach.

But that approach is harder in a pandemic. For now, Ochoa said the company is getting by, helped by its established brand.

Ochoa is looking forward to the pandemic subsiding so customers can return to the creamery to watch the cheeses being made, try a sample and make a purchase.

“Once people try our cheese, they really like it,” he said.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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