'Connecting plants with people': Small business owner turns to her roots during pandemic

For Maria Caravati, the coronavirus pandemic is no different than all other setbacks her small business has faced and overcome.

For the last 22 years, the owner of Equinox Botanical Boutique, a plant, massage, and wellness boutique in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has ridden every economic ebb and flow, surviving threats like the e-commerce boom and bust and the Great Recession. 

The unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak again challenged the small business owner to think creatively to keep the doors open. 

“You have two choices. You can just go into a hole and cry and say, ‘Oh my god, I don't know how I'm going to ever get out of this,’” Caravati said. “Honestly, I had a couple of really rough days when this first happened and I didn't know how I was going to pay my mortgage or my employees.”

‘Having plants has always been a huge part of my life’

Equinox Botanical Boutique wasn’t always a blooming plant business that it is today. In its first iteration, Equinox the Body and Soul Boutique was exclusively a massage boutique. 

Then came the Great Recession. While customers spent less during that time, her store still pulled through and recovered.

A decade later — Caravati’s twentieth as a massage therapist— an inner voice told her to innovate yet again and bring the business back to her roots — literally. 

“I decided that because gardening, growing your own food, and having plants are and has always been a huge part of my life,” Caravati said. “I just felt that we needed to bring this to the community on a larger scale, and scale back the number of therapists.” 

By 2019, her store was under renovation. Many of the private rooms that were once used for massage treatments were transformed into an open concept. 

Her store still does massages, but it’s now filled with plants and rooted heavily in the community. It hosts classes for green thumbs of all levels, cooking lessons, and herb preservation for notoriously chilly Wisconsin winters. Staying true to the name, the boutique is filled with organic skincare products, garden supplies, and even cooking supplies. 

‘I'm gonna do it. I'm just gonna scale back’

When COVID-19 halted commerce, Caravati was forced to get creative again. At the time, massage is a direct violation of social distancing, but the boutique could still sell plants. 

“So I thought, ‘I'm gonna do it. I'm just gonna scale back.’ I already had heard about businesses starting to do curbside pickups, so I thought, ‘I'll have the vegetable plants on racks outside,’” she said. “And I can have all the information available to them online as far as descriptions, and they can see what they want.”

Then Caravati had another idea. Harking back to ornate and elaborate window displays of department stores to entice window shoppers, Caravati did the same thing with the boutique’s three massive windows. 

On her Instagram account, she suggested to followers to browse the windows and reach out to her if something catches their fancy. She included her phone number with a sign instructing passersby to call or text and have their Venmo accounts ready for contactless payment.  

Using FaceTime and Skype, Caravati shows off pots and plants to customers through her cell phone. The boutique accepts in-person pickups and Caravati dons a mask to hand deliver plants right into customers’ car trunks. 

‘I just don't want to owe anybody money’

As a small business owner, Caravati is entitled to receive money through the Paycheck Protection Program, but there’s hesitation on her part to apply. 

“I really just don't want to take it. I mean, I'm grateful for sure, but I just don't want to owe anybody money,” she said.

The boutique’s bank isn’t part of Small Business Administration and therefore ineligible for the loan, but Caravati doesn’t want the burden of owing money to anyone — not even from a cousin who offered a “substantial amount of money” at zero interest on an open-ended arrangement. 

A new leaf growth ‘gives them hope’

In Wisconsin, massage therapy is now considered an essential service, so Caravati will resume massages and facials with the boutique’s regulars at the end of May. But things will look a little different. 

“We're just going to have to look at how we will make sure that our customers and clients are safe always,” she said. 

One part of the business she expects to thrive is the plants, especially after months of