The year 2020 was on pace to be a great one for Fine Threads and Little People’s Boutique in downtown Madison, then the pandemic hit in the middle of March, and the businesses were closed for six weeks.

“Our business was huge going into March,” said owner Rhonda Sauley, who was then closed during a time of year that’s typically busy with the anticipation of spring and Easter. Suddenly, the circumstances seemed dire.

But in spite of that, Sauley’s businesses at the Main Street Village have found a way to thrive in spite of COVID-19 as have many other downtown businesses.

“I am really proud of the businesses in downtown Madison,” said Colleen Sutton, chairman of the Madison Main Street Economic Vitality program. “Everyone really rallied together with a sense of community and residency. It was good do be a part of that.”

Downtown businesses got more creative in the way they do business with curbside pickup, online shopping, delivery and more. “They started thinking what are the ways they can showcase their business, looking at what others are doing, and how that can be applied to my business, and just thinking outside of the box,” Sutton said.

For Sauley, that meant going on social media to talk live about her merchandise.

“It’s a little out of my comfort zone and I don’t like to be a public person,” she said. But she decided to give it a try and the move successfully generated sales for her businesses.

“It creates some excitement,” Sauley noted.

Tayler Rainhart and her mother, Ellie Troutman, had relocated McWhiggins Wonder Emporium from La Grange, Kentucky, to downtown Madison on Sept. 13, 2019 and only had a few months of business before COVID-19. Like Sauley, they also have used social media to showcase their products and stir sales. McWiggins Wonder Emporium also has a website and regional delivery. Through all those efforts they found success, especially during the 2020 holiday season when Madison’s holiday lights and decorations attracted both residents and visitors.

“Our month of December we did more business in Madison than we had ever done in the month of December in La Grange,” said Rainhart.

Lori Heitz and her husband John Heitz own five downtown restaurant: Red Peppermint, Red on Main, Red Pepperoni, Red Pepper and Red Roaster. She noted that business was down for the year “but we maintained and did the best we could.”

Red on Main had just opened at the end of February but was forced by the pandemic to close during the spring. Heitz said they took advantage of the down time with all their businesses to make repairs to their buildings. Once they were able to do carry-out sales, most of the businesses began doing that. Now that they are open to dine-in customers, Heitz said “being able to open to 50% occupancy (with tables six feet apart) is what saved us.” She noted that many other cities limited to 25% occupancy were not as fortunate.

Heitz, who also operates restaurants in Kentucky, said they were determined to succeed in spite of the pandemic.

“We did not have an option. We had to figure it out. Closing was not an option for us,” she said, noting the pandemic “made us get with current times” by using technology and working with services like DoorDash, providing online ordering, and carry out options.

She said keeping the doors open and making some sales was important because it helped with keeping employees on the payroll through the pandemic.

“We have a great staff and didn’t want to lose any of them, and we continued to pay them,” Heitz said of their approximately 50 employees in the five local restaurants. Assistance through the COVID-19 Small Business Rescue Fund grants from the Office of Community and Rural Affairs has also helped in that regard.

“It definitely helped with our payroll for all our employees while we were shutdown. We wanted to do everything we could to keep employees.”

Other assistance for downtown businesses came through the Madison Main Street program and its Business Resiliency Fund. Sutton said businesses could apply for funding to pay 50% of one month’s rent.

Deb Fine said her businesses, Hertz Shoes and Cocoa Safari Chocolates, were successful in 2020 despite COVID-19 even though Hertz was closed about five weeks last spring and Cocoa Safari Chocolates was down for a week.

“Even though both stores were closed for awhile ... we were able to make up for it,” she said.

In fact, she said the shoe store was “one of the few (shoe stores) that didn’t have to cut down on our spring and fall order. We did better than we anticipated.”

However, Fine did notice a changing trend in the type of shoes customers were buying.

“We were selling walking shoes, running shoes, hiking shoes,” she said, noting purchases were the type of shoes people are more inclined to wear for outdoor activities. She also observed that dress shoes sales were down because people weren’t going out as much and since customers were staying home more, they were selling more slippers.

“We usually don’t sell a lot of slippers,” she noted.

In some ways, Fine said COVID-19 didn’t change a lot about the shoe business.

“For the shoe store, we don’t really need to think of limiting people,” Fine said, because typically not many people are shopping at the same time. However, they have had to change with how they deal with customers. A salesperson who in the past would assist customers in trying on shoes must keep his or her distance since COVID-19. “We have to step back and cannot be right up with the customer. We have to make sure we’re a little further away,” which prevents providing some of the store’s normal hands-on customer service.

Meanwhile, at Cocoa Safari Chocolates, Fine said the focus is on even more diligent cleaning and sanitizing.

“We’re always sanitizing and cleaning because we’re always dealing with food,” she said, adding that early on in the pandemic, they limited store occupancy to four customers, but they have since lifted that and that customers have been respectful to staff and each other.

“People stand back and space out on their own,” she said

Sauley thinks businesses in downtown Madison benefited from the town’s small size and reputation as a destination to get away from the crowds in larger cities.

“People felt a lot safer coming to a small town, and they wanted to get away,” Sauley said.

Sutton echoed those comments, noting Madison’s downtown business district found success despite losing all of its festivals and tourist event.

“We always see a big spike in businesses when there are festivals, but this year instead of festivals, it was pretty even” because people in the region came to visit Madison as a place to get-away from their homes and the crowds in bigger cities.

Sauley has been in business in downtown Madison for 38 years, opening Little People’s Boutique in 1983.

“We’ve faced a lot in those years,” said Sauley, citing floods, road closures, bad weather and much more. COVID-19 has been a new challenge, but she’s hoping the best for all of Madison’s downtown stores and that all businesses can emerge from the pandemic financially fit.

“We need every one of our stores,” Sauley said. “The more stores we have in downtown is better for everyone. We can’t offer everything for everyone, and the more people shopping in downtown Madison benefits everyone.”