Downtown Overland Park businesses pivot efforts during COVID-19 shutdown

Elaine Johnson, owner of Harper's Fabric & Quilt Company, is selling fabrics to sewers and seamstresses making masks to meet the need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many storefronts in downtown Overland Park are shuttered during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, several local businesses are forging a new path for attracting customers and encouraging sales.

Some are also contributing their efforts to the needs of health care workers and those on the front lines of pandemic response.

Here’s a look at what each of these businesses are up to:

Harper’s Fabric & Quilt Company

Elaine Johnson said Harper’s has received and distributed more than 1,000 masks in response to the shortage.

Harper’s Fabric & Quilt Company is selling materials for customers to craft handmade masks to meet the nationwide shortage.

Elaine Johnson, owner of Harper’s, said customers order supplies by window shopping at the storefront at 7918 Santa Fe Drive, then call her to select and purchase their materials. She wraps up orders and puts them in a crate outside for customers to pick up when they arrive.

Customers can drop off finished masks in the same crate outside of the storefront. Johnson added disinfectant wipes to the crate to help customers feel safe when picking up orders and dropping off masks.

Johnson estimates she’s received and distributed more than 1,000 masks in the past three weeks.

“This is a real opportunity for people in a rough-tough situation to feel not only needed, but to feel like you can help; it’s very gratifying,” Johnson said. “If there’s anything that could be a win in this situation, it’s helping other people, knowing there’s a need, and having a skill that we never have time for.”

Johnson said seamstresses and sewers are coming out of the woodwork, asking for supplies to make masks for family, friends, health care workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic.

Johnson hopes to continue sharing education on the art of sewing. She and her staff offer sewing and mask-making support by phone or online.

“We hope to build confidence so they can spend quality time doing something that’s relaxing; it’s an escape,” Johnson said. “People are anxious, and sewing can help relieve some of that anxiety and give people something to do.”

Harper’s celebrated its 50th anniversary in January, and Johnson celebrated her 40th year working for the company and her 25th as the company’s owner.

Culinary Center of Kansas City

The Culinary Center of Kansas City staff sold curbside meals the past two Fridays. The lines of vehicles for the program were backed up for some time. Photo courtesy Elaine Johnson.

Culinary Center of Kansas City, a culinary arts center that offers cooking classes and dining experiences, has been bustling with new programming. Cooking classes are now online, and staff has ramped up its frozen to-go meals program.

Laura Laiben, owner and “main dish” of Culinary Center of Kansas City, said virtual cooking classes won’t be the company’s mainstream focus once the center reopens to the public. However, it hopefully offers “some respite for foodies” and those wanting to learn cooking skills, she added.

The Culinary Center of Kansas City staff led the curbside meals program, which they hope to continue each Friday. Photo courtesy Laura Laiben.

“That has always been part of our raison d’etre, to connect to that group of people,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure to reinvent.”

With a business focused on experiential dining, Laiben was worried about her staff.

In an effort to keep business going the Culinary Center ramped up its frozen-meals program, which has grown exponentially. This program and the virtual cooking classes created enough income for Laiben to keep some of her staff during the COVID-19 shutdown.

For the past two Fridays, the Culinary Center has also led a curbside meals program, selling freshly cooked to-go meals. Laiben said they sold out almost right away for both events.

“Downside, it was quite a wait, but we had lines of cars backed up on Foster Street, around the corner and all the way up Santa Fe,” Laiben said.

During the events, staff brought out meals and put them in the trunks of customers’ vehicles that were lined up along the street. They also had live music for customers to enjoy while they waited.

Laiben said she and her staff plan to keep exercising their creativity to grow programming. The next curbside event, a tamalada party, is set for this Friday.

“There’s gonna be a party somewhere,” she joked.

ensemble

Women’s boutique store ‘ensemble’ is participating in virtual boutique crawls to keep business going. Photo courtesy ensemble. Photo credit Lauren Pusateri 

Women’s boutique shop “ensemble,” which offers products mostly from local makers, is driving virtual sales on Instagram and participating in virtual boutique crawls.

Kassie Murphy, owner of ensemble, said their storefront at 7941 Santa Fe Drive is closed, but staff has worked behind the scenes to help with virtual sales. In recent weeks, they’ve also been able to connect even more with women-owned businesses.

Kassie Murphy, owner of ensemble, hopes to bring customers back for the experience of shopping in person. Photo credit Jefferson May Photography

She hopes customers can “think about being stylish while at home.”

“I feel like it’s important to get dressed during the day and feel some sense of normalcy,” Murphy said. “Because the days I lounge around in yoga pants, I just feel so worthless. It’s great to have those days where you’re relaxed and chill and not being hard on yourself, but getting dressed during the day makes you feel good.”

Details are still in the works, but live sales are planned for every Friday, as well as gift card giveaways once a month. She hopes the situation will drive customers to support local more than ever.

“The pivoting part has been hard; it’s just been a rollercoaster, things change day to day,” Murphy said. “I’m learning to be flexible and don’t have control over a lot. This teaches us something so much bigger than the actual virus.”

InterUrban ArtHouse

InterUrban ArtHouse has pivoted to virtual programming only. April is Poetry Month, so people can watch free performances online. Photo courtesy InterUrban ArtHouse.

InterUrban ArtHouse, a nonprofit organization supporting local artists, has switched to all virtual events and programming. Many of those programs are Facebook livestreamed or prerecorded and uploaded online.

The nonprofit normally has a reach of about 10,000 people walking through its doors at 8001 Newton St. After going exclusively online, InterUrban ArtHouse has been able to reach a broad audience in a short period of time — almost 30,000 unique viewers.

Angi Hejduk, chief executive officer of InterUrban ArtHouse, said the switch to a virtual format was fairly simple, despite the plunge into unknown territory during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We suddenly had a worldwide audience right in front of us,” Hejduk said. “Every concert we’ve had, we’ve truly had people from all over the world watching. And every single performance has been absolutely moving.”

Angi Hejduk said this is a time to inspire people during the COVID-19 shutdown.

InterUrban ArtHouse relies on donations and event space rentals to keep afloat. Hejduk said that once their doors open again, they hope residents can come by, meet local artists and purchase local art.

“The arts community, who really relies on a good economy, literally all of their income streams were just cut off,” Hejduk said. “We saw it as an opportunity, that we had some funding in place that was specific and restricted to paying artists, so instead of retreating back into a safety mode while we saw what was happening, we immediately switched gears.

“We have money: We can pay artists and musicians, and we can activate the community in a space of feeling inspired and feeling connected in a really scary time where those are the two things we’re very likely not to be feeling.”

Hejduk said they also use Zoom to teach free art classes online.

“This is a moment where we can do the right thing at the right time,” she added. “The most important thing was providing inspiration to the community.”