Does COVID-19 Mark the End of Small Business?

By Ilah R. ’23

On April 16, 2020, Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, one of America’s leading grocery store brands in organic ice cream, announced that his business of 15 years would be ceasing operations as of April 17. Many were distraught to hear this news, as Three Twin’s iconic flavors of Lemon Cookie, Dad’s Cardamom, Land of Milk and Honey, and more, were staple ice creams in countless Bay Area homes. The reason for this abrupt closure was not unique to Three Twins; many other small businesses are also closing up shop due to the immense economic strain brought about by COVID-19.

When citizens of the United States were sheltered in place during the months of March and April, many were worried about the most pressing insecurity that COVID-19 introduced: the health and safety of their family members and themselves. However, a significant subset of Americans had other worries on their minds in addition to this basic concern. For the 49.2 percent of Americans who are owners and/or employees of a small business, COVID-19 was not only a matter of health, but also of livelihood, as the pandemic had a direct impact on the way in which these vital businesses function. Beyond the primary issue of many businesses completely closing down during March, April, and May, small businesses had to reevaluate how many people they could keep employed, and whether they could afford to stay open at all.

According to the latest research by Yelp, 72,842 businesses in the United States have been forced to close permanently due to the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. The food industry has been one of the most harshly affected by COVID-19. An estimated 15,770 restaurants have permanently closed in the US alone. One out of every 10 restaurants which temporarily closed in March, April, and May has since closed permanently. These intimidating numbers are concerning for small business owners, as they serve as a reminder of the looming threat bigger businesses pose in encroaching on their market share. For Gottlieb, this threat came in the form of companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs. 

“The biggest challenge of the grocery side of the business even before COVID was competing with the likes of Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs, which are cheaper grocery market brands. It’s just really challenging to offer a clean and organic product, and to get consumers to pay significantly more for it,” Gottlieb said. 

The concern of national chains eliminating small business may have been highlighted by the pandemic, but Gottlieb’s account suggests that it existed long before COVID-19. Most consumers opt for the more convenient and cheap option when it comes to food and other products. Supporting small businesses is becoming less of a priority for the American public.

Unfortunately, Three Twins’ business model was inherently harder to sustain due to their commitment to producing reasonably priced organic ice cream through environmentally friendly means of manufacturing. In the current consumer economy, it has become increasingly difficult to survive as a business while staying true to these values.

“I wanted to create a business that was organic and environmentally friendly, but appealed to the masses for reasons far beyond just being a green business. So I wanted to put that out into the world at an affordable price, which was something that had a lot of initial success, but that also proved to be very challenging as far as getting to a place where the business was sustained and profitable,” Gottlieb explained.

Then came the pandemic, an obstacle which introduced a new level of financial instability that Three Twins was unable to keep up with.

“The more established companies just have deeper pockets, and they have established profitability. So they are able to weather the storm when there’s a downturn, whereas we just didn’t have that. We were already running on fumes before the pandemic,” Gottlieb said. 

The story of Three Twins Ice Cream is one of hope and resilience, but ultimately loss. The 72,842 businesses that have permanently closed in the recent months suggest that there are many other stories like Gottlieb’s. COVID-19 has served as a harsh awakening for small business owners who started companies from the ground up with hopes of providing consumers with unique products. Many of these businesses were ultimately unable to withstand the combined forces of an economic recession fueled by a raging pandemic and the competition created by bigger companies who have established profitability.

In a time where the average American’s trips to the grocery store are increasingly centered around finding the least expensive products in the shortest amount of time, many wonder if small businesses and brands still have a future in our world and consumer economy.

This article originally appeared in The Athenian Pillar on January 10, 2021.

Athenian’s Film Students Gain Recognition at Major Film Festivals

Athenian’s film students have been taking the festival circuit by storm. Led by film teacher Peter Tamaribuchi, students have created short films and submitted them to multiple festivals, with results that have brought them recognition locally, online, and across the country, both pre- and post-pandemic. 

Athenian’s film program emphasizes storytelling excellence and social change, and currently, most students are working on documentaries that will make a positive impact on their communities.

“It’s been amazing to see so many students do so well in so many film festivals. I think one of the things we have learned from this experience is that student filmmakers do extremely well when they have a story they are passionate about and are given the freedom and support to make that story into a compelling film,” Peter said.  

In film classes, students begin by developing their ideas, followed by pre-production and planning their film shoot. Students then shoot their films and edit them into a final product. While film students previously worked in teams with shared video cameras, they are currently working on their own solo smartphone films. 

As students follow their passions and interests, their high-quality storytelling has audiences taking note. 

Jeremy L. ‘21

In his film “instant,” Jeremy L. ‘21 portrays a man close to the point of death, chronicling his last few moments. 

