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Opened during shutdowns: Recent new businesses thrive

Kevin Yamaka named Soko Coffee after an ancestor who was a samurai
Karen Richards
Kevin Yamaka named Soko Coffee after an ancestor who was a samurai

It may seem contradictory, but while many businesses closed during the pandemic, a record number of new businesses launched in Oregon. We look into why, as part of our series on the future of work: “Workin’ It.”

Pre-pandemic, Kevin Yamaka worked as an accountant for a winery in Eugene. He and his wife were toying with the idea of a coffee cart as a side business, and then, he said, “On March 9th, and I only know that because it was my wife’s birthday, I got laid off from my job, and it was kind of wild timing for us because 11 days later we had our baby.”

It was unintentional, but Yamaka opened Soko Coffee in north Eugene at a decent time, in June of 2020. “We just got really lucky with the business model that we initially created, with being an outdoor, mobile unit," said Yamaka, "so we didn’t really need to change too much about our operation to comply with the social distancing guidelines.”

Robert Killen with the Lane Small Business Development Center, or SBDC, said food carts are a trusted new venture. He said when people look to replace an income, “They’re looking for businesses that they’re pretty certain they can make work, so businesses that have a pretty good track record. Around here, food trucks and food carts have been fairly steady and fairly successful.”

In just few months, Soko Coffee had the opportunity to rent a storefront from Wesley United Methodist Church. They said yes, and started to work on the space around Thanksgiving, 2020 and opened nearly a year later. Yamaka told KLCC, “We opened officially on Sept 1st. Taking on the buildout during the pandemic was difficult, a lot of supply chain issues that we ran into, so the buildout took probably four or five months longer than we had expected.”

Inside Soko Coffee
Karen Richards
Soko Coffee is at Cal Young and Oakway Road in Eugene

Yamaka said the delays helped them make thoughtful choices, and he got to spend time with his young daughter.

Oregon has averaged more than 4,000 new businesses a month in 2021, the most on record, and a jump of 15 to 20 percent from pre-pandemic. Killen said he sees interest in startups reflected in their class signups. “Our traditional classes, like marketing classes, understanding your financial statements, have reduced in numbers, in many cases considerably," he said. "But our startup classes have maintained their numbers or even grown.”

Henry Fields, a local analyst with the Oregon Employment Department, told KLCC the types of startups surprised him. “When I saw, for example, that retail business applications were up as of late last year, late 2020, that was kind of shocking to me considering in many ways that was not a great time to be in retail.”

Fields said many businesses closed in the past 18 months, but he thinks there’s been a net gain. His theory is people had the capacity to pursue long-term dreams. Yamaka agreed, adding, “For me it was really, if I don’t do this now, I don’t think that I ever would have.”

Matt Montrose

Matt Montrose also took advantage of reflection time. The Corvallis resident is a science teacher in Sweet Home. He created Ecologies, a card game about building healthy food webs. He sold a few through print-on-demand, but the pandemic gave him the chance to expand. He said, “With the lockdowns and quarantine and all that, I had more time to focus on some of these side projects, and I also felt, not knowing how things were going to go, I felt like I wanted to have something to help my family in case there was economic turmoil.”

Montrose grew the business on Etsy, and it became an unplanned but substantial part of his life. Lately, his children have medical issues and, he reluctantly told me, “I’m going to be transitioning at least temporarily out of teaching in the public schools, and it’s less about the business and more about the cost of child care, as I’m sure you’re aware, is extremely high, and the salaries for public school teachers… it ends up kind of being like I’m away from my kids, that I want to be around, and it’s sort of a wash financially.”

That’s in line with what Killen at the SBDC said when I asked him what work people are leaving in order to start a business. “What I have noticed," he said, "are people mentioning that they’ve come out of education, and perhaps some health care, but definitely education has been the number one that I’ve noticed.”

Karen Richards via Zoom

Montrose said he likes teaching and wants to get back to it, but he’s happy his game reaches more people than he ever had in class. He now sells it wholesale to museums and schools, and plans to create more products.

Yamaka said the best things about running his own business are the flexibility and the relationships. “It’s awesome to be able to serve coffee to the people that live close by and really get to know our customers," he said. "It’s also just been great to open up a small business and create jobs, and one of our biggest missions is to work with local vendors as much as possible to keep our money in the community.”

He said hiring has been easy so far: All of his employees have approached him for work. Some were customers first.

Killen sees the business boom changing perceptions. Whereas “economic development” used to mean attracting larger companies or revitalizing infrastructure, communities now recognize that small businesses are a key economic driver.

Funding for KLCC'S "Workin' It" series comes from the University of Oregon's Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.

Karen Richards joined KLCC as a volunteer reporter in 2012, and became a freelance reporter at the station in 2015. In addition to news reporting, she’s contributed to several feature series for the station, earning multiple awards for her reporting.