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St. Louis Entrepreneurs Are Pivoting To Fill The New Coronavirus Economy

Brandin Vaughn lays out fabric to make face masks in his Cherokee Street-based boutique. Demand for the product is soaring, and it's helping him pay the bills until clothing sales pick up.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Brandin Vaughn lays out fabric to make face masks in his Cherokee Street-based boutique. Demand for the product is soaring, and it's helping him pay the bills until clothing sales pick up.

Brandin Vaughn didn’t intend to get in the mask-making business. In fact, he was kind of dreading it.

“It’s really not something that I like doing. You know, I want to create fashion — I’m a fashion designer,” said the owner of Cherokee Street boutique Brandin Vaughn Collection.

But these days, customers are only calling him for one product — face masks. Vaughn has made nearly 1,000 since reluctantly making one for his aunt in early April.

“It made a difference when I saw people picking them up and thanking me like, like, ‘Oh, my God, why are you thanking me for this piece of square?” Vaughn said with a laugh.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit businesses hard, and it’s especially difficult for those who started their operations from the ground up. But entrepreneurs are used to pivoting when things go wrong. Many, like Vaughn, are refocusing their skills to meet new demand and keep the lights on.

Jerome Katz, head professor of entrepreneurship at St. Louis University’s Chaifetz School of Business, said he expects to see a lot more entrepreneurs sell new products out of necessity. 

“They know they need to get some money. If no one is paying them, then they’ll find something they can do that can get them paid,” he said. 

Filling new markets

Kent Householder’s business constructing conference booths for companies came to a screeching halt in March, when states began shutting down large gatherings. 

But instead of laying off his eight full-time employees, Householder decided to start a new business — Temporary Protective Barriers. It specializes in making cubicles and sneeze guards for the era of the coronavirus. 

Householder said his team had to work quickly to meet demand from businesses trying to reopen with social distancing guidelines in mind.

“This is not something we've got six months or a year to get accomplished. As the businesses call, they're pretty much ready to get these things installed now,” he said. “Luckily, that's something we're good at.”

Within weeks of launching, Householder said they started taking orders to install temporary acrylic barriers to protect employees heading back to work, as well as patrons of places like the Ulysses Grant Historic Site. 

Like sneeze guards, hand sanitizer is another hot commodity in the new coronavirus economy. The second floor of 4 Hands Brewing’s taproom used to be filled with people sipping beers. Now, it’s completely devoted to bottling and labeling hand sanitizer. 

Owner Kevin Lemp initially began making it just for staff but quickly expanded to sell the product locally.

“I mean, our entire operation is 1,000 times different than it was two months ago,” he said.

Making the new product has also allowed him to bring back staff he previously laid off, and it’s helping make up for lost beer sales. “We lost 30% of our customer base immediately,” he said. “We haven't put beer in a keg in months.”

Now, the brewery has produced more than 20,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. Customers can buy it directly, but 90% of the business is supported by orders from large corporations.

“It’s Schnucks and Dierbergs buying pallets of it to make sure the people behind the counter — to make sure that the cashiers are being protected,” he said. “Which in turn will hopefully make that customer a little more protected.”

Lemp doesn’t see the new product line as a permanent addition, but he said they’ll keep making it as long as there’s a need. 

Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Fashion designer Brandin Vaughn misses making colorful jackets and evening dresses. For now, customers are only buying face masks, but that's helping pay the bills.

‘You just gotta figure it out’

Brandin Vaughn is still getting used to his new business model — and he misses fashion. Instead of prom dresses, he made face masks through the spring.

Still, he’s grateful the masks are helping pay the bills and bringing in customers from around the country. Now, the challenge is to find a way to make his fashion brand relevant beyond masks. 

Vaughn has lots of ideas that center around the home — like curtains, pillows and a cozy clothing line.

“I got my entrepreneur cap on, because it's like, I can't fold, I can't give up, you know, because this is a dream. And a way is gonna happen — I'm sitting here making masks and my doors are still open, and I'm still in business, you know?” he said. “So, I mean, you just gotta figure it out.”

Vaughn doesn’t want to make masks forever. But he said he’s glad he can make something that keeps people safe while they figure out their own way to get through the pandemic.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.