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Chuck Howes bags freshly roasted coffee beans on Thursday, September 3, at The Breaks coffee shop in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)

Mary Campbell and her husband overhauled their original vision of a downtown Sioux Falls sidewalk cafe, realizing any preconceived notions they had for their business just weren’t possible.

At least not yet.

The Breaks Coffee Roasting Co., a long-time wholesaler of roasted beans, opened its first coffee shop inAugust, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Part of being in the hospitality industry right now is to take care of people, and what’s taking care of people is really making the best decisions even if you’re not making the best amount of money,” Campbell said. “But we were really committed to doing the right thing for everybody while staying open.”

The arrival of COVID-19 in South Dakota led to financial strain for so many businesses. Some closed temporarily and furloughed or laid off their staff. Others have shuttered their operations permanently or sold to new ownership, unable to withstand operational costs that come with trying to wait out the pandemic.

But a number of Sioux Falls entrepreneurs are going the other direction, and using whatever methods they can to foster their fledgling business as they pin their hopes and dreams on the ideas they had before coronavirus changed the landscape.

‘Happy to see each other’

For now, it’s hard to sit and enjoy The Breaks’ new dining room, which Campbell and her husband Corey Gerlach designed to fit the intimate 1,000-square-foot space storefront at 311 E. 12th St.

Customers must order their drinks to go. Gerlach and Campbell follow all of the public health guidelines recommended for businesses, most of which contradict the social nature of a downtown cafe.

“I think our model appeals to people who are trying to be really socially responsible,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to make the most of what we’ve got.”

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Corey Gerlach roasts coffee beans on Thursday, September 3, at The Breaks coffee shop in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)

Gerlach started roasting beans for wholesale roughly five years ago in a warehouse space north of downtown, but he and Campbell knew about their current space from its time as a skateboard shop.

They always thought it would make nice spot for a cafe, with a garage door that opens to the sidewalk, in a growing part of downtown near Total Drag, Gerlach said. They re-designed the interior to give it a warehouse vibe with an updated feel.

Even with their safety precautions, the Sioux Falls community has come to support their business, they said.

“Almost everyone is very respectful of our wishes to wear face coverings,” Gerlach said. “Everyone is still happy to see each other, and it’s fun to see people connect, even if they’re outside or they have to socially distance.” 

‘We had to move forward’

Coming to downtown Sioux Falls was always a dream, even before Errol Stewart opened his arcade bar in a small strip mall in Harrisburg.

So when the opportunity to move EightyOne into the Carpenter Building’s first floor storefront, formerly home to Myers Deli and Keller Green Grocery, Stewart set things in motion by signing the lease.

Then, the coronavirus turned Sioux Falls’ bar and restaurant industry on its head, prompting closures and layoffs across the industry.

But Stewart felt an obligation to honor the terms of his lease, and that meant opening the doors to EightyOne’s new location at 221 S. Phillips Ave.

 “We really had no choice,” he said. “We had to move forward.”

Stewart implemented additional measures to help slow the spread, including adding hand sanitizer stations and extra cleaning throughout the day.

EightyOne opened May 23, after the city’s temporary 10-person patron limit had already been repealed.

It was one of his busiest days ever. Ever since, business has been “consistently pretty good,” Stewart said.

But he still sees an even bigger potential for EightyOne.

Potential competitors such as Bonus Round and Dave & Busters are no longer a concern – the first has closed permanently, the other has indefinitely delayed construction on its first Sioux Falls location.

And downtown arcade bars tend to flourish in other communities, Stewart said.

“It’s very likely that there are still people who feel uncomfortable about going out in general,” he said. “Even though we feel we’re doing well anyway, there’s a big percentage of people who are waiting for everything to blow over.”

Adjusting a business model

The storefront was the next big step for Ellen Doerr, who grew her personal chef business into a growing take-and-bake service preparing meals for customers with dietary restrictions and allergies.

After signing a lease in January, she was ready for some complications in the transition – but not to the degree she experienced.

By the time Chef Ellen held its soft open in the strip mall at 2210 W 69th St., it was May, months into the pandemic.

Thankfully, her business model was built to serve remotely to those who were homebound. She works to keep her website, siouxfallschef.com, updated with new options.

