Guests at The Cat Café in February. Image from the cafe’s Facebook feed

I was really looking forward to celebrating the fifth anniversary of my business, the Cat Cafe, last year, which was a milestone we were really excited about. Unfortunately, 2020 had different plans for us.

Originally, we envisioned continued success with reservations booked out months in advance and eager tourists lined up for a chance to enjoy coffee with friendly cats. Like so many others, when the pandemic hit, The Cat Café was forced to temporarily close its doors and unforeseen challenges COVID-19 brought arose.

Now as San Diego and the state reopen and vaccinations are accessible to everyone over 12, the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight. While small businesses will undoubtedly never look the same, the value of supporting local businesses remains more important than ever.

Prior to the shutdown, The Cat Café relied heavily on San Diego’s large base of meetings and conventions thanks to its location in the Gaslamp Quarter. Without those, nearly two-thirds of our customer base was lost. In order to survive until this business came back, we immediately turned to virtual online tools to stay connected with the community. 

We had to get creative to keep our business afloat. Shifting from limited online marketing to targeted marketing through Facebook and Instagram made all the difference. We focused on people close to our location with an interest in animal welfare or cats.

Online communication and targeted advertising proved to be the best tools to engage surrounding communities and inform the public of our plans for reopening. We connected with our audience through live evening sessions on Facebook so that potential customers could see what our cat room looked like from their homes.

The results? When we first reopened after the lockdown, our revenue was about 40% of 2019 revenue. Through the use of digital marketing on Facebook and Instagram, we built our revenue back up to 70% of prior revenue by November.

We also built a thriving online community of engaged potential customers and will continue to integrate our online community with those who visit our cafe. Because of our dedicated customer base and the online community we built, we feel a lot more confident in our ability to handle any challenges that were presented by the pandemic. 

This year has been an incredibly challenging one but it has taught us that small business owners need to find solutions to the challenges that the pandemic brought on. Devote your time, creativity, and money into the resources that allow you to rebrand, remodel and potentially grow your business. 

Small businesses are crucial to the culture and vitality of local communities. People care. Find those people, engage them and keep working at it. There is a customer for every business and direct advertising can be the easiest way to find customers looking to support your business. Sometimes unforeseen challenges change perceptions and let us see previous blind spots that can make a huge difference in the success of a small business.

Doing these things kept The Cat Café alive. We, like businesses around the world, have learned how perseverance and adaptation keep businesses going. The future still is uncertain but we’ve learned for sure that connecting with people who want to support small businesses in their community or interest group is how businesses thrive.

Tony Wang is owner of the The Cat Café on Island Avenue in the Gaslamp Quarter.

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