Opening a business is tough enough. The permits, the space, the team, the branding, the big idea that will track a slew of loyal customers. But how about opening a business amidst a pandemic and countrywide stay-at-home order? Okay, one more step … let’s make a food and beverage business that relies on community and human-to-human connection. If this sounds like a trying and near-impossible feat, you’re right, but these five Southern businesses have emerged from the other end of a dark tunnel with learned lessons and gumption they won’t soon forget.

Sugar Shane’s Cookies, Atlanta, GA
Shane Quillin, Owner

Shane Quillin had a goal to start a company by age 30, but he expected that company to be in tech or supply chain. Shane’s decade-long love for cooking and ripe, months-old adoration of baking got him thinking. He whipped up his first batch of homemade scratch chocolate chip cookies in late 2019 and was hooked. Shane brought these baked goods to work and to friends and family throughout the holiday season, and after an outpouring of compliments, the idea for Sugar Shane’s, an in-home bakery, came to life … as did a global pandemic.

Shane Quillin turned a hobby into a business during the pandemic … and right before his 30th birthday. Image: Submitted

How did the timing of launching during the pandemic affect Sugar Shane’s?

If you would have asked me this when the pandemic started, I would have said, “This couldn’t be worse.” I didn’t even get started until late February. My initial business plan was to target commercial offices that cater lunch and events. I was passing out free cookies and cookie cakes nearly every day in early March. I had finally landed a few larger clients who chose me to cater their St. Patrick’s Day office parties, but COVID hit hard the week prior and all of my parties were canceled. I was a bit depressed that all the progress I had made came crumbling down. I then had to redesign my entire business model to be a consumer-to-consumer seller.

What did you learn through the process of opening during this time?

People will still order sweets when times are tough and money is thin. Social media is everything in the cookie game. The small business community is a real and powerful thing. Every small business owner friend/colleague I reached out to during COVID was always eager to help, even as their businesses struggled. Lastly, you must continue to operate like it’s a normal day through a pandemic. I slacked off on my 4:30 a.m. wake-ups for a few weeks, and my progress stalled. I have seen solid returns since returning to the early starts.

Can you tell us a story about a win you encountered during the first few months?

I really wanted a piece of commercial business in my business plan during COVID. I was targeting law firms and tech companies, but these offices have remained closed since the start of the pandemic. I decided to market myself to residential real estate companies with a unique twist. I would drop off a handwritten card on their behalf along with a box of cookies or cookie cake for closing gifts and referrals: a personal touch with proper social distancing. This has generated additional revenue and will hopefully gain new business post-COVID.

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Leah & Louise, Charlotte, NC
Subrina Collier, Owner and GM

The Queen City’s flourishing restaurant scene is shining a spotlight on Leah & Louise. Dynamic husband-wife duo Greg and Subrina Collier set up shop at a precarious time — they were slated to welcome their first guests in mid-March — and have paved the way in an exciting new multi-use development. Despite an opening punctuated with setbacks, Charlotteans have proved hungry for L&L’s mouth-watering Southern staples and funky, musical aesthetic.

Charlotte's Leah & Louise in Camp North End

Greg (the tall one under the sign) and wife Subrina (to his right) proudly stand with a staff excited to finally serve the community face-to-face! Image: Facebook

Tell us a little about how you dreamed up Leah & Louise.

Leah & Louise came to life because Greg and I are both from Memphis, TN, home of the blues. So it was something we always wanted to do, as there is nothing like that here. It’s also our love letter to Memphis. I coined the term “Modern Juke” that I use to describe the aesthetics, the feel of the restaurant and even the menu. The name is a tribute to Greg’s late baby sister and late maternal grandmother. They both loved to cook, but Leah was more innovative and Louise was more traditional. Gregory cooks in the middle of them both.

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How has your home — Charlotte’s coolest new creative community, Camp North End — supported you through this?

Camp North End has been amazing throughout this whole process. We had been coming to CNE for other events and loved the whole layout and history of the property. We also loved how many black-owned businesses were over here and thriving. It was very important to us that they were super conscious about the community they were in and fostering the growth of the community.

What have you learned from opening a business during this time?

I know I have become an expert on adjusting and reinventing. We have had to do that now more than ever. For us, it was about looking at the demand and “reading the room” when it came to what got more traction.

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Magnolia & May, Memphis, TN
Chip Dunham, Chef and Co-Owner

This multi-generational family of food industry experts created an amalgamation of their collective cuisine influence. But once Magnolia & May was fully built out, the stay-home ordinance halted this highly anticipated Memphis opening. Chef Chip Dunham and his wife Amanda stayed hopeful, and this unique restaurant family has emerged from weeks of takeout only to open their doors to a hungry and happy Memphis.

Chip Dunham and wife Amanda of Magnolia & May — a business that opened in the pandemic

Chef Chip Dunham, his wife Amanda, and the completed façade of Memphis’ hottest new eatery | Image: Ariel Cobbert

The origin of your “Country Brasserie” is so cool. Tell us a little about how you got started.