“We also have the kind of model where there’s people coming in and somebody they know got quarantined,” Doerr said. “Or somebody doesn’t want to go out anymore and they’re coming and getting meals for family members.”

She wanted the storefront to support her growing business, but Doerr also wanted to provide new ways to interact with her customers.

She wanted to hold cooking classes and host corporate events.

And that’s what had to be sidelined because of COVID-19. A growing following of people interested in her cheesecake has helped offset the loss, but Doerr sees a future in which she can finally let people use her storefront to learn cooking techniques or do tastings.

“I would love to partner with some of the businesses that have their ingredients in here,” Doerr said. “To do some pop-up dinners to showcase the kind of food we don’t normally do.”

Holding out for the future

Engaging with the Sioux Falls community comes naturally to Pat Wilson.

The owner of Nrdvana helped organize Sioux Falls’ Juneteenth celebration, then used fundraisers at the event and in the store to raise money for a wheelchair accessible van for local resident Malik Paulson.

But that’s just how Wilson operates, and how he wants to run his business.

“Why not? It literally cost me nothing,” Wilson said. “All it took for me to be able to achieve this bit of kindness was me reaching out to a few people and offering a few square feet of my store space.”

Problem is, Wilson knows many of his potential customers still haven’t found his store, even with the outreach.

Nrdvana is a consignment shop that specializes in selling collectibles for gamers, card collectors and comic book aficionados.

Wilson opened in April, just after City Hall enacted its temporary 10-person patron limit for businesses. But he and his wife had put months of work into finding a location and preparing the storefront at 2109 W. 49th St. for customers.

“We knew that the whole COVID thing was happening, but we had already invested so much time,” he said.

His target demographic is often reclusive by nature, Wilson said, and COVID-19 offers plenty of reasons to avoid going out.

But he and his wife have worked to make the store safe for people who want to both buy and sell collectibles. Nothing can be touched without Wilson’s permission, glass displays ensure that everything is wiped down on a regular basis and there are masks available in-store to anyone who wants one.

In fact, it was Carissa Wilson’s mask-making business that helped provide for the family as Nrdvana was preparing to open. Her company, Foxing Crafty, sells its masks in Nrdvana’s store as well as making orders for corporate clients.

Their goal for now is to hang on during the pandemic. Patrick Wilson has faith Nrdvana will succeed in a post-COVID world.

“When people come to the store, they fall in love. They really do,” he said. “My hopes for the future is this can survive.”

‘You can’t hold onto plans too tightly’

Hello Hi hasn’t even opened its doors yet, but the pandemic is already disrupting the downtown business.

The bar moved into the old Half Baked storefront on March 1, with owners eager to start construction. The bar was founded by three Sioux Falls bartenders featuring tiki drinks and other classic potables.

But then COVID-19 hit.

Plans hit pause; shipments were — and still are — delayed. Construction materials increased.

They thought they might survive opening during the pandemic, said Brandon De Jong, co-owner and founder of the bar. But, realistically, an October opening, delayed by the pandemic and flooding issues, will involve social distancing and masks.

He’s just hoping that cases will decrease in the coming months.

“We’re grateful we’re going into this with our eyes wide open instead of getting blindsided after opening,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how best to keep our Hello Hi crew and guests safe while still creating a fun atmosphere.”

Their whole dream has had to change, and they’re trying to adjust to responsibly serve the Sioux Falls community and still keep their business running.

Since there are no regulations set by the state or local government, it’s up to businesses to decide how best to serve and protect their customers, De Jong said. Before opening, the trio is watching for best practices and what the public is supportive of, as well as guidance and recommendations from health officials.

Some changes they know they’ll make includes staff wearing masks, limiting capacity and removing shareable items from the menu. If De Jong learned anything so far this year, it’s that “you can’t hold onto plans too tightly.”

“We had to have a conversation of whether to hit the pause button and wait and see, but we decided to charge forward, pivot and make the most of what we can,” De Jong said.

But De Jong is still excited for what the tiki bar can offer guests — an escape.

“I’m eager to embrace that tiki spirit and provide a unique space for people to escape and unwind and, at least for a little while, leave their worries outside,” De Jong said. “I think there’s a need for what we’re offering to Sioux Falls at this time.”

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