Across The Virginias: New businesses started despite COVID-19

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By Bobby Bordelon

Featuring reporting by Shawn Nowlin, Leigh C. Merrifield, and Sarah Richardson

Although cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the United States, this has not brought the entire economy to its knees – small businesses with big intentions have been cropping up across the Virginias.

Two of these businesses were also created by people much younger than one would expect – one business owner began at 18 and is now starting a second business two years later next door and a 12-and-14-year-old pair of brothers began a mobile “pop-up shopping” venture.

In Virginia,

One local Salem start up began as a lesson in planning and turned into a real life business. Pastor Kevin McNeil offered his two boys, Kevin and Carrington, a deal – if they developed an impressive business model, he would fund their idea with $250.

“It was important that their business plans were detailed and included projections,” explained Pastor NcNeil. “For weeks they came up with individual ideas before ultimately deciding what made the most sense. Kevin, 14, expressed an interest in selling space to vendors while Carrington, 12, decided to sell homemade funnel cakes.”

Kevin McNeil with his sister Courtney, brother Carrington and father Kevin.

Vendor’s Hub, a “pop-up shopping” venture as the younger Kevin describes it, is committed to providing a central location for Salem residents to sell everything from beauty products to old clothes. A portion of Vendor Hub’s proceeds will be redistributed throughout the city and Bethany Christian Church.

“I would describe both of my sons as highly-intelligent and introspective. They are bright kids with big hearts and big ideas. My wife and I are so proud of them,” Pastor McNeil said. “We are now looking at starting a young entrepreneur’s team to help other teens in Salem learn how to start their own businesses and answer any questions they may have.”

Vendor Hub’s first official day of business was last Saturday at Bethany Christian Church, 3115 Fleming Avenue, where Kevin serves as the pastor, a leasing space for the event. Social distancing was emphasized and everyone who participated wore a face covering. Individuals interested in learning more information may visit the Vendor’s Hub Facebook page.

“I wasn’t exactly sure how things would go, but the day turned out better than I imagined. A lot of face masks and funnel cakes were sold,” Kevin said with a smile. “A similar event is scheduled at my father’s church on August 1. I am looking forward to serving the community once again.”

In Patrick County, one of the newest residents took a potential new hobby and expanded the idea in to a new business while ‘experiencing the simple life’ Virginia has to offer – Batts Blooming Blessings Farm.

After leaving what they initially thought to be their forever home in Florida, Kathleen Batts and her husband moved to Patrick County approximately a year ago. The move was prompted by her husband’s, Kyle Batts, employment with Duke Energy, but in searching for a new home, Kathleen Batts looked to recreate a part of her childhood growing up on a farm in Oklahoma.

Sunflowers are still in bloom at Batts Blooming Blessings Farm, which is located just off of U.S. 58, in the Critz community. (Contributed photos)

“We found the perfect farm here”, she said of a 26-acre parcel of property just off of U.S. 28 on Vias Orchard Road. Planting for this year took off in the spring, with 40,000 sunflower seeds spread throughout the acres.

“We ran out of seed and I went out and bought birdseed, and planted some of those seeds too,” Kathleen Batts said. “We have some areas that the deer ate,” but overall the flowers have thrived.

The farm also raises poultry, dogs, small livestock, bees, pigs, which are clearing land planned for goats, and more.

“I make goats milk soap and stuff like that, wool dryer fiber balls and other assorted wares” Batts said, adding that the family also is busy converting a small building on the property to what will be a shop to display her wares.

Kathleen Batts takes a break to enjoy the goats – a centerpiece and main attraction to many who visit her family’s farm.

Although the farm’s shop is “not done” yet, the farm is already open for business. Eventually, the farm is looking to include a “you-pick flower farm,” and add more variesties of flowers, Batts added.

“We had a family of 10 here this morning,” Batts said. “I took them out to play with the goats, feed the chickens and to see the pigs. … [Guests] come and hang out. They walk through the flowers and we show them around. Petting the goats, that was their favorite part.”

Kathleen Batts also said she has no plans to leave the area, meaning this farm business means to stay for the long haul.

“We love Patrick County. Everybody is so friendly. My first impression” came during a trip to Walmart, she said. “I told my husband I was surprised at how friendly everyone was. It’s great. We love it here.”

In West Virginia,

According to West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, businesses have not totally stopped forming since last year.

In terms of new business creation, Summers County took the lead, with 17.51 percent growth, and Taylor and Clay counties not far behind.

In Greenbrier County, 216 new businesses began between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. This includes 67 in Lewisburg, 41 in White Sulphur Springs, and 21 in Ronceverte. This doesn’t include previously existing businesses, such as the downtown move of Amy’s Cakes and Cones in Lewisburg.

“Even during a pandemic, opportunities for business growth exist,” Warner said. “The Secretary of State’s Office is making sure the registration process is easy and quick for every new business.”

A just-out-of-high-school owner of Vincent Lumber in Shinnston founded one of these businesses – East of Chicago Pizza.

After graduating from Bridgeport High School in 2018, Jeffrey Chalfant took over Vincent Lumber within a couple of months. He said he just didn’t want to risk being like many his age – an unemployed college graduate facing looming students loan debts – and trade school didn’t interest him either. However, anything business related really energized him.

“I was very fortunate to have a supportive family, and they own a construction business so I had been exposed to the business world somewhat; I just didn’t see myself building homes for the rest of my life,” explained Chalfant.

When he purchased Vincent Lumber two years ago, the former site of the Shinnston Dairy Queen came with it. This is the location of Chalfant’s franchise of East of Chicago Pizza Company, a 1991-founded Ohio restaurant focusing on oven-baked pizzas.

“The consensus seemed to be that everyone was interested in a restaurant of some sort going in there,” Chalfant said. “I would have been happy to lease the property to someone, but when that didn’t come about, I began checking around because I didn’t want to leave the building vacant. Most chains, though, had stipulations regarding population numbers and a high traffic count, and things like that. I had a structurally sound building, although it needed a lot of work; I had ample parking and visibility. And I finally found East of Chicago Pizza willing to locate a franchise here, saying that they ‘thrived’ in smaller communities. That’s how it came about.”

Stephanie Mayle works as manager of the restaurant, overseeing the 18 other employees hired by the business. Delivery is available, and since folks are still being urged to be cautious during the pandemic, for those who don’t want to get out of their car, curbside pickup will also be offered.

“When pandemic numbers begin to diminish and the Health Department will permit it, we will be offering both a lunch and dinner hour buffet as well,” Chalfant added. “Right now, though, we are happy just to get our doors open. The area has really supported and welcomed me at the lumber company and I am hoping to get the same response at East of Chicago Pizza.”

The facility’s exterior was painted before winter’s onset, and interior renovations began in March. Chalfant says he has received a warm welcome from the community and feels settled with his work now. East of Chicago Pizza opened in Shinnston on Monday, July 13th.