The new normal. Lora Sigesmund, co-owner of PerLora Furniture, and her dog Marly work from home during the COVID-19 shutdown. Photo courtesy of Lora Sigesmund.

Life was sweet for Nina Midgley before the COVID-19 outbreak.

She spent the last six years making chocolate and other assorted treats at her store in Bridgeville’s Collier Town Square. Then on March 17, due to the coronavirus, she was ordered to close My Favorite Sweet Shoppe.

While the business had online sales capability, before the pandemic they had fewer than a dozen online sales a year.

A 2020 graduation care package. Photo courtesy of My Favorite Sweet Shoppe.

And now? “It’s all we have other than emailing or calling in an order,” says Midgely. “We aren’t built for e-commerce, so we got a crash course in it real fast.”

The company is staying afloat thanks in part to their custom care packages and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan Midgley was lucky enough to secure. That’s the $349 billion Small Business Administration (SBA) program that offers businesses 2.5 times their monthly payroll — as a forgiveness loan if it is spent accurately. Businesses that are getting it are screaming for joy while those who don’t are screaming for other reasons.

Midgely put 25 percent of the funds toward rent — her biggest expense — as allocated, and the rest to pay her eight-member, part-time staff through June. Some of her staff are making more money from unemployment due to the $600 per week additional funding from the government since the COVID-19 crisis.

One law firm’s story

For the Downtown law firm Vollen Anderson Long, LLC., applying for the hugely popular PPP loan was stressful to say the least. Partner Stephanie Anderson spent 10 hours entering information and re-entering it each time the site crashed on April 3, which was often. Her tenacity paid off; the firm was approved and received the forgiveness loan before the first round of SBA money ran out. They also received a $5,000 grant from the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance (EIDL) funds.

“For a small business like us, these funds will make it possible for us to continue our practice, pay our employees and continue to serve our clients the very best we can during this extraordinary time,” says Anderson. “Without these funds, we were concerned we would not make it out to the other side of this. The stress relief is indescribable.”

All employees — four lawyers and one paralegal — are working remotely while court appearances are conducted via Zoom or telephone conference.

“In our line of work, the fit between client and lawyer is very important,” Anderson says. “Not being able to meet face-to-face has been a challenge, to be sure.”

A longtime successful furniture business

After nearly 26 years in business on the South Side and in the Strip, Perry and Lora Sigesmund had to shut the doors at both PerLora locations. Their 13 employees are in a holding pattern and they have a warehouse full of custom furniture they are unable to deliver — to customers who would love to get it while they are quarantined at home.

To add to their frustration, the Sigesmunds have never done sales online since their business is so tactile.

Luckily, they had recently redesigned their website and already a few longtime customers bought merchandise online that was already in stock. For the first time, Perry took to Instagram (@PerLoraHome) conducting a live virtual tour of their two-story South Side store and they have both FaceTimed with customers.

Wearing gloves and face masks, the couple have personally delivered small items they can carry to customers’ cars. They are now considering hiring professional movers to drop off bigger shipments to customers’ homes.

As it was for many businesses, applying for a PPP loan proved to be immensely frustrating. Perlora did not get the loan the first time around. They are hoping for success with the second round of PPP funding, from more than $310 billion which became available April 27 and is expected to run out quickly.

In the meantime, the Sigesmunds partnered with Bonfire Food & Drink, another East Carson Street business, so they could support each other during these uncertain times. Customers who buy a gift certificate from PerLora will receive a gift card to Chef Chris Bonfili’s eatery, which offers takeout and delivery (via Uber Eats and Grubhub) Thursday through Saturday.

Update: The Sigesmunds scored a PPP loan from a small bank the day this article was published. “It’s a champagne night!” declared Lora.

The state of real estate 

Real estate agents are finding ways to keep in touch with buyers and sellers during the shutdown.

Howard Hanna agent Patty Cappelli of Mt. Lebanon had a 360-degree virtual tour done of a new listing — the house was vacant which made it safe — and posted it on Find it First, a link for new listings. She got two offers and sold the property.

Since the pandemic, Cappelli has set up Zoom calls in connection with virtual tours to get the buyer and seller together to go through the house and answer any questions. A lot is possible between Google Earth and virtual tours, she notes.

