Matt Bramlette is stretched thin, bouncing between his two retail shops as Westport storefronts struggle to reopen after a pandemic-induced shutdown, protests that disrupted business and other unexpected challenges.
“We rely on tourists and foot traffic — two things that are few and far between right now,” said Bramlette, owner of brick-and-mortar Mid Coast Modern and Soap Bar on Kansas City’s Westport Road, as well as the Bear Soap Co. brand.
With two neighboring stores within the popular entertainment district — known for its largely locally-owned restaurant, shop and bar scene — the entrepreneur is seeing the firsthand impact of canceled events and dwindling crowds on businesses that rely on “destination shoppers.”
Click here to check out the Soap Bar concept, which features handmade artisanal soaps and is celebrating its one-year anniversary Saturday.
Bramlette reopened May 6 after being closed for nine weeks he said.
“A lot of stores waited until May 15 or June 2, so it’s kind of been a staggering of retail opening up in Westport,” he said. “It is still really slow because most restaurants aren’t open yet and that’s the core traffic here in Westport, especially for us being right next to The Corner restaurant.”
On any given weekend, The Corner typically sees a line around the block, Bramlette said, calling it an anchor for the weekend crowd.
Click here to read about the struggle to reopen fellow Westport mainstay Julep KC.
A series of setbacks
Adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions and safeguards has been only a portion of the reopening headaches for Mid Coast Modern and Soap Bar, he said.
“The first weekend that the bars open, someone broke through our front window,” Bramlette said. “The irony of it is that there was looting happening from the protests, but we actually were more impacted by the bars opening up than that!”
Despite the demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism that swelled through the Westport neighborhood and the Country Club Plaza — and were followed by violence, vandalism and rioting in some pockets — Bramlette never boarded up the windows to his shops, he said.
The entrepreneur was busy with other worries.
A flash flood in Westport, for example, brought water all the way up to the door of his Soap Bar shop.
“But thankfully did not make it inside,” he added.
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With so many curve balls thrown at him, Bramlette also has struggled to maintain his personal well-being throughout three months of trials.
“When you’re in a situation like this which has never happened — we have never had this happen since I have been alive — it is a time when you actually need to be more active, creative, and positive than you normally would be to survive, to try to keep the business alive,” he said. “At the same time though, you have mental struggles because of what’s going on. It’s unprecedented and it’s super stressful and you have no idea what’s coming next.”
Some days, Bramlette is incredibly motivated, he said. Other days, he finds himself emotionally drained.
An existing online presence and refocused social media effort helped.
“I didn’t really ever stop working personally,” Bramlette said. “We had enough shipping that it would keep me busy every day, so the online thing was able to support me personally, but it wasn’t sustainable for the store.”
Enter Maggie Weir, who Bramlette calls the face of Soap Bar.
“She was able to come into the store while there were no customers and do a couple of live videos for virtual shopping,” he said. “People would direct message us about the products and we got some sales out of that.”
As the business pace starts to pick up at the two storefronts, every day remains different, Bramlette said.
“All the employees are not back; it is just me and one other employee running it … We only have one employee bouncing back and forth between two, so we can each have days off and I can do admin work,” he said, noting a simple sign on the front door of the revolving, temporarily unmanned shop directs customers where to find them nearby. “I think by now a lot of people know we own both shops and so this method has worked for us right now. It’s really weird though.”
Click here to check out Mid Coast Modern, a retail shop featuring an eclectic mix of Kansas City maker products.
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.