Editor’s note: The following is part of Startland News’ ongoing coverage of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Kansas City’s entrepreneur community, as well as how innovation is helping to drive a new normal in the ecosystem. Click here to follow related stories as they develop.
A typical spring would see the winter blues lifting over Kansas City and customers lining up for a taste of the latest, whimsical confection from Betty Rae’s. But this year, it’s time — not ice cream — that’s frozen as the company waits out the effects of a global health nightmare for businesses.
“It’s sad that we aren’t out there with the tulips,” Mary Nguyen, co-founder of Betty Rae’s, said of the community-rooted ice cream shop’s fight to survive in the midst of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its crippling hold on the U.S. economy.
“This is a crucial time for a businesses like ours,” she added. “We have a lag in the winter and we look forward to opening. Lines out the door are a sign of spring in Kansas City now.”
And while the calendar might have signaled a season of rebirth, Betty Rae’s closed its Waldo and River Market locations indefinitely March 30, promising customers on social media they’d see them again when threat of the virus has thawed.
“We appreciated all the support. Our continued popularity put a lot of our staff at risk for exposure and we asked them on a daily basis how comfortable they were with continuing to work,” she recalled, referencing the company’s short-lived attempt at curbside service. “As soon as we had enough [people] saying they didn’t feel comfortable anymore, we made the decision to slow things down and [ultimately] to shut things down.”
With normal operations at a standstill, it’s times like these that can show the human side of running a business — requiring empathy over economics, Nguyen said.
“We have to consider the safety of our employees because we care about them as much as our own family and we want to be considerate of what their needs are — physically, emotionally, mentally, but also financially,” she said, noting Betty Rae’s has to do all it can to ensure the smiling faces scooping mounds of Bananas Foster and Cereal and Desist have a job to come back to when social distancing is relaxed.
“I miss seeing [our team.] But there’s no reason for us to have a Zoom meeting just to talk about the ice cream that we’re not serving,” she laughed.
Topped with neighborhood support
With its shops dark and freezer cases empty, Nguyen said she and her husband and co-founder, Dave Friesen, are grateful to their landlords who’ve provided rent relief and for community and national resources that could save entrepreneurs like them from complete ruin.
“Our River Market landlord is sending out resources for us to apply for and we’ve applied for everything we can and we’re still looking for things as well,” she explained, noting Betty Rae’s is also working to launch a crowdfunding campaign that would see the company pre-selling its ice cream.
“[It would help us to] at least be able to turn the lights back on, should and when this ends, offering perks and rewards for people so it’s not just a, ‘Give us money,’ sort of charity thing — but more of a subscription service,” she added
The company is also looking to community partnerships as a way of offsetting losses, Nguyen said, noting Betty Rae’s has recently partnered KC Pretzel Boys and Strange Days Brewing Co.
“[KC Pretzel Boys was] losing a lot of event business, so they pivoted to [offering] delivery packages, which has been really great,” she said of the partnership, which includes a pint of Betty Rae’s ice cream in each package.
A Strange Days Brewing Co. partnership also features pints, this time in a date-night combo package that includes a take-and-heat meal from Broncato’s Catering, beer from Strange Days, and a board game from Level One Game Shop.
“We loved that KC Pretzel Boys reached out to us. We picked out flavors that we thought would compliment the salty and sweet combo. It’s a great comfort food for people who are at home,” she said.
“Strange Days, they’ve just been really great partners and neighbors in the River Market area,” Nguyen continued. “We’re excited to be part of this with two local businesses and to help them anyway we can, to survive — if not thrive — during a really hard time for everybody.”
‘Doom and Gloom’ never been a flavor
Weeks before the world health crisis began, Nguyen shared the story of Betty Rae’s beginnings with a crowd gathered in February for a Meet the Makers discussion at Rockhurst University — which reinforced the company’s commitment to treat-making in turbulent times.
“We signed a lease the week after I gave birth, and I wouldn’t say I regret it, but timing-wise it wasn’t great,” she laughed, recalling the decision to open Betty Rae’s in a vacant, Waldo yogurt shop in 2015.
“At the same time, it was kind of perfect,” she continued, noting the way Kansas City rallied behind the shop’s opening and has continued to support their dream ever since.
“There’s so much doom and gloom, but [tough times have] also brought so much altruism and friendship and community between businesses and business owners who are just looking to help each other out where they can,” Nguyen said.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.
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