These 6 local companies thrived in 2020.
The past year has brought an array of challenges
unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime, especially in the realm of tourism and hospitality — an area our region has long depended on. But alongside the terrible headlines of closings and layoffs are some bright spots.
The pandemic has changed everything about the way we live and work, and that change has been lucrative for some, including obvious beneficiaries like grocery stores, delivery companies, liquor and wine stores, almost anything to do with upgrading or beautifying a home — including furniture stores, home electronics and pool and landscape — and leisure and workout wear.
But there are other winners that aren’t as obvious, including some local businesses that after, in some cases decades in operation, have found 2020 to be by far their best year ever. They offer us hope for more wins in the future.
Buddy Wood owner Le Jouet
“I’m not bragging, I’m just in awe. Like I’m standing on the outside looking in.”
When Buddy Wood opened Le Jouet, a bike and toy store on Airline Drive, with a few friends back in 1968, he didn’t expect it to be a move that would ever make him rich, and it still hasn’t. But he does feel some pride in being the sort of “last man standing” in toys.
“In the mid-90s, the big discount stores like Walmart came in, along with the internet, and our sales basically went flat,” said Wood. “But we managed to do well enough to stay in business.”
The approximately 25,000-square-foot retailer continued to squeak by until April 14, 2018, when national toy giant Toys “R” Us, having filed for bankruptcy the month before, closed its Metairie store.
“Our sales jumped 15 to 20% that next year,” said Wood. “That may not sound like a lot, but for us it’s huge.”
The increase continued into 2019, and then COVID-19 hit.
“Since we also sell bikes, we were considered an essential business, and our business really boomed on that end right away,” he said. “By May, we had run out of not only bikes, but all of our bike accessories. We’re still struggling to get more.”
Le Jouet’s battle to keep shelves stocked quickly extended beyond bikes.
“With kids suddenly home all the time, parents were struggling to keep them busy,” said Wood. “We hit our lowest inventory levels in 25 years. My daughter, Tricia, does our buying, and the good thing is we’re able to source from maybe 200 different manufacturers, so if one doesn’t have something, another may. There’s plenty of choices out there for toys. If someone wants a yo-yo, they probably don’t care if it’s a Butterfly or Imperial, they just want a yo-yo.”
When Christmas came, it came early, said Wood.
“I think people were nervous this year that if they didn’t shop early there would be nothing left,” he said.
While online retailers no doubt have captured a majority of the toy market, Wood said he’s proof that even in the online age, people still like to go to toy stores. The pandemic boosted Le Jouet’s revenue by an additional 15% over what was already a strong 2018 and 2019, officially making 2020 the store’s best year in over 52 years in business.
“We have some advantages, in that we can fix almost anything, we can assemble things for a customer, wrap a present in a minute and provide suggestions, really work with a customer to find the perfect item,” said Wood.
Vince Hayward owner and CEO L.H. Hayward and Company
“It’s almost like people can’t get enough of beans for some reason.”
When you talk beans in Louisiana, there’s one type that stands high above them all: the red bean. And when you talk red beans, you’re talking Camellia Brand red beans by L.H. Hayward and Company.
According to fourth generation owner and CEO Vince Hayward, business this past year went from bad to unbelievably…amazing.
“We lost 35% of our business overnight,” said Hayward, who explained that the company’s sales work out to be about 60% retail and 10% export, with the remaining almost one-third coming from the food service industry nationwide. “Everything went away — hotels, casinos, schools, restaurants. It was this sudden shock.”
At the same time, however, stay-at-home orders were forcing people back into their kitchens.
“People started getting back into cooking and really looking for those comfort foods, like red beans and rice,” he said.
Within the first few months of the pandemic, Hayward said consumer demand had exploded to the point that the company — which is based out of Harahan and operates another facility in New Orleans East — was operating two shifts, seven days a week just to keep up.
“Our volume tripled,” he said. “Our company is 98 years old and we have never been as busy as we were in those first few months.”
After ending 2020 30% up from 2019, Hayward said the company is still fighting supply issues.
“It’s not that there aren’t beans out there, it’s just we’re very particular,” he said. “We source exclusively in the United States and because we sell over 20 varieties of beans, that means we’re pulling from all over the country, but we still have to maintain the quality and consistency we’re known for.”
“Virtual meetings have been a huge thing for us.”
Any novelty there may have been with attending a virtual meeting has long since had its day, which is pushing companies and event professionals to get creative. Enough of them have found their way to Kristi Brocato’s 25-year-old gift company, The Basketry, to make 2020 its best year ever.
“Virtual meetings aren’t always fun,” said Brocato, “so we’ve been working with companies to offer up something special to attendees, a gift that everyone opens during the meeting at the same time.”
Operating out of a 4,000-square-foot retail store in Luling, Louisiana, The Basketry’s 15 full-time employees assemble and ship a wide variety of gifts for any occasion, but Brocato said the most popular items, especially during the pandemic, have been anything that provides a “taste of New Orleans.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of wine, king cake gift boxes, and a lot of liquor and gourmet food,” she said. “We offer local, same-day hand delivery, and we ship all over the U.S., so all sorts of companies, not just locally, are able to give their customers and employees a bit of the flavor of New Orleans. For those that maybe had a meeting or a convention scheduled here that got canceled, it’s such a great option.”
