The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an immense toll on businesses in the United States, with estimates of COVID-related permanent closures during the past year ranging in the hundreds of thousands. As Americans went into varying degrees of quarantine, businesses small and large—from retail stores to restaurants and movie theaters—suffered significant losses prompted by changes in shopping behavior and demand for products.
In Ketchum, business owners and operators faced many of the same challenges as their counterparts across the country: restrictions on how businesses could operate, employees getting sick, a massive downturn in travel, and customers simply staying home or opting to make purchases online.
Despite the trials of 2020, most Ketchum businesses have kept their doors open and are welcoming customers in 2021. And, for all the difficulties, some are doing very well, with operators finding that not only have they weathered the COVID-19 storm, they have found a silver lining in the pandemic.
“It has been a very busy time for us,” said Paddy McIlvoy, managing partner of Backwoods Mountain Sports. “It’s been a very strange, very challenging and a very good year.”
McIlvoy said sales have been “remarkably strong” this winter season. Business was up over the previous year—and other years—during the critical winter holiday season, a period that can heavily influence annual profits. The summer was strong, too, McIlvoy said. And, Backwoods didn’t experience the typical business lull in the fall shoulder season, either.
“There was no slack,” he said. “We went straight from bikes to skis.”
Mountain bikes sold fast last summer and stocks ran out by mid-August, McIlvoy said. Interest in backcountry skiing gear and Nordic skiing equipment has been exceptionally strong over the winter months. Sales of snowshoes was “super-hot,” he said, with the last pair in the store sold well before the official end of winter last weekend.
McIlvoy attributed the surge in business largely to people relocating to the Wood River Valley—either temporarily or permanently—as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people have discovered they can live in the mountains and work remotely. For others, “COVID was a chance for people to rediscover the outdoors and the wilderness,” he said. Often, Backwoods is not serving as many tourists but is welcoming recently relocated residents to the store, he said, many of whom use online platforms such as Zoom to work and communicate.
“There’s a saying now about Ketchum—‘It’s not a boom town. It’s a Zoom town,’” McIlvoy said.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic—and the high demand for outdoor sports gear—has presented challenges, McIlvoy said. Supply chains have been interrupted and shipments of some popular products—from mountain bikes to snowshoes—have been limited.
“We could have sold way more snowshoes,” he said. “But we couldn’t get them.”
He anticipates that his stock of mountain bikes could sell out by early summer.
“The enthusiasm for bikes is very, very strong. The supply is not.”
McIlvoy said he is already submitting bike orders for 2022, noting that shipment for some models is 600 days out. Backwoods has stocked up on bicycle parts, so customers who can’t buy a new bike can upgrade one that they have. Many customers are “thinking ahead,” he said, and some are already interested in buying river float tubes, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. That is one indicator that “business is going to remain strong,” he said.
During the pandemic, managers have had to “figure out the flow of the store” to keep customers safely distanced, McIlvoy said. The staff has been “lucky” in avoiding coronavirus infections, he noted. They have adopted some new procedures that have ultimately made the business more efficient, he said.
“We’re being adaptable,” he said. “It makes you stronger in a lot of ways.”
For a grocery store, COVID brought changes
At Atkinsons’ Market—one of two grocery stores in Ketchum—the COVID-19 pandemic has brought several surprises, including strong overall sales.
“It’s been very bizarre,” said Chip Atkinson, co-owner of the family business, which also owns and operates stores in Hailey and Bellevue. “COVID has really messed up people’s food shopping.”
With many people opting to stay home and cook more, they have been spending more money on groceries, and generally buying more while making fewer visits to the store. The market’s “general level of sales” has gone up, Atkinson said, but the number of customers has gone down—by “hundreds of customers per day” over much of last year. Despite the drop, since the pandemic started, the store has been serving numerous second-home owners, Atkinson said, as well as more new customers than is typical. For some second-home owners who might have previously visited the area for two weeks, they appear to now be staying for three or four weeks, or longer, he said.
As a result, Atkinson said, the variations in sales from season to season have not been as pronounced. In a typical year, sales in summer and winter far outpace those in spring and fall.
“What we’ve seen has been the seasonalities flatten,” he said. “The peaks have declined and the valleys have risen.”
Sales were down slightly over the week of Christmas but were up in the period after New Year’s Day, when they typically slow down, Atkinson said.
Sales have been strong, but the pandemic has brought numerous obstacles, Atkinson said. Many customers were “panic buying” last March, creating shortages of some products, such as toilet paper and sanitizing wipes. Some product brands were not always available from suppliers and variations in supplies and demand made wholesale buying a challenge. People bought a lot of rice and chicken broth, Atkinson said. Sales of beer and wine went up. Over the winter holidays, sales of meats were “gangbusters,” he said, but individual quantities were smaller.
“People weren’t having big parties,” he said. “There wasn’t the prime rib for 20.”
During the pandemic, strict policies were enacted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Atkinson said. Some staff members caught the virus, he said, but he did not see evidence of spread of the virus in the store. Now, Idaho grocery store workers are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Atkinson said his outlook for business in the future is “very positive.” However, he noted, with surges in sales that started last March with the onset of the pandemic, comparing this month’s numbers to last year’s—for financial-planning purposes—will not be an easy task.
Restaurant operator finds optimism
For chef Scott Mason—who with his family owns and operates three restaurants in Ketchum—the COVID-19 pandemic has brought tough times and some significant rewards. Mason runs the Ketchum Grill, and started two other restaurants—Enoteca and Town Square Tavern—which are operated by his children. Now, one year after he experienced his “worst day in business ever,” he is grateful for the community support that has allowed his family’s restaurants to endure through the pandemic.
On March 15, 2020, the city of Ketchum asked restaurants to close or limit operations to take-out service.
“One of the first rules in business is to stay open,” Mason said. “It was a really awful feeling and an awful time.”
Initially, nearly 80 employees of the three restaurants were out of work, Mason said.
For six to eight weeks, the restaurants provided to-go service only. However, Mason said, the COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity to expand the newest business under the Mason Family Restaurants umbrella—a small store called Provisions, which offers fresh to-go pastas, sauces, dressings and baked goods.
In June, in-person dining resumed.
“Outdoor dining really helped things,” Mason said. “We had a good summer.”
The fall season was “decent” and this winter was “very good,” he said, “considering what’s been going on.”
The restaurants have had to operate at reduced capacity—in observance of COVID-19 regulations—but have been able to offset some of the losses of in-house-dining sales with increases in to-go business, Mason said. The restaurants each closed for short periods—one to three days—during the pandemic to test staff for the coronavirus. Most employees are now back at work, he said, and he hopes things will return to “normal” by June.
Mason said he believes it is important for people to understand how hard most small-business owners have worked to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, to create “success stories” in a difficult time.
“We’re doing fine now, as long as we can stay open,” he said.
Mason said he is “super-optimistic” about the future, with hopes that widespread COVID-19 vaccinations and eased regulations will boost business. The Ketchum Grill will celebrate its 30th anniversary in business in May, he noted, and although the historic building it operates in sold last year, he and a new business partner have a lease to stay in its East Avenue location for nine more years.
“I think things are going to get better,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a great summer.”