Alma, Michigan is a small city with a huge history in supporting the arts, but to find a place to watch an art performance with some food, you’d have to drive a couple hours. Damian saw this as a niche opportunity to provide the unique taste of a large city and put it into a cozy, rural space. He got a team together and started Highland Blush.
Damian first opened Highland Blush as a coffee bar, which would provide a cozy, intimate space to showcase art and other professional gigs for everyone from painting artists to comedians. He wanted to make it really special. One of their first mottos was “from your living room to ours”, and to create that comfy and cozy atmosphere and make it seem like they had been around for a hundred years they reused wooden objects from the area. Then they added layers of local art to celebrate the area. Getting coffee wasn’t just about drinking coffee. Highland Blush used procedures rooted in a kind of Italian method of making coffee, which pays a lot of respect to the art of making coffee. People loved the experience and were excited about coming to a cool place.
There was more opportunity to be pulled in. A lot of cool unique Michigan startups had a lot of cool products, like Brix soda from Grand Rapids, but people had to drive hours to get them. So, his coffee bar started providing their products. Then Highland Blush expanded out and began offering some really special pastries and gourmet peanut butter bars that were made at the local confectionary, and Blush was the only spot one could get them.
At the same time, Highland Blush was becoming really popular with fun entertainment things and the coffee house was becoming a place where everyone met. There were people doing conference calls, moms who needed to get work done, group meetings, and committee meetings. With so many people meeting there, Damian and his team started thinking that they should be offering food: gourmet salads, waffles and other stuff.
When they started marketing the lunch angle, business just kept on expanding. People started asking about having Highland Blush host bridal showers and birthday parties and weddings. Blush not only had connections to the business sector but also to the entertainment sector. It was the place to hold a party.
2020 was looking to be a real big year. Downtown Alma was also making new outdoor seatings and opening up new businesses. Sales were building exponentially, and Damian knew that Highland Blush hadn’t even reached its peak.
Then Covid made its entrance.
At first it was a tapering in numbers. The weather was getting warmer but people weren’t coming in. There was a hesitation in the air.
When the restrictions came in, the news hit hard. This cozy, comfy place they’d been cultivating for years — it wouldn’t even be able to open. They wouldn’t be able to host events or have people sit for hours. They couldn’t serve lunch. As for the coffee, nobody wanted to be secluded in an isolated space no matter how big the shop was.
They couldn’t shut down. It wasn’t an option.
They’d been adapting every minute prior to this, always looking for new options and solutions. The train had momentum and needed to keep on moving, but they needed to veer.
So, without ever doing delivery or knowing even how to do it, they immediately got volunteers to be delivery drivers. It was the only available option at the time, but it wasn’t enough.
Overnight, revenue was cut to below a third of their normal. It wasn’t enough to cover basic expenses to even keep the shop open. They had to fight to find financial sources to keep employees and payroll rolling. They had to make every effort to negotiate flexibilities with their utilities and landlords, but nobody was making a move or offering to give a month’s buffer. What made it harder was that they had no backup capital whatsoever. They were still in the growing stages, and then they were up the creek without a paddle.
To keep the business running, they needed to find money and fast. Damian had a strong relationship with the local Small Business Development Center and some councilors that he had been working with when he opened up his second business, a yoga and dance studio. So, when it all hit, he immediately asked for advice. They applied for everything they possibly could – grants from restauranteurs in California, PPP, local grants – everything under the sun. They asked for donations and offered gift certificates.
There were mild successes, a couple of small grants, but the grants were small, just enough for one person’s paycheck who works part time. Fortunately, Damian got PPP loans for both of his businesses, but that would only be enough for eight weeks.
They applied for matching grants and then applied for Small Business Administration (SBA) funds and were denied immediately due to unsatisfactory credit. It was stinging. Being still young and not having a house or credit card debt, Damian didn’t have a long credit history.
Then Congress changed the parameters. They thought they would get funds in the next round, but were denied again. Now, they’re waiting for an appeal on their SBA loan and waiting for a Michigan restart grant.
So far, they just keep on managing to stay just one step ahead. Just when he thought the money was falling out of the sink and there wouldn’t be any more to replace it, they got a matching grant from a local bank. With the online crowd-funding platform, Patronicity, they reached out and picked up some more funding.
Damian’s always thinking about payroll and having enough to pay his employees, but so far they’re managing to stay ahead and keep the business afloat.
With summer, the warm weather came, and Highland Blush set out a large outdoor patio, and people were getting more comfortable and setting up normal routines. But it wasn’t a huge rush. There are days they are swamped, but on other days nothing’s happening and they don’t see a soul.
They also started up marketing campaigns to help get people out. That helped bring an uptick in attendance. They also had a new food menu prior to Covid, which is catching on. It’s saving their butts because less people are coming through the door.
They feel like they’re teetering on a cliff, but they keep on somehow managing to stay ahead of the curve.
“Going through this whole entire ordeal so far has definitely given hope to the idea that, man, if you just keep on thinking and you keep on throwing ideas out there, eventually you’ll find a solution or a semi-solution to the problem.”
Damian’s thinking about the fall. There’s a huge alleyway outside his building where he can put up outdoor seating with some heaters. It will bring a winter wonderland atmosphere. There has to be a solution, he says. They’d been thinking out of the box until this point to make it feasible to stay open.
But it’s not going to be easy. The future is still fraught with risks and Covid is still hanging around. Winter is normally a dead season. He’s hoping some of these loans will pull through, and maybe they’ll have to sell some damn good food. The creative side of his brain is looking for a solution.
Read more on businesses with how a dance studio that is languishing waiting for phase five or how wedding bands perform to empty halls while 2020 is canceled.