For many of the vendors of Eastern Market’s Sunday market, which showcases local entrepreneurs and artisans, the pandemic has hit especially hard.
Opening on June 21, the Sunday market got a late start this year because of the pandemic, which hurt many businesses. For about 30% of vendors, Eastern Market is the primary source of income for them, market manager Lonni Thomas says.
The number of vendors are also down; typically there are 130 vendors and less than half returned this year.
Many were uncomfortable with returning amid safety concerns, Thomas says, and the novel coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black Detroiters (Black residents and African Americans accounted for 83% of reported deaths, according to data from the city of Detroit). Nearly 90% of the vendors are Black. “The Sunday market vendors basically reflects what the city of Detroit is like, which is a predominantly Black city. And the Sunday market is as well,” Thomas says.
Nationwide, research suggests COVID-19 shutdowns have devasted Black-owned and minority-owned businesses in particular. Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 41% of Black-owned businesses have closed as a result of COVID-19, compared to just 17% of White-owned businesses.
Thomas says she’s heard from vendors about their challenges to access capital and lack of opportunity to tap into the pandemic-relief funds.
While these small businesses have faced incredible adversity during a tumultuous time, for many it was a time to reset and think about how to come back stronger.
The Sunday markets are wrapping up for the season this month, but for several vendors, after months of adapting and reinventing themselves, they're looking forward to the future (and they’ll have another opportunity for in-person sales later this year by vending at Eastern Market's holiday markets; check out the sidebar for more information). Meet some of the women behind the Sunday market who share how they started their business, how they found opportunity during a dark time, and why they’re optimistic about the future.
10|7's table at Eastern Market
While going to high school in Memphis, Tennessee, where her family was living at the time, Allison Sims discovered she had a knack for art.
“I took to it pretty naturally and it just kind of comes to me easy,” she says. Four years ago, she parlayed those talents into her 10|7, under which she operates her custom art business and apparel line.
When her family moved back to Michigan when she was 18, Sims went out and got as many as Detroit-branded apparel she could find. Exploring Eastern Market and the vibrant arts scene “really sparked the need for my own business so 10|7 was born.”
She launched the company in 2016.
“As soon as I got the idea for the apparel company, I was like, I need to find a place to showcase this. Online marketing, website, that's great. But I wanted to be able to actually meet my consumer,” she says.
She connected with Thomas to vend at the Sunday market where she sells apparel like hoodies and T-shirts as well as accessories. Her logo is channels Detroit icons: there’s the old English D, a 313 for the E, and the Spirit of Detroit. Her best-selling item is the classic black 10|7 T-shirt.
Like many of her market peers, the biggest downfall has been the cancelation of in-person events. But she’s optimistic about where 10|7 is heading. “I like to think of this kind of like a new opportunity in a new way to be creative and find other sources to make my business thrive.”
While in-person contact has changed, essentially shutting down events, she sees the online side of her business prospering. Since COVID-19, her business has dropped 30-40%, but online sales in general are up 15% for her apparel.
But the biggest area of growth is her custom sales, which skyrocketed 60%. That side of the business, whether it’s new sneakers or a one-of-a-kind painting, has been “reaching new heights.
“As far as the custom [business] and online presence, I feel like that is honestly the direction that I need to take [10|7] because we're moving into a different world now where everything is done online,” she says. “That's how I see the business going, to everything just being online, the custom orders. Everyone wants something personal to them … So I do see that side of our business thriving.”
Michelle Wyckoff was frustrated. She found herself constantly having to reapply lotion to her ankles by mid-day to prevent them from getting ashy. So she started researching products and stumbled upon shea butter.
“I didn't even know anything about shea butter, because I was so used to the products that I was using,” she says. So she bought some ingredients to make her own and started to make some for her family and friends. People started telling her how much they liked it.
In 2014, Wyckoff launched Michelle’s Creations, specializing in whipped shea butter products such as lotions, facial moisturizers, deodorant, and lip balm, as well as soap, body spray, and beard and mustache oils.
“My product line grew because I start paying attention more to the health [aspect],” she says. “Everything that I create now is based upon products that I normally buy for myself off the store shelves, so then [I started] trying to figure out OK, how can I redo this, but in a natural way?”
A couple of years later, she started selling at Eastern Market, where she vends twice a week.
She has 28 years of experience working in the medical field and this year she left her job to work for herself.
“Corporate America is, it's a beast. I believe in treating people fairly fair and equal. And I didn't get that from corporate America. I believe that everybody should be treated equally, no matter of your skin color. And when that did not happen, I just thought [it’s time] I just work for myself.”
While it may seem like an inopportune time to let go of a steady paycheck, she saw her sales soar when the pandemic hit and people were ordered to shelter in place. From March to July, she saw a 90% increase in sales. Aside from Sundays, she’s also at the market on Saturdays, and was considered an essential business. Aside from her beauty and body care products, she also had face masks and hand sanitizer.
