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‘It Was An Unmitigated Disaster’: Business Owners Reflect on 2020, Hopes for Next Year

(Photos courtesy of William Chrisant; Jerry Smith; Rick Medina; and Javier Chavez)
From left to right: William Chrisant, owner of the Old Florida Book Shop; Linda Udell Zakheim, owner of Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour and Restaurant; Rick Medina, owner of Arcade Odyssey; and Javier Chavez, associate director of Coral Gables Art Cinema.

Small businesses across South Florida have all faced a lot of challenges this year, but many of them have hope for 2021. Four unique businesses offer uncommon goods and services to South Florida. Three owners and a director shared their stories of fear, uncertainty, successes, and triumphs.

Arcade Odyssey

Rick Medina owns Arcade Odyssey in Kendall. It is a token-operated arcade that opens the games in his private collection up to the public. Since its opening in 2011, the arcade has become a home to nerds and gamers alike.

Medina wanted to keep it as close to an authentic experience as possible. He didn’t want to have any of the prize redemption features found in places like Dave & Busters.

Natu Tweh
Owner Rick Medina repairing his Sailor Moon arcade cabinet.

“To me, those are like kiddy casinos … to me, that wasn’t what an arcade was,” Medina said. “You didn’t go to an arcade to win something. You went to win the honor, or your pride, or to meet up with your friends. You didn’t have to have something other than a good time, and that’s why we’ve tried to keep it as inexpensive as possible.”

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His original idea was to open a museum dedicated to video game history. However, because finding a large, reasonably priced space in Miami is difficult, he opened AO instead. It’s been expanded once before, and he was on the heels of another expansion before the pandemic hit.

“We had signed a lease expansion to expand another bay over, and then all of that got put on hold. We were looking at other locations, but seeing how everything is, I believe it wouldn’t be prudent to do so,” he said.

Natu Tweh
The arcade should be packed on a Friday evening, but instead, it's completely empty.

Medina says the closing was brutal, and he doesn’t have the crowds he used to have. His previous total occupancy load was almost 300. Now, he says they find themselves with 30 to 50 people at the most.

However, Medina is keeping a positive outlook for the future.

“I’m hopeful because I have to be. You have to be hopeful that things will get better and expand. If not, you would have already closed down your business.”

Coral Gables Art Cinema

Javier Chavez is the associate manager of the Coral Gables Art Cinema. Operating since 2010, it is a nonprofit single-screen art house that specializes in foreign, independent, and classic films. They target a wide demographic, with programs catering to children as well.

GABLES CINEMA_12232020.jpg
(Photo courtesy of Coral Gables Art Cinema
The entrance of the Coral Gables Art Cinema

When their doors closed, Chavez says they took a large hit.

“We closed March 18 and re-opened September 21. We lost over, like, $250,000 in revenue in that time,” he said.

Donations from their audience, along with the available business loans, helped keep the cinema afloat. Once the county allowed movie theaters to open again, Chavez said they took their time before opening their doors.

They created a comprehensive 10-page plan detailing how they would ensure the safety of employees and customers. They’re currently working with a minimal team in the cinema, allowing them to reduce costs and better follow safety protocols. Chavez says they’ve received a lot of positive feedback from their returning audience.

“We were noticing a lot of our regulars and they were saying ‘Oh, we’re so glad you’re open,’ and ‘You know, I missed this place and I missed you guys.’ They were verbalizing that to us as they came into the door,” Chavez said.

(Photo Courtesy of Coral Gables Art Cinema)
A masked audience at the cinema's red carpet premiere screening of Let Him Go

Chavez says even though it’s been tough for them, especially as they try to figure out how to engage with customers outside the walls of the cinema, he remains hopeful.

Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour, Restaurant and Country Store

Linda Udell Zakheim is the owner of Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour, Restaurant and Country Store in Dania Beach. The restaurant is famous for its large servings of homemade ice cream and food. It remains in the same place as when Zakheim’s father opened it in 1956, serving locals and tourists through their picturesque dining section and takeout window.

Udell Zakheim says this year showed her how strong and equipped she is to face challenges.

(Photo courtesy of Jerry Smith)
Jerry Smith, manager of Jaxson's, and Linda Udell Zakheim, the owner, pose with the restaurant's famous Kitchen Sink.

“I saw a new strength in me that I didn't know I had,” she said. “I just — I didn't stop. I didn't sleep and I didn't stop, and I didn't stop thinking out of the box. I just started to get as creative as possible so that we were on top of everything that we could possibly do to survive.”

She says the restaurant never closed completely, but business was slow and they had to make multiple adjustments: besides wearing gloves and masks, they set up a delivery service through third-party systems like DoorDash and UberEats, offered meal deals for the first time, put up plexiglass, and used their takeout window and outdoor dining more.

A big goal for her was not to fire any of her staff. She says she furloughed about half of them, but she was able to bring them back through the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal loan forgiveness program that came under the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in the spring.

(Photo courtesy of Jaxson's Ice Cream Parlour and Restaurant)
A Jaxson's employee during the pandemic.

As she reflects on the challenging year, Udell Zakheim is thankful for the customers who kept showing up.

“Without those loyal customers, that we thank so much for coming in, we probably wouldn't be here today because the customers came out of nowhere coming and giving us business over the shutdown,” she said.

She also prays that the vaccines will help bring back customers, tourists, and normalcy in 2021.

Old Florida Book Shop

William Chrisant is the owner of the Old Florida Book Shop in Dania Beach. He says his store has been in Florida for 11 years, offering antique books, maps, and prints that he finds unique. Nothing brand new.

“We try to have things that are uncommon; they are difficult to find in other places or in some way special,” he said. “So, if a book has some really nice binding or [is] very old, or something that is different about it that you won't find at Barnes & Noble. So, you can buy like a Jane Austen from the 19th century that you can’t find in any other place.”

(Photo courtesy of William Chrisant)
William Chrisant, owner of the Old Florida Book Shop.

Chrisant says his business came to halt when the pandemic first hit. It was a scary period without income. But, a spike in online sales eventually helped: his customers, both inside and outside of the U.S. started shopping more often — and buying more expensive and rare books that had been sitting on the shelves for years.

“We just sold a book on pigeons from the 1980s,” he said, laughing. “It's a really, really beautiful book, leather bound [showing] all the many different kinds of pigeons that there are. We've had it for about four or five years. It was out there for everybody, but all of a sudden someone in Germany wanted it.”

He says that, early on after the shutdown, he and his team would come into the store occasionally to wrap and ship books. They gradually went into the shop more often, and finally reopened to the public later in the spring. They didn’t get many people into the store so imposing social distancing wasn’t a problem, but they asked customers to wear masks.

(Photo courtesy of William Chrisant)
Inside the Old Florida Book Shop.

Chrisant speaks optimistically about 2021 now that the vaccines are rolling out. But, he thinks the pandemic will have a long term effect on the world because people have realized they can continue working from home and, without having to commute, may have some extra time for leisure activities like reading.

Natu Tweh is producer of The Florida Roundup and The South Florida Roundup at WLRN.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a fall intern at WLRN.