Is now the time to start a business? Pandemic spurs new Northern California ventures
Help-wanted signs may be part of the pandemic’s legacy. But another could be the uptick in business license applications, as more seem to be warming to the idea that now is the time to stop working for someone else.
“People get extremely creative when things get weird. (Entrepreneurship) is not uncommon in times of severe economic turbulence. There is a history of those times producing a lot of new businesses because people were either laid off or it changed someone’s mindset regarding their career and life goals,” Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, told the Business Journal. “And a lot of people are moving geographically. It provides people with interesting life circumstances.”
In the last two years, thousands of people have started businesses in the North Bay, a phenomenon happening throughout the country.
“I am optimistic about this next year. I think the trend is more businesses will open. People are willing to invest and bounce back our economy,” said Bernie Narvaez, a Napa City Council member, president of the Napa County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and owner of Narvaez Insurance Services.
Narvaez sees the increase in local businesses in the last two years mirroring the rise in the number of customers he has who are seeking workers’ compensation insurance.
‘Would not have been home thinking what else he could do’
Ricardo Gonzalez was managing Bistro Don Giovanni restaurant in Napa when California shutdown in March 2020. Laid off for four months, Gonzalez had plenty of time to think about his future. He and his wife, Cristal Villasenor, noticed food trucks were still operating, and most were bringing in a steady stream of cash.
By August the couple was operating Los Agaves Napa food truck. A year later they signed a multi-year lease on a downtown Napa brick and mortar location for a restaurant by the same name.
“I think the pandemic made his dream a reality. Without the pandemic, he would not have been home thinking what else he could do because he had a full-time job,” Villasenor said of her husband. “Yes, it was his dream to have his own restaurant, but it was not something he was actively pursuing.
“We are Mexican, so we know good Mexican food. We use a lot of recipes from our families.”
The restaurant along the Napa River opened for lunch and dinner on Jan. 21 and has been sold out every weekend. Many of the Los Agaves Napa food truck aficionados are restaurant diners, and many of those who worked on the truck are employees at the restaurant. For now, the truck will be reserved for catering.
“I do all the paper work, make sure it is profitable, that the bills get paid, all the licenses are up-to-date and he handles all the operations,” Villasenor said of the division of labor at the restaurant.
Villasenor has owned Elite Financial accounting firm in Napa since 2013, so she is well versed in all things numbers.
‘Perfect time to segue to a new business’
For Carolyn Rebuffel Flannery, the chaos of COVID-19 became the cure for her unhappiness.
In October 2020, she started the nonprofit Make It Home. Based in San Rafael, serving Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The charity serves people in Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties. Two staff members receive a paycheck, while volunteers put in the bulk of the hours. Flannery would like to be big enough one day to hire an executive director and perhaps more employees.
Her business is like a food bank, except instead of food being donated and then given away, it’s furniture. Thus the reason Flannery calls it a furniture bank.
“We actually provide furnishings to anybody and everybody who is in crisis who we can help,” Flannery said.
The pandemic exacerbated what people need because many have been uprooted by landlords or lack employment and need to move. In the first 16 months, Make It Home has helped 450 households, according to Flannery.
Donations are stored at Northgate Mall in San Rafael at an 11,000-square-foot space that was donated.
“For me the pandemic was the perfect time to segue to a new business. I was frustrated and not super happy doing interior design. I’d been doing it for 25 years,” Flannery told the Business Journal. “I was seeing all of this waste, which was ridiculous, and the need was ridiculous. So the waste was going to solve the need problem.”