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HER take on small business success: A conversation with The District's Abby Huff

Abby Huff, executive director of Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District (submitted photo)
Abby Huff, executive director of Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District (submitted photo)

In the face of the pandemic and its hard hit on small, locally-owned businesses, “the push to shop small has resonated with a lot of people,” said Abby Huff, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District in Cedar Rapids.

The winter months of January and February are notoriously tough for small businesses, but a few stores and restaurants located within the Main Street District reported to Huff that they’ve had their best post-holiday sales since opening.

It’s encouraging news given the challenges small businesses have faced during the past year. But it’s worth noting that some businesses — particularly ones that don’t serve food — have had it a little harder than others.

“Retail has to work harder to make sure their name stays out there,” Huff said.

To remind people about all of the unique businesses in the district, Huff has planned virtual and distanced events, like shop local bingo, a scavenger hunt and a handful of outdoor events.

She notes that The District is getting a little extra help from local residents through social media. On Facebook, she’s noticed customers recommending local places to buy things — even common objects that might otherwise be purchased at a big box store — since the pandemic began.

Businesses owners themselves, of course, have also tried to get the word out. Many have increased their online presence, even while they were busy finding new ways to do business. Some have added online shopping options and implemented curbside pickup.

At least some good has come from all of that change, according to Huff.

“It’s really boosted creativity. A lot of businesses are thinking about where they want to be in the next five years,” she said.

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A few local business owners had the opportunity to sit down with business consultants recently, thanks to a new Main Street Iowa program called The Small Business Lab. The program, which was offered at no cost to the businesses, included coaching from individuals well-known for their entrepreneurial abilities.

“It helped businesses envision what they need to do to get where they want to be,” Huff said.

Businesses also were offered financial support, thanks to Huff and her staff re-directing $15,000 to businesses in need of help. The funds, which were gifts from local banks originally intended to serve as loans for new and expanding businesses, were instead used to support existing ones — with the banks’ blessing.

Although Governor Reynolds recently relaxed Iowa’s COVID-19 restrictions, Cedar Rapids and Linn County still have a mask mandate in place, and Huff said the majority of the restaurants and businesses in the district are keeping mask and distancing rules in place.

For some small businesses, using social media to communicate about COVID practices and guidelines is a new skill for some owners, but Huff said it’s been helpful.

“Customers appreciate it. And they want to keep the businesses that they love safe,” she said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic not yet over, Huff continues to spend her days thinking of new ways to support local businesses. And she knows she’ll need to stay nimble as things change.

“Each month, we’ve said, ‘what can do we do now?’”

With outdoor events at least a few months away, Huff’s latest efforts involve promoting a “cozy night in” with a puzzle from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library or a paint-by-numbers kit from Rustic Chic Boutique, paired with carry-out food from one of the restaurants in the district, like Fong’s Pizza.

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Huff is pleased that so many people are turning to local businesses to keep them fed and entertained until they can get out and about more.

“I see people thinking locally first now,” she said.

Quotes about small business success

“Success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally. It comes from what you do consistently.” – Marie Forleo

“Small business isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for the brave, the patient and the persistent. It’s for the overcomer.” – Unknown

“A business absolutely devoted to service will have one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large.” – Henry Ford

Books on small business success

“The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local, and Reclaim the American Dream” by Carrie Rollwagen

“Minding the Store: A Big Story about a Small Business” by Julie Gaines, author; Ben Lenovitz, illustrator

“Shop Local: A Practical Pain-Free Guide to Shopping With Purpose” by Heidi Butzine

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.