For much of last year, businesses here in Kilgore and around the world were temporarily shuttered in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. This took its toll, as many businesses could no longer afford to operate during their usual hours and cutbacks had to be made.
The beginning of 2021 saw restrictions eased, mask mandates rescinded and what is perhaps just the beginning of a return to normalcy.
While these changes have now made it easier for businesses to serve customers, hire employees and return to normal operating hours, there is still a long way to go when it comes to supporting local businesses.
“People need to always think local first,” said Kilgore Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Jill McCartney. “We have a wide variety of businesses in Kilgore that need some help. Not just restaurants, our retail businesses are hurting as well.”
McCartney said the best way for Kilgore folks to support the local business community is to find a Kilgore business that offers what they need, rather than searching for gifts, clothing and other items elsewhere.
“When shopping for a gift, think about who you are buying the gift for,” McCartney said.
“Do they love antiques? Then stop in at Shops on Main or Josey Wales Antiques and More. If they need a gift card for do-it-yourself projects, then hit up East Texas Hardware, East Texas Lumber or Atwood’s. How about something special for a wedding you have to attend? The perfect attire is at De Rigueur. If it’s more casual, then check out Southern Beauty Lifestyle. Shop with your friends and neighbors before you head out of town. Supporting local is what to do!”
Fred and Vivian Gebhardt opened Kilgore Mercantile & Music in November 2019, just months before the pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns began.
“We were just getting started when it hit,” Fred said, noting the loss of regular customers during the shutdown made it harder to keep other employees on a regular basis.
“During COVID, Vivian ran the store by herself a lot and only had help on the weekends.”
Conditions are far better than last year, he said, and, even in the last several months, business has improved dramatically.
“Over the last 3 months, our business has doubled and we’ve got employees here. We’re offering almost twice the hours to the employees,” he said, noting the increased income from customers returning to shop was the primary reason for the improvement.
The business also sponsors and takes part in many local events, from the “Bluegrass & Blue Bell Jam” sessions hosted at Kilgore Mercantile & Music to Kilgore Cruise Nights, all of which bring folks together in Kilgore and encourage patronage of local businesses. Fred cited these events as particularly helpful to businesses in the area.
“I’m of the opinion that my advertising dollars are spent best on these events. The car shows have remained good all through COVID and they’re still about the same. The ‘Bluegrass and Blue Bell’ jams have increased over the last several months. It’s certainly good for (locals) to come to the events. Word of mouth is the best advertising that we can hope for.”
He added that Kilgore businesses are adamant about helping and supporting one another, and the best way to for them to prosper is through unity and communal support.
“Our opinion is that working together, we can get people downtown. If we can get ‘em down here, they can visit all the stores. We’re not out to promote our individual business. We do have a variety of things to offer down here.”
He added many downtown merchants and businesses get together for merchant meetings and Main Street advisory board meetings to help support one another. One common issue discussed is the difficulty folks encounter when trying to find info about downtown events. To help spread the word about when and where events will take place downtown or elsewhere in Kilgore, Fred has added an events calendar to the Kilgore Mercantile & Music website, which can be viewed at https://kilgoremercantile.com/events-calendar.
For Debbie VanDoren, owner of Downtown D’Lites Café, operating a business in downtown Kilgore is right where she belongs.
“I always tell people that we’re here because we believe this is where God wants us to be,” she said. “When COVID hit last year, that was bad news for just about any business. We were just convinced even then that, if God still has a place for us in downtown Kilgore, then he’d see us through and he sure did.”
She noted the Paycheck Protection Program offered to businesses in 2020 helped the café weather the uncertainty that came with COVID and, in 2021, Downtown D’Lites was doing well enough to no longer qualify for PPP, which she counts as a blessing. Also, like many restaurants, Downtown D’Lites began offering delivery during 2020, a feature they have retained in 2021.
“I think it’s God that has seen us through,” VanDoren said.
She added folks in Kilgore could continue to help support all local businesses by simply being aware of all that Kilgore has to offer.
“As far as what the community could do to help not only us but any small business is to know that there is a downtown,” she said. “When we started Downtown D’Lites, even we didn’t know about everything downtown. Downtown Kilgore is fantastic. I think if more people know that we’re here, that would probably be the biggest thing that would help.”
She also said word of mouth and downtown events are very helpful when it comes to supporting the local business community.
“It’s not just us,” she said. “There are clothing stores and antique shops and an ice cream shop and other restaurants. We’re a community of businesses and we enjoy each other. When people come in (to a local business), they come back.”
She said Kilgore can show its support for local businesses by coming to events, commenting on social media about a business they enjoy or telling their friends about a great meal they had at a local restaurant.
“To spread the word that way would be really wonderful,” she said.