GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Growing up in Flint, business owner Alex Benda had a trick to staying safe: stash $50 in his shoe.
“My solution was like look, if I get robbed, I won’t fight back and I’ll be fine, right? ‘Here, take my wallet, I’m out. I won’t hurt you.’ You know, and then I’ll still be able to recover,” he said.
“There is no coronavirus $50 in the shoe trick here,” he added.
His business, like others across the state and country, has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
After years of finding success in selling stationary and planners online and through business marketing, Benda and his wife Kayla opened Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts in downtown Grand Rapids in December. The Monroe Center store touts Grand Rapids-themed items and work from area artists, making it the perfect place for tourists and proud residents to shop.
But Benda said the secret to the store’s success was hosting events.
“It was actually really, really great. People were coming in, people were discovering us. We had a few classes. They were starting to really take hold. We started working with a lot of community partners. We were developing a walking map of Grand Rapids,” Benda said.
As coronavirus spread, plans changed.
“Now, it’s like, do we even do that? ‘Cause is anyone going to be able to walk around? And even when the doors open up again and they say, ‘Hey, it’s fine,’ is anyone going to come back into the shop?” Benda said. “I mean, what’s the chances of this going back to normal? You’re always going to be slightly more spooked than you were before.”
PITFALLS ADD PERSPECTIVE: ‘WE’RE NOT DEAD’
Benda says he realized the seriousness of the situation on the eve of he and his wife’s flight to a stationary and planner conference in California.
“I jumped on the phone and saw all flights to Europe were canceled, and I was like, ‘This isn’t a flu. This is something more.’ Nobody shuts down international travel like that unless something serious happens,” he said.
The next day, the couple took a hit in sales and skipped their flight, staying home. That night, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all schools to close.
The couple kept their store open for the following two days before closing.
They also took a hit as a sponsor of the Women’s Expo.
“After two hours of setting up, it got canceled. And you know, what do we do? We’re just sitting there with all this inventory and everything we had prepped for months. Now I got a text today saying, ‘Hey, can we donate the bags because we don’t need them? So it’s like, well, there’s all those marketing dollars out the door,” Benda said.
Oh, Hello Co.’s owners have faced other pitfalls: Benda’s father-in-law died eight days after the store opened, his mother-in-law’s attempt to list her house was halted by COVID-19 restrictions, and then Kayla got sick.
Benda said the doctor went through a checklist of symptoms and determined his wife had the flu.
“I was like, ‘Great!’ You know, you’re running the room, ‘You’ve got the flu!” Benda said, sharing his relief that it wasn’t COVID-19. “She’s like, ‘I don’t feel better.’ I’m like, ‘I know, but we’re not dead.’”
“This is the end of the world for some people,” Benda continued. “When Kayla was sick, I think that scare gave me a lot of perspective, which is well, we don’t have it. At least we don’t think we do. So anything we suffer is going to be less… than what other people are going to be going through.”
SHUTDOWN SILVER LINING
Benda said the problem of unpaid client invoices he has been trying to fix for months has been the company’s saving grace so far — a silver lining to the shutdown.
“What’s been nice is ever since the shutdown, a lot of our bigger clients have actually been paying their bills,” he explained.
The couple’s four employees are getting full paychecks for now, according to Benda. But he says if the pandemic closures continue into next month, both the store and its marketing side are in trouble.
Benda said he’s looking into the company’s options to stay afloat, even checking on the city grant his store was awarded. Loan programs he has seen so far are less than promising.
“The ones that I have looked at, it’s like personally secured loans, meaning if things go south and the business goes under, they still can come after my personal assets,” he said.
‘WE MIGHT AS WELL TRY AND SAVE SOME LIVES’
For now, Benda says they’re focusing on what they can do: Help others who are worse off during this pandemic.
“I’m trying to find something I can do with the laser (printer) to get it going. I’m working with our screen printer to get face masks made, because if we’re going to go broke, we might as well try and save some lives,” he said.
Benda has since designed an “ear saver” for medical masks, which holds the elastic bands that would normally wrap around your ears.
Within 12 hours, the owners of Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts created 4,000 ear savers using their 3D and laser printers and already started mailing them off.
The ear savers are available for free on the store’s website. Those interested just need to pay the $3 flat fee for shipping in the U.S. or $12 for shipping internationally.
“My dad always said, if it’s a problem that money can fix, it’s not the biggest problem you’ve got because there’s people who have problems that money can’t fix. So that’s what I want to help out with right now,” he added.
The couple is also helping people try to find some humor in the situation by providing free coronavirus cancellation stickers for their event planners on https://ohhelloco.com/.
Benda said he’s also passing the time by working on earning more certifications and dreaming up new inventory for Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts.
“I’m either going to go back to our company with tons of new ideas and ready to make the world spin, or I’m going to go find some giant company that hopefully has a beachside opening and go change my life drastically,” he said. “We’ll see. I don’t know. This whole world’s crazy, but as long as we’re alive and happy, we’re good.”