The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disastrous effect on the business community in this country, on all levels, from coast to coast. Of course, print media has been virtually decimated in recent weeks, but that is hardly an isolated case. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, with hundreds of small companies going out of business and dozens of larger corporations filing for bankruptcy, including major retailers like Pier 1 Imports, Tuesday Morning and J. Crew. Other companies are fighting for their professional lives, with layoffs, furloughs and store closures in effect in every sector of the economy.
Northeast Florida has not been immune to these challenges, and in some ways has suffered almost disproportionately. With restaurants, bars and nightclubs closed temporarily, and mass transit curtailed severely, the tourism market that drives much of the regional economy has ground to a halt, and no one really knows for sure when things might return to normal. Two weeks into tentative plans for reopening, the death of George Floyd catalyzed chaotic displays of social unrest all over the country, leading to further closures, curfews and damage to the urban cores of cities North and South, East and West, and everywhere in-between.
Believe it or not, there is some good news, though. The old saying that “Every cloud has a silver lining” has proven somewhat true, even in these difficult times. The pandemic and resulting instability has forced Americans, in both personal and professional terms, to reassess and reevaluate how things are being done, evolving with the changing times and adapting to this strange new reality. Even as so many businesses are failing, there are still some that have not only survived, but actually thrived, and some of those are located right here on the First Coast.
At a time when most companies are seeking to streamline their operations, reduce expenses and increase their liquidity, some are using this period as an opportunity to expand their investments. That process has been going on for months now, well before the pandemic began. One notable example is the iconic Maple Street Biscuit Company founded by Scott Moore in 2012, which was acquired by Cracker Barrel last October for the staggering sum of $36.5 million. The most recent case involves Burger King, which spent some $10.8 million just last month to acquire Zap’s Grill. Founded by Dr. Cheikh Mboup in 2014, Zaps is a food-service company with locations in military bases around the southeast, known for selling fresh, never frozen kosher or halal protein.
This past Saturday I stopped by the Island Girl Cigar Bar Downtown. It was a day defined by mixed emotions, with national celebrations overlapping with national crises. You could see both unfold, in real-time; some folks were there to watch the Space X rocket launch live on TV from Cape Canaveral, while others were editing picket signs, pre-gaming for the Black Lives Matter march that unfolded later that day, not even a mile away from where I spoke with Mboup. The launch, like our meeting, had been postponed, but in both cases, the timing worked out perfectly—and there’s a lesson in that for the business community.
“COVID-19, to me, is an amplifier,” he says. If you were doing poorly, it amplifies that, and I have some holdings in that situation. If you were doing well, then maybe this amplifies that, too. The bottom line is that what COVID-19 really did is expedite the timeline that we all knew was coming. We all knew that the era of e-commerce was coming, with instantaneous service being delivered. Businesses now have to adapt to that era much faster, whatever it is that you happen to sell. Businesses that weren’t thinking in that direction are the ones that are suffering the most.”
The path forward for businesses is not only paved by acquisitions. Take, for example, Chomps, a Naples-based company which manufactures and sells beef jerky and various other meat sticks, using all-natural ingredients. Co-founder and CEO Peter Maldonado recently told the Naples Daily News that sales generated via its e-commerce platform only represented 25% to 30% of its overall revenue; that number has now grown by double digits. Even with restaurants currently operating at reduced capacity, and factory meat producers culling stock because of disruptions in the supply-chain, some food-service providers are doing quite well.
Grocery stores are turning steady profits, and local farmers have found new horizons by selling their wares directly to consumers. And, as you would expect, local brewers and distillers are doing just fine. With no shortage of pressure right now, people are refocusing on their mental and emotional health, savoring the extra family time, and reaching for joy at every opportunity. Businesses catering to leisure-time activity are profiting from the pandemic.
The First Coast is ideally-positioned to bounce back nicely from the current crisis, boasting size, low taxes, a diverse population and plenty of room for growth. These are all reasons why Mboup chose to base his operation here. “In my opinion, I think what Jacksonville offers is an eclectic town that has so much potential,” he says. Some have compared it to the Nashville of 15 years ago, and even the Atlanta of a generation past. The future is never certain, and that has rarely been more true than it is now. But some things never change, so there is always money to be made, especially in Florida. That kind of instinct is more important now than maybe ever before, and it’s good to see such instincts bearing fruit in Northeast Florida.
Hull On Earth is a column by journalist and man-about-town Shelton Hull, which appears irregularly in Void Magazine and on Voidlive.com.