What’s hurt the business the most is the lost revenue from shows and events; she can net $1,500 in an eight-hour shift selling to employees at a one-day event for example.
“I'm still feeling [the impact] in those aspects of not being able to do other events,” says Wyckoff, who estimates about 80% of her sales come from in-person interactions.
During the pandemic, she has invested more in the business, such as upgrading her website (it was “mediocre” before) and is planning to hire a publicist to take her business to the next level.
“I'm always looking to do things differently and better,” she says.
Stephanie Whitfield has had a passion for jewelry since she was young. During summer vacations, her parents would let her buy a little trinket, which usually was earrings or a bracelet. By the time she was 16, she had amassed quite the collection of jewelry.
One day she was looking at a pair of earrings and was inspired to make her own. She bought a jewelry starter kit, looked at those earrings, and duplicated the technique. That laid the foundation for the self-taught artist.
Professionally, Whitfield has worked as a civil servant for state government for 25 years. While she was still working (she retired early in 2006 due to health reasons), she did art and jewelry on the side. In 2003 she had an arts space at 4731 Gallery, an arts incubator.
While she was there she started testing the entrepreneurial waters and decided to launch her own business. She would do shows and events (she did more than 40 in a year while still working and commuting from her office in Lansing from her home in Detroit).
Now in her seventh year at the market, Whitfield is a fixture on the weekends, offering an eclectic mix of handmade bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. She vends year-round at the Saturday market as well as during the seasonal Sunday market.
After the novel coronavirus started sweeping through the city, while other businesses were scrambling to pivot, Whitfield says she took a step back. “I didn't do anything and the reason was so much happening … and changing so rapidly.”
She also had her pension from her job so that helped ease some of the anxiety of the uncertainty. But still, the business was “completely shut down. “Summer is one of my busiest seasons, those three to four months in the summer and fall, because I do a lot of art festivals too.”
Then when the market reopened, some days were good. And then there were some days that were “absolutely horrible” such as one Sunday when she didn’t even make $100 (luckily another loyal customer came over to her house later that day to buy several hundred dollars worth of items).
She started looking at relief funds for small businesses. As a one-person operation, programs like the Paycheck Protection Program didn’t work for her. She also didn’t want to have a loan to repay.
Black-owned and minority-owned businesses “have fewer resources to fall back on in tough times like this,” she says, adding as Black businesses, “we're already vulnerable before you have something like a pandemic hit. Because [we’re not] on the same level playing field.
“Lots of small businesses like myself, we run our business out of pocket, especially African American businesses or people of color. We don't have those lines open, in terms of access. Look at what happened [with the PPP]. A lot of these huge corporations got that money. Small businesses are still sitting in a place with no help. So I started looking at grants.”
That’s when she discovered Revolution Biz through the Desai Sethi Foundation, which helped her create a brand-new website to promote her business. Now she’s looking forward to the holiday season.
“Because now, whether I ever do a show again, I now have this business that I'm getting ready to push and market and promote. The windows are really opening.”
Viva La Vida Imports
Viva La Vida Imports offers unique handcrafted items from Mexico, such as these shoes.
Diana Miranda and Paola Portillo knew they wanted to go into business together but didn’t have a clear vision. They started vending at Eastern Market in 2016, selling vintage and home décor items, but it wasn’t until they traveled through their native Mexico when everything clicked.
“We both come from Mexico City and we always wanted to do something that reflected our culture and who we are not just as a business but also as women of color,” Portillo says.
Through Viva La Vida Imports, they source handcrafted, unique goods such as jewelry, hats, recycled Frida Kahlo journals, and more from Mexican artisans whom they meet on their travels. Before the pandemic they would go twice a year. During their last trip, they sourced shoes, which has been a hit with their customers and gave the business a boost.
In March when the pandemic forced the closures of businesses, they saw their revenue plummet to essentially zero. With Cinco de Mayo and Flower Day at Eastern Market, where they vend three times a week during the summer, their busiest month is May. They also see a lot of business for Day of the Dead in the fall.
“Those are huge events for us and they got canceled. So we lost a lot of money, we lost a huge source of revenue. It was hard for us to figure out what the next step was going to be,” Portillo says.
“We had to start all over again,” Miranda says. “And it wasn't easy at all. It was a lot of struggle. Even Paola was telling me ‘Oh, I have to go find a job.’ And I told her, ‘No, we have to stick to this and we're going to make it work because we live for this.’
“You got to get creative during dark times,” she says.
Since they weren’t at the market, they had a lot of time to essentially build their website from scratch. They took photos of all of their products to optimize the customer experience. They also got creative with social media, especially live streams on Facebook and Instagram.
“We were hustling day by day. Because in our case we had to figure it out and how to make a living,” Miranda says.