The Basketry’s online sales doubled in 2020, forcing Brocato to hire three additional staff members just to keep up.
“This Christmas was the busiest we’ve ever seen,” she said. “We had so much B2B gifting, but also more individuals sending gifts as well.”
Brocato is quick to credit other local small businesses with helping her break sales records.
“During a really tough time early on in the pandemic when we were struggling to get products to offer, it was our local vendors who really stepped up,” she said. “I’m really proud that we’re able to support them and encourage and help people to shop local.”
“Usually, the biggest obstacle for our clients is time, not money, and the pandemic took that obstacle away.”
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons has not yet reported on procedure numbers for 2020, but according to local plastic surgeon Michael H. Moses, MD, FACS, the effects of the pandemic have been felt widely in the industry.
“Most plastic surgeons, I’d say, have been busier,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen an uptick.”
Moses said the clients he’s been seeing at his Garden District office tend to be people who have wanted surgery for a while and have realized the pandemic presents the perfect time.
“Following a procedure, you’re looking at a recovery time that can mean one, two or three weeks of laying low,” he said. “You can be bruised and uncomfortable, and most people want to stay out of sight. Finding that kind of time could be a real challenge before the pandemic.”
Moses said the increase in demand for his services has been so strong that it more than made up for the fact his office had to close for seven weeks at the beginning of the pandemic.
“This has definitely been my busiest year ever,” he said, adding that, like many private plastic surgeons, he averages about four or five procedures a week, so it doesn’t take huge numbers to keep him booked. “It’s not grocery store busy,” he said.
Moses said facelifts have been the most requested procedure at his office.
“My theory is that a lot of people have thought, ‘One day I’ll get a facelift,’ and now, with a massive pandemic, we’ve all had that sense of reckoning and many have realized, if not now, when?”
“I’ve never seen so many puppies in my life.”
Gallivan Burwell has been a professional dog trainer and behavioral consultant for over 13 years, but his business, Upward Dog Training and Counseling, has never seen demand like this.
“After the first two weeks or so of the pandemic it’s like everybody in New Orleans thought the same thing, ‘Let’s get a dog!’
Burwell said he’s busier than he’s ever been trying to meet the demands of people all over the city — and up to about 20 miles outside of New Orleans — who are suddenly sharing a home with an untrained pooch.
“I’ve got a waiting list going now and I’m barely keeping up with the phone calls,” he said.
When he started back in 2007, Burwell said the dog trainer market in New Orleans was small.
“It was me and one other person on this side of the lake,” he said. A professional musician looking for a way to supplement his income, Burwell said he spent all of the money he had to attend what has been described as the “Harvard of dog training schools,” the Academy for Dog Trainers in San Francisco. His website prominently proclaims that he is the only trainer in New Orleans to have attained the “Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed” and “Certified Behavior Counselor Canine -Knowledge Assessed” credentials from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
“The problem with the dog training industry is that it is totally unregulated,” he said. “Anybody can call themselves a trainer. There’s starting to be a real push for accountability.”
While he does hold a few classes a year, the majority of Burwell’s work is done on a one-on-one basis.
“With the pandemic, a majority of the work is done masked up and outside, not in someone’s home, which presents its own set of challenges,” he said. “But all in all, this has really been a great year. Definitely my best ever.”
Nicole Goldin owner Louisiana Counseling and Recovery Center
“I started out thinking I was going into private practice, but I quickly realized this was going to take a team effort.”
Talk about timing. When Nicole Goldin opened CORE Louisiana Counseling and Recovery Center, a mental health center in St. Bernard Parish, she did so hoping to help fill a desperate need she saw in the parish for services.
That was February 2020.
By the end of the spring, with the shutdown in full effect, the Peru native had brought in three other professionals to help with the overwhelming demand for mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence and anger management services.
“Sadly, we’ve seen a big increase in domestic violence issues in particular during the pandemic,” said Goldin.
She had also moved to offering all services completely virtual. Demand was compounded by the fact that the only other larger agency in the parish, The Guidance Center, closed its doors in the early days of the pandemic.
“Every day I get calls from people saying, ‘Wow, I’ve been calling all over town and you’re the first person to answer the phone,” Goldin said. “Everybody’s just booked. People are really struggling to find the services they need.”
As of early February 2021, Goldin had hired her fourth clinician and had moved to a 50/50 in-person/virtual format. She said the biggest impediment to her company’s growth lies in what she said are extensive processing times for credentialed specialists to be approved to accept insurance.
Since she’s only been in operation for one year, Goldin couldn’t call 2020 the best year ever for CORE, but it has been an incredible start, and has given her hope for the future.
“We could meet the need, but it’s so hard finding clinicians,” she said. “We have so much room for growth.”