Small businesses, here's a case study in surviving the pandemic when your clients are struggling - Technical.ly Delaware

Growth

Dec. 7, 2020 7:29 am

Small businesses, here’s a case study in surviving the pandemic when your clients are struggling

"People say support small business, but businesses, make sure that you support your vendors," says First State Hood & Duct co-owner Erica Dorsett. "Local businesses supporting each other is how we thrive."
Clarence and Erica Dorsett, owners of First State Hood & Duct.

Clarence and Erica Dorsett, owners of First State Hood & Duct.

(Courtesy photo)

First State Hood & Duct, a small, Black-owned commercial kitchen hood cleaning business, had its most profitable month in October 2020.

Yes, in the midst of the pandemic. And the vast majority of Erica and Clarence Dorsett’s clients are restaurants — businesses that have been hit unusually hard by COVID-prompted restrictions in recent months.

Unsurprisingly, strategic pivots were involved. But the basis of First State Hood’s success, its owners say, goes back to a way of doing business that puts helping people over cut-throat competitiveness.

More than a decade before COVID, the Dorsetts, both State employees at the time, met, married and decided to go into business for themselves.

“You know when you’re working a 9-to-5 and you’re tying to figure out how to get out of this rat race? The first thing you start with is what you do as a profession,” Erica Dorsett told Technical.ly.

Clarence had worked in lawn maintenance for the State, so they started with a small lawn care business, which they quickly realized wasn’t going to pan out. Then he remembered that a friend had suggested going to Tennessee with him to get certified as a hood cleaner. That was the start of First State Hood.

Although restaurant kitchen hood cleaning doesn’t have the volume of competitors as a business like lawn care, the two established businesses that did such work in Delaware at the time had been there for decades and offered more services. People knew them.

“They were older, they were white and they had the loyalty of the people,” Dorsett said.

One day shortly after the business had launched, she was out trying to generate customers when a business owner told her he was staying with the company who installed his hood to clean it. She went on her way, and got a call from one of her customers asking if they installed hoods.

"He taught us how to grow and we became complementary partners in the industry."
Erica Dorsett on collaboration over competition

“Well, I ran around the corner back to the guy and said, ‘Can you tell me who put your hood in?'” she said. “I explained that yes, I was the quote-unquote competition, but I wanted to give [the other company] a customer because even though we weren’t able to help them, it’s our job. If someone calls you and needs help, you help them. So I passed the customer on to him.”

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That’s how Dorsett first got the contact information of Mike Woodie, owner of Quality III Fire Protection.

“It got his attention,” she said. “After I’d referred two or three more people to him, he gave me a call. He was like ‘I’d like to meet you and your husband.’ We sat down and he basically started mentoring us. He taught us how to grow and we became complementary partners in the industry. He ended up referring all of his hood cleaning business to us, and we referred all of our ANSUL [fire protection products] to him.”

After 11 years of working together, Woodie retired, and First State Hood had, over those years, become a self-sustaining, successful business.

Then, of course, COVID hit. And it hit the restaurant industry hard.

“We first felt it in New Jersey, because their government started shutting down immediately,” she said. “Then it started to trickle in to Delaware. We had a couple of customers on Main Street [in Newark], where it really went down once the university stopped.”

This past spring, First State Hood’s revenue was down by 50%. As a partnership LLC where they took a draw and not salaries, they did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, nor did they qualify for unemployment when it was opened up to sole proprietor business owners.

“We didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We knew closing wasn’t an option, but we didn’t know what to do. The first idea that I had was to just start calling customers. I called them and was like, ‘How’s business going?’ If they said it’s tough, I was like, ‘No problem, I’ll be praying for you,’ and we left it that.”

A meeting with their chemical supplier made them realize that they had a business that, with some adjustments, was in a position to do well in the pandemic.

What she found was that just reaching out to clients without pressuring them to give her work made a difference. Some restaurants, like The Mediterranean in Pennsylvania, were doing well with fewer hours and dinner-only menus.

“Its owner, Joseph, said, ‘Because business is doing good for me, and I know it may not be doing good for you guys, come on and clean it.’ Same thing with Southeast Kitchen near Trolley Square.”

Those jobs got them by, but the Dorsetts knew they had to pivot if they were going to survive.

A meeting with their chemical supplier made them realize that they had a business that, with some adjustments, was in a position to do well in the pandemic.

“He said, ‘I want to tell you right now, germs are the new grease. As soon as you can, I need you to start a cleaning business, start cleaning spaces for COVID,'” Dorsett said. “He walked us through the chemical to buy, how to use it and what to use. We waited like a month because of course we didn’t have any money.”

Then, at last, the State of Delaware came through with small business relief grants that they qualified for.

“We were able to take a substantial amount of money and invest in those cleaning products,” she said, adding that they were also able to update their website, which hadn’t been redone since 2011.

They reached out to Woodie’s grandson, who is still in the business. He showed them how to change motors and install grease gutters.

“We put in our first motor in April, and after that we started to install grease boxes,” Dorsett said.

In September, First State Hood’s business revenue was up 125% from 2019, leading into its biggest-ever month in October.

The Dorsetts credit the compassion and coming together of local businesses for the upturn.

“If it wasn’t for Joseph saying ‘come over and clean the hood,’ where would we be?” she said. “People say support small business, but businesses, make sure that you support your vendors. We eat [at client restaurants], we spend money with them. Local businesses supporting each other is how we thrive.”

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