Yes, we’re open: Iowa City Catholic’s signs help small businesses during pandemic

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
The coronavirus pandemic took small business owners by surprise, said Lee Iben, a certified business coach based in Iowa City. In mid-March, social distancing mandates forced most businesses to close their doors to the general public, instead relying on take-out, delivery and other measures to stay afloat.
Lee Iben, left, and Emilio Estrada, owner of Andalè Andalè Fresh Mexican Grill in Coralville, show off one of Iben’s signs which let passersby know which services the restaurant is currently offering.

For businesses in Iowa City and Coralville, there were additional challenges. “They’re so dependent on college students” as employees and clients. Some businesses temporarily shut down operations, while those that remained open reported 40 to 90 percent less income, said Iben, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City.

Hoping to draw more customers to local businesses, Iben created and donated signs to let passersby know who is still open and what services are being offered.
“Another coach and I brainstormed ways to help businesses and came up with the green sign idea.” Iben ordered 75 signs from a local printer. He began delivering signs to businesses in the Iowa City area in mid-April.
Each “Yes, we are open” sign tells passersbys whether the business offers carryout, delivery, curbside delivery or drive-through services. Business owners place a checkmark next to the services they offer. “I just wanted it to be quick and straightforward,” Iben said. “It answers questions quickly.”
Most of the businesses that opted to take the signs are restaurants, but bicycle shops and floral shops have also posted signs in their windows.
Business owners say the signs have been a big help. “Lee’s sign has been pretty useful to let people know that we are still open and doing business,” said Cristian Bejarano, owner of Maestro Empanadas in Coralville. “People recognize the sign pretty quickly. It definitely drives more customers to call and put in orders.”
Eric Erwin, owner of Pop’s BBQ in Iowa City, told Iben that while business overall is down, he’s seen 300-400 new faces since putting up the sign.
Retailers and restaurants in 77 Iowa counties have been allowed to re-open in a limited capacity, but Governor Kim Reynolds has identified Johnson County as one of 22 counties not yet ready to take that step. 
Iben is happy to do what he can to help small businesses thrive in uncertain times. “It’s business helping business. Anything we can do to help keep the economy growing in Iowa City, we’re going to do it.”
Tips for small businesses
Certified business coach Lee Iben offered these ideas for businesses to prepare to emerge from the economic downturn driven by the coronavirus pandemic.
• Positive Communication
Have positive, upbeat conversations with staff and customers. “Our customers still need to hear from us,” he said
• Virtual is the new normal
Iben said the pandemic has sped up the inevitable leap to virtual commerce. “Our challenge is engaging employees and customers to keep the human element intact.”
• Establish your recovery plan now
Prepare your business for a new normal now, even if reopening is still a few weeks away. Be aware of new safety protocols. Consider moving menus to a digital download to reduce the need for physical menus. Be prepared for pent-up demand in businesses that cater to personal needs, such as salons, barbers and dentists.
• Use this time for improvement
Look at the areas in your business that has been under-performing and make the decision to bolster areas that have proven to be profit centers. Consider making changes that you haven’t had the time to implement.
• Step up marketing
Iben encourages businesses to increase outreach five-fold. “This doesn’t mean spend more money. Utilize social media. Get good at making videos; videos are king right now. Include video links in your email correspondence to customers and employees.”
• Sell with compassion.
“Selling will be different” in the new normal, Iben said. “Be sure to sell from the heart.”
• Know your numbers
Iben believes the emerging 90 days will be a make it or break it point for many.  “Know your numbers, keep business operations lean and follow your plan.”

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