“Shortly before I made the film I went through a personal loss so that kind of influenced some aspects of the film, and I think in some ways I kind of made it to cope with it,” Jeremy said.  

“As someone who uses creativity a lot to process emotions, I think the main thing that I wanted to take away from that was just turning something that was personal and turning that into something that not necessarily something that was enjoyable, but something that can be seen by others.” Jeremy said. “I wanted to turn something sad into something beautiful.” 

“instant.” by Jeremy L. ’21 (Best Young Producer : Animation at the Berkeley Video and Film Festival).

Jeremy created the second film, “Adrenaline,” for the Athenian Film Festival. A more fast-paced combination of animation with live action, it shows a teenager doing math homework while pulling an all-nighter fueled by coffee. 

“That’s a common experience most students have, so I thought it would be relatable,” he said. 

“Adrenaline” won Semi-Finalist at Top Shorts, which is known as the world’s leading online film festival.  

Adrenaline” by Jeremy L. ’21 (Semi-finalist at Top Shorts Film Festival).

Jeremy has been admitted into the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and will enroll in the fall. 

“I think I’m just going to see where it takes me, I don’t really have any set goals but I think to some degree that’s a good thing, like to go in with as little expectations so I can kind of just be shaped by it,” he said.

When asked for his advice for other film students, Jeremy reflected on his own creative process. 

“I think the main thing I would say is that anything can be a good idea. I kind of struggled with this when I was starting with filmmaking. I would come up with an idea and then immediately shrug it off as a bad idea,” he said, adding that he came up with the idea for Adrenaline while drinking coffee and doing math homework. “I feel like some of the most successful films I’ve made were the ones that just came out of the smallest observations.” 

Matthew Y. ‘20

Athenian alumnus Matthew Y. ’20 caught the film bug in elementary and middle school, when he shot movies on his iPad with his brother and friends. His genre of choice is live action comedy, and he is very intrigued by the combination of action and comedy.  

In Matthew’s short film, “Love and Time,” a guy asks a girl out over and over, in what he eventually discovers is a time loop. Once he understands the repetition, he evolves his approach each time, ending by meditating with the young woman he is pursuing. 

“I was interested in the concept of reliving your day, and I wanted to explore that concept more.” 

Matthew completed shooting the film in November 2018, and edited in the spring of 2019. The film gained recognition in multiple festivals: it was a semifinalist in the Top Shorts Film Festival, won the Best Shorts Film Award for the teen bracket, and won third place (and $500!) in the high school division of the Grand Foundation Student Film Festival.  

His advice to upcoming students is to be persistent and to practice.

“If you want to be a good filmmaker, you have to experience filmmaking multiple times,” he said.

Now in his first year at the University of Rochester, Matthew is interested in producing mini-documentaries in college and hopes to become part of a film club.

Olivia A. ‘22, Frances F. ‘22, and Caitlin S. ‘22

Years after attending the Aurora Elementary School in Oakland together, Olivia A. ‘22, Frances F. ‘22, and Caitlin S. ‘22 found themselves once again together at Athenian freshman year in a March Term film class, Filmmaking for Change. During March Term, Upper School students take three-week mini classes of their choosing, diving deeply into a subject they would not otherwise get to experience in their high school career. 

When Olivia, Frances and Caitlin gathered to discuss ideas for a film, one of the issues that came up in discussion was increasing gun violence in schools. With the knowledge that young students were participating in active shooter drills, they decided to return to the Aurora School to explore how the increasing prevalence and knowledge of gun violence in schools was affecting younger children. They filmed K-5 students during a lockdown drill and interviewed some fourth and fifth graders about their experiences with lockdowns, seeking to understand how the awareness of the possibility of a shooting had impacted their time in elementary school. Editing the material together as a team, they included clips from survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting in 2018. 

“We wanted to further explore how the media coverage of school shootings impacts young kids,” Frances said. “It impacts us, but we didn’t necessarily remember a lot of having the knowledge of what was happening in the world when we were in elementary school.” 

The trio made the film, titled “Avoidable Trauma,” during the three-week March term period. They split the work evenly and each did some of each task, gaining experience with filming, and editing with Adobe Premiere. 

While there were some frustrations related to editing on unfamiliar software, the group enjoyed working together, and at the end of the class, they were encouraged to apply to several film festivals. ”We applied to a handful of them that were just free,” she said, adding, “We actually forgot about it for a while.”

Little did the first-time filmmakers know that their hard work would gain them national recognition—“Avoidable Trauma” was accepted into the All-American HIgh School Film Festival, the largest high school film festival in the world. Over a weekend in October, they traveled with Olivia’s mother to New York City for the event. 

“When students do well in film festivals, it’s so rewarding for them as artists to see their work celebrated and gives them the confidence to believe in their work and their artistry,” Peter said.