On a roll: For some Chattanooga businesses, demand for what they do is at fever pitch

Laveta Brigham

The pandemic temporarily knocked the wheels out from under Adrienne Cooper’s idea for an adults-only roller lounge in Chattanooga, but now her distinctive line of skates is selling fast enough to make her head spin. “Skates, inline skates, skateboards, bikes, anybody on wheels is more relevant than ever as people […]

The pandemic temporarily knocked the wheels out from under Adrienne Cooper’s idea for an adults-only roller lounge in Chattanooga, but now her distinctive line of skates is selling fast enough to make her head spin.

“Skates, inline skates, skateboards, bikes, anybody on wheels is more relevant than ever as people are trying to be outdoors as much as possible,” says Cooper, who launched her Moonlight Roller brand in March 2019.

Cooper’s initial business plan was to open up a roller rink that combined the social aspects of a bar with the fun of roller skating. On the verge of signing a lease when the pandemic hit, she quickly pivoted to online skate sales. She developed a line of funky, cool, comfortable skates called Moon Boots and dropped her first batch of 1,500 on Instagram in May.

“They sold out,” Cooper says. “You would not believe the look on my face — I was on Instagram Live with people watching my jaw drop to the floor.”

Now, as quickly as the skates come into her Chattanooga warehouse from a manufacturer in China, they are gone, says Cooper, who moved here from Illinois for college in 2013, did a stint in the Navy, and then returned to town in 2018.

“For the foreseeable future, we’ll place as large an order as we can — 10,000 to 18,000 pairs of skates — and we get them in at a rate of 4,000 a shipment every 20 days,” Cooper says.

The business has showed up in a Vogue magazine article about reclaiming the joy of roller skating, and Netflix has called about featuring her products in a show in development.

“I still kind of can’t believe it,” Cooper says. “It’s a very surreal feeling.”

While the pandemic has delivered body blows to industries including travel, lodging, dining and entertainment, the crisis has also dropped an avalanche of demand for other businesses.

Moonlight Roller tapped into a big appetite for outdoor and sporting equipment, which has driven up sales of everything from bikes to kayaks and camping gear. According to industry analytics group NPD, sales of bikes were up 63% year-over-year in June 2020.

Closer to home, furniture stores have scrambled to keep up with demand as people working and attending school from their couches and kitchen tables grow weary of their furnishings at the same time they’ve saved money on travel and dining out.

“These families went a whole summer with kids not having as many activities, people at home on a daily basis, mom and dad working from home,” says Michael Turner, the owner of Huck and Peck furniture store in Chattanooga. “They’re saying, ‘We’ve been talking about getting a new sofa for 3 or 8 or 10 years — maybe we can get it now.'”

His business is up over last year, but there’s a catch, says Turner, who opened his store on West 31st Street 5 years ago. The pandemic has bogged down supply chains at the source, and slowed shipping at just the moment demand is soaring, he says.

“We’ve definitely had to explain to people why things are going to take longer,” he says. “They need to get on it now — if they come in tomorrow and something is sold, it may be January, February, even March before we get it again.”

At Southern Champion Tray, widespread demand for to-go dining has dramatically altered the market for the paper products the 93-year-old manufacturer churns out, says Sarah Williams, director of sales.

“Things like carryout containers, we can’t make them fast enough,” Williams says. “To-go drink holders, there was a national shortage of those for a while — if we had millions of them, we could have sold them at one point.”

Meanwhile, demand for paper plates and the red-checked open food trays that typically hold hot dogs or fries has tanked, along with the appetite for boxes for big sheet cakes that feed people at large gatherings, Williams says.

“Right now, everyone needs covered, closed containers they can stack,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of pivoting in terms of moving employees to different equipment, trying to streamline as much as we can.”

Their client mix has changed, too, Williams adds. “Catering is not a big thing now,” she says. “People are not doing the corporate Christmas parties.”

Southern Champion Tray is in a good position because it’s versatile, producing a broad mix of products that serves a variety of sectors spanning bakery and food service, she says. But that doesn’t make planning in this environment any easier.

“What I keep telling our customers is there is no forecasting tools for COVID,” Williams says. “Just when you think you have a plan, it changes again.”

For Stoney Standridge, planning during the pandemic has meant planning to be busy. His appliance repair business has run nonstop since people started staying home and using their dishwashers, washing machines and other appliances all day, every day.

“I would say we’ve got 30% busier because of the pandemic,” says Standridge, who launched his business in 2016 after spending 22 years with another appliance repair outfit. “We’ve got so busy I’ve had to hire someone to answer the phone.”

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On a roll: For some Chattanoga businesses, demand for what they do is at fever pitch

When the shutdowns first hit, Standridge was inundated with calls from folks who had been postponing appliance repair. Home all day, they finally had the chance to hang out and let him into the house, Standridge says.

“The first two months of COVID, business probably doubled,” says Standridge, whose repair business covers a region that spans from his home base of Ducktown, Tennessee, to Blue Ridge, Georgia, and points in between.

He had already added a new employee in February to help keep up with the demand for repair work in his growing business, but he’s had to add two more since then. As with so many other booming businesses, his biggest problem now is getting the parts he needs to do the work, Standridge says.

“Parts are not being made, or manufacturers are behind,” he says. “That’s my biggest thing is trying to track down parts.”

There’s also a sense of sadness that his business is thriving while so many others are suffering, Standridge adds.

“Our business, we have been blessed, and you hate for people to have problems,” he says.

At Huck and Peck, Turner says he struggles with the same conflicting emotions. He and his customers are weathering the pandemic well so far, and that just isn’t the case for so many people, he says.

“This is not the folks who have suffered from job loss,” he says. “This is not an easy moment for the service industry.”

For the founder of Moonlight Roller, the fast — and timely — switch from planning a roller lounge where people gathered to selling skates online probably saved her a world of financial heartache, she says. She had raised $10,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and over $100,000 from three investors, and she’s already been able to pay it all back and take sole control of her company.

“Had we signed [the lease], I’d be bankrupt right now,” Cooper says. “I think about that all the time.”

Before COVID hit, Cooper had developed a mobile business hosting pop-up skate parties and renting skates at venues including Bonnaroo and Comic Con in Atlanta, and every single event fell through.

She did host a pop-up event on Halloween, and she’ll get back to those earlier plans for a skate lounge and mobile business, but in the meantime, she has hired 11 employees since June.

“We’re so slammed with roller skates that we don’t have the time anyway,” she says.


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