Survival with Support from Others

Kalyn Kim's business was on the brink of shutting down completely back in March 2020. The turnaround for Kim came after a church group of small business owners banded together to share tips and successes, and found ways to support each other through the tough times.
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Photo: Aaron Yoshino

The pandemic has crippled thousands of small businesses in Hawai‘i and forced tens of thousands of people to find new jobs. Amid these personal tragedies are stories of grit, perseverance and transformation. Here is part five of a series of stories about resilience during the pandemic. 

Kalyn Kim’s business usually picks up in March: The weather is warmer, and folks are hankering for shave ice from Shimazu Store at 330B N. School St. in Nu‘uanu.

But not in March 2020.

“My heart sank,” she says, thinking back to the early days of the pandemic. “It literally happened the week after spring break and we had just gotten back from vacation. We were watching the news. I got back to work and the state had shut down.

“I didn’t know what to do. Am I allowed to stay open? I had read we’re only allowed takeout. So I got the table and shoved it to block the front doorway, and taped the menu to the table and said, ‘OK, I think we’re takeout.’ ”

But hardly anyone came, even though she was open during her normal hours. Many days she made just $50. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it. I can’t survive like that.’ And then the panic sets in.”

Kim went through stages of grief for weeks and was close to giving up.

“Two weeks after they shut down, I just broke down and that’s when I said to my boyfriend, ‘There’s nothing I can do; I have to let go.’ When I did let go I felt better. And then all these things happened. Dave Oyadomari called me and invited me into the Ekklesia Group of small-business owners. I know him from church. I was hesitant to join at first because it was something different but he said there are other business owners and possibly we could help each other and support each other and I said I’d try it.”

That was the turnaround moment. Suddenly Kim had a group of people who knew what she was talking about. “It felt good to know these people understood what I was feeling. That was such a relief.”

The weekly video calls were also uplifting and began with everyone sharing something good that had happened that week. And everyone offered ideas for new products and ways to collaborate.

“That’s how I came up with the old-fashioned ice cake that’s syrup and water in an 8-ounce cup, and it took off like crazy,” says Kim. “People come in and they’re buying 30, 40, 50. We’ve had orders for several hundred at a time. We sold over 3,000 ice cakes in September alone. I have regular customers who come in and buy 30 to 40 a week. It was great to put our businesses together and work with each other, not against each other.”

The group promoted each other on social media and marketed a Christmas collection called the “Aloha Basket,” which included items from each store.

Of course, many challenges remained. She applied online for the first Paycheck Protection Program loans and says it was “just awful.” It took four or five hours to get everything in, because the program kept restarting. “I must have redone the application five or six times.”

She checked the payroll box, but failed to check the rent box on the application that eventually went in, so no rental assistance came. “When I got the amount, my heart sank. It was so little, $6,000. It helped with payroll for two months.”

But as summer arrived, more customers were craving her shave ice. “We were just so grateful for the local community to keep coming in and supporting us, and having friends come in just to support me.”

Her landlord gave her a break on rent for three months for which she was grateful. And her son, who had worked for her, was able to apply for unemployment.

“Back in April last year when I thought things can’t get worse, I noticed my safety line on my curb was freshly painted yellow. One of my regular customers came out and painted my curb for me. And he said he usually came in the morning and picked the weeds around the store. When I heard that I cried.

“All these little blessings right in front of me that I didn’t see. There are a lot of bad things happening but wow, when you see the good that people do for you, that’s what keeps you going.”

Categories: Business & Industry, Business Trends, Small Business, Success Stories