About a year ago, my parents, my wife, and I brought this concept to life. My parents have been in the foodservice industry forever — operating a successful restaurant, The Grove, for over 20 years. Growing up, Amanda learned her family’s cuisine and worked in some of the best restaurants in New York. And I grew up in my family’s East Memphis restaurant, trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, then cooked my way through Charleston, SC. The term “brasserie” in French means “brewery.” There are all sorts of things one can brew — ideas, beer, even nonsense. So we decided to “brew” all of our ideas together, and we came up with Magnolia & May. We wanted to create a fun and casual restaurant based on all of our shared experiences working in the restaurant industry.

What was a triumph and a hurdle of opening Magnolia & May during the pandemic?

The biggest success is actually getting the place opened. We experienced a lot of delays and obstacles with construction and getting permits. We are all very happy and proud we opened. And I think the biggest challenge now that we are open is making our guests feel comfortable. Although this can be a stressful time, our team really wants everyone to be able to relax and enjoy their experience with us.

How has the community supported you during this time?

Our neighborhood has been incredibly welcoming! The folks who live around our restaurant have been very supportive, and many have come back a second time. We are so happy to be a part of the community. What I’ve learned the most during this time is just how generous and amazing human beings can be. Most people are able to find the positives and the humor in life even during the worst of times.

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NoraeBar, Louisville, KY
Zack Pennington, Co-Owner

NoraeBar began in the fall of 2018 when Zack Pennington noticed an old office building for sale. He wanted to find something cool to put in that space, but none of the usual ideas made sense. Zack was reminded of the private room karaoke bars he saw in South Korea, so he started asking friends if they thought the concept would fit in Louisville, KY. The consensus was yes. Two of those friends joined Zack in bringing this idea to life. They bought an unused building, completely remodeled it, and then COVID hit.

NoraeBar Louisville karaoke club and private karaoke rooms

The irony of the timing of this business venture is not lost on Zack (sitting down on the right), but this NoraeBar team will soon bring the tunes to all of Louisville. Image: Jess Amburgey

How did the timing of the pandemic disrupt plans?

We received our liquor license the same hour Governor Beshear announced a state-wide shutdown of bars and restaurants. It felt like Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown because we had already had so many setbacks and delays in our timeline. We have a lot of time, effort and money invested in the building and business, and we haven’t really had a chance to “open” in any substantial way yet.

How did you pivot when you realized you could not actually open?

Our actual business will focus on hosting karaoke in the space, but in the meantime we’ve done everything from hosting online karaoke fundraisers for out-of-work service industry folks, selling curbside cocktail kits so people can make our signature drinks at home, and helping local Black activists produce content for their own fundraisers.

What did you learn through the process of opening during this time?

Our understanding of our team’s loyalty and resiliency was further reinforced by this setback. It’s easy to get excited about a new concept when everything is going well, but it’s how people react when you’re knocked down that shows their true character. All of our team has been supportive of the needs of the company and one another. Our core team has gone above and beyond to keep NoraeBar alive and relevant during this chaotic and uncertain time.

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Sol Y Luna, Birmingham, AL
Aimee and Jorge Castro, Owner and Operator

Beloved Birmingham “Tapas & Tequila” spot Sol Y Luna closed down for many years. This family-run, elevated-but-casual and vibrantly designed eatery attracted patrons with its creative dishes, tasty margaritas and unbeatable service. Once owners Aimee and Jorge Castro finally got the blueprint for the new Sol Y Luna, the pandemic also came on to the scene. Here’s what Aimee tells us.

Aimee and Jorge Castro of Sol Y Luna — a business that opened in the pandemic

Aimee and Jorge Castro pose outside the newly opened Sol Y Luna. Image: Submitted

Tell us a bit about how Sol Y Luna came back after being closed for many years.

We were open in Birmingham’s Lakeview District from 1998 to 2013. We decided to close down because the area had changed so much and wasn’t quite right for Sol Y Luna anymore. We always said we would open back up once we found the perfect spot, and then in 2019, we finally got our wish! We had our official opening on February 10, and on March 16, we had to switch to strictly curbside pickup due to COVID-19 concerns.

How did the timing of the pandemic hurt or help you?

With challenges come opportunities to be creative, even inventive. COVID-19 forced us to think outside the box, and for that reason, we think it helped us.

Do you have a story about how your community came together during this time?

We have been so pleasantly surprised to see the generosity of our community during these difficult times. We were able to provide lunches for healthcare workers and essential city employees because of the donations from our customers and the community. We have learned that in times of crisis, we need each other more than ever. It’s been beautiful to see so many people working together to get through these uncertain times.

Thanks to these five business owners for sharing stories of triumph against all odds. Pop in for a meal, takeout or cookie order next time you’re in the area!

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