Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, more than 160,000 businesses closed between April and September last year, according to Yelp Data.

Food service and art are the first and second largest industries impacted by COVID-19, respectively. According to Census Bureau data, nearly 53% of small business owners don’t expect to return to pre-Covid operations for at least the next six months.

Still, opening a tea shop in Los Angeles was Portia Cheng’s dream. Despite the unprecedented obstacles faced in the year 2020, the USC Gerontology graduate student launched Yoyo Tea Shoppe, targeting customers concerned about their health.

“All my friends think I was crazy,” said Cheng, regarding her decision to open a small business during COVID-19

Though her ideas seemed surreal at that time, her friends helped her name the brand, create the products, and manage the online platform.

Rachel Mao, one of Cheng’s friends who studies Global Marketing Management at Boston University, helped Cheng contact possible suppliers and partners for business cooperation.

“All I could do at that moment was try my best to use my network to help her,” Mao said.

Cheng and Mao called friends living in Los Angeles to taste product samples in December 2019. They tried flavors such as orange green tea, grapefruit yogurt, taro milkshake and Brulee cheese milk tea, sampling nearly 30 flavors to pick ten products to put on the menu.

“My tongue was numb when tasting all kinds of products,” said Summer Xia, a graduate student majoring in economics at USC. In her spare time, she enjoys helping customers figure out what to order at her friend’s shop.

Though products and promotions for Yoyo Tea Shoppe were all set, Cheng still needed to rent a location. “I planned to open my shop in Downtown Los Angeles last March,” which close to where she lived, she said. But Cheng said rent for the store was three times higher than in Irvine where she ended up setting up Yoyo Tea Shoppe. The last step was waiting for the city to give her the green-light to open.

“COVID-19 postponed everything,” Cheng said. “When I saw the stay-at-home order and knew I couldn’t open my shop in March, I felt so sorry for my friends who tried to help me. All my efforts were wasted.”

From obtaining business permits and designing the store setting to selecting the product and training employees, Cheng was one of more than 5,000 people who dared to open a food-related establishment in June in the U.S.

Yoyo Tea Shoppe’s Physical Store. Photo credit: Xuening Gao
Yoyo Tea Shoppe’s Physical Store. Photo credit: Xuening Gao

Another obstacle was that Cheng’s business failed to meet the requirements of the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program, a government-driven project aiding individual businesses with loans. The problem was that her business opened up after the pandemic began.

She has already promoted her shop on Instagram, including in a joint advertisement with Diptyque, a French fragrance company known for its high-end candles and perfume.

Yoyo Tea Shoppe’s joint advertisement with Diptyque. Photo credit: Yoyo Tea Shoppe
Yoyo Tea Shoppe’s joint advertisement with Diptyque. Photo credit: Yoyo Tea Shoppe

Nearly four months after the soft opening, Yoyo Tea Shoppe celebrated an official launch on October 9, 2020. The celebration lasted two weeks offering new customers coupons, including “one free half-gallon drink” and a “buy one, get one free” deal.

Cheng’s coupon promotion strategy brought more than 200 followers to Yoyo Tea Shoppe’s Instagram page. In the official opening week, she sold almost 100 drinks a day, which was three times higher than that in June 2020.

For Valentine’s Day, Cheng cleverly promoted a “buy one drink, get one N95 mask” deal which attracted more than 1,000 followers on Instagram this year in February.

Earning nearly $1,500 a day from her physical store and online shop, Cheng still has greater goals for her business.

“If the pandemic stops one day, I hope my shop will attract more than a hundred customers every day,” she said.

Like Cheng, Shirley Yu chose to promote her business, ShirleyDesignsThings, through both Instagram and Tiktok, where she attracted more than 8,000 followers and received more than 200,000 likes.

Shirley Yu’s Business Logo. Photo credit: Shirley Yu
Shirley Yu’s Business Logo. Photo credit: Shirley Yu

Yu graduated from USC graphic design in May 2020. She started to apply for being a full-time designer after graduation. At the same time, she started drawing cute animals, learning how to crochet, and doing research about materials for her artwork.

“Because of this pandemic, I had a lot more free time and I’ve always wanted to share my artwork and sell it,” said Yu. “If I wasn’t going to start my business now, when was I going to start?”

In September 2020, she launched her e-commerce business on Etsy, where she had more than 350 sales by the end of the year.

The biggest challenge for Yu was that she needed to handle everything by herself since she didn’t hire anyone to assist her. She is responsible for it all: making products, advertising her artwork via social media, wrapping up and sending packages, and after sales service.

Artwork from ShirleyDesignsThings. Photo credit: Shirley Yu
Artwork from ShirleyDesignsThings. Photo credit: Shirley Yu

Fortunately, Yu also received support from her family and friends. They bought her products and left positive comments on her Etsy site and Tiktok. With their efforts, Yu started to attract more audience on social media to buy her hand-made stickers, hats, and tote bags.

Though Yu runs business passionately, she said the hardest part for her business is being her own customer service person. Last week, she accidentally refunded someone when she was supposed to refund another. She thought both customers would put negative comments on her social media page, but neither of them criticized her.

“People are so understanding when you’re a small business, especially when they know you’re just one person,” said Yu. “But in the long run, if you continue to make those types of mistakes all the time, it will damage your credibility.”

Ultimately, many of the skills necessary to launch a business during the pandemic may help small business owners to succeed in more ordinary times. Though COVID-19 has changed the way people live, it might not change how bold individual entrepreneurs run their businesses, and actually bring out the best of their creativity and talent.