When the shutdown ends, Cappelli expects a lot of new properties to go on the market. And while there might be a reduction in buyers who can afford a house, she has quite a few clients who are eager to buy. March, she notes, is one of their busiest months and right now Mt. Lebanon has only 50 property listings.

Closings under contract since mid-March are being completed with limited inspections and appraisals, notes Maggie Jayson, an agent with RE/MAX Select Realty. Despite several obstacles, she was able to close on three properties in April.

In one instance, the building itself was on lockdown and management told the buyer they could access the property but they could not use movers to move in. Another property on Mt. Washington was sold with the buyer attending the closing alone with his realtor. Jayson met with the closing company to sign settlement papers without the seller. Not business as usual.

Opening a business during the crisis

Lifelong North Side resident Galen Moorer grew up in the ice cream business. His father owned a Rita’s Italian Ice on East Ohio Street, but he always dreamed of running his own shop.

After two years of planning, Happy Day Dessert Factory was slated to open last summer on Western Avenue, but construction delays stalled the project. Just when he thought he was good to go, along came coronavirus and the state-mandated shutdown order.

Undeterred, he began providing takeout services and DoorDash delivery on March 18. Homemade ice cream, it turns out, is just what neighborhood residents needed.

“We are doing extremely well,” Moorer says. “Business is booming considering the quarantine. Customers are walking and driving, and out and about in the community after being shut in hours at a time. It also helps that we are adjacent to other local food establishments who are serving takeout as well.”

As soon as Gov. Tom Wolf gives restaurants the green light to reopen, Moorer will welcome people inside to enjoy cool treats. He also plans to showcase local artists and musicians.

Starting a maker business

Photo courtesy of Corona Leather.

Alejandro Pinzón, a native of Yucatan, Mexico, moved to the U.S. more than a decade ago and became a citizen last year. Before the pandemic, he worked as a medical and legal Spanish interpreter and a traveling musician.

Unable to do either once the crisis hit, he turned his hobby into a new venture: Corona Leather, a business that specializes in bags, briefcases, purses, pouches and more, along with custom items for musicians.

“I realized that by launching now, in the middle of this crisis, I could give people hope and happiness, in the shape of leather goods that are beautiful, meaningful, useful — our motto — and that will come in handy when our lives go back to normal. Perhaps a new normal,” Pinzón says.

While he hopes to have a full-scale shop someday, he now hand-stitches his wares at his dining room table, adding a corona, which is Spanish for crown, on each item. The bulk of sales are coming from Facebook and Instagram orders and he also has an Etsy store.

Photo courtesy of Wigle Whiskey.

The ups and downs of a craft distillery 

For Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey and Threadbare Cider & Mead, the last five weeks have been a roller coaster ride — one that isn’t likely to end soon.

She and her family spent two years getting ready to open a new restaurant, bar and mini-museum in the Strip District only to shut it down two days later, along with six of their other locations.

They were fortunate to be able to pivot to online sales for Wigle Whiskey and Threadbare Cider, especially when the PA liquor stores closed. “We saw a huge surge in our online platform,” says Grelli. For awhile.

Then the state stores opened up for online and curbside sales and Wigle Whiskey’s orders dropped significantly.

The business was unsuccessful in obtaining the first round of PPP funding and site glitches halted their attempts to tap into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s small business grant fund. They had no luck with Facebook’s small business assistance program either, since it excludes alcohol manufacturers.

While the company is now making hand sanitizer during the health crisis, there are approximately 45 people on Grelli’s payroll now, down from 168 full- and part-time employees on staff pre-pandemic.

“We’re currently in cash conservation mode, expecting that the COVID online surge in sales will have to carry us through a challenging remainder of the year,” says Grelli. 

Despite all of the setbacks, she has hope.

“We’ve gotten through tough spots before and I know that in a few years, we will look back at this period as a source of strength for future hurdles,” she says. “We’ll think, ‘We got through COVID, we can handle what the world deals us!’ We’re like Pittsburgh in that way; we as a city know what it is to be felled and to rise up. There’s an unsinkable strength that emerges from that kind of experience.

“I’m looking forward to deploying the resilience that we’re building now when the world opens back up!”

Update: Wigle Whiskey got the PPP loan in the second round. PNC President and CEO Bill Demchak called Meredith Grelli personally to break the good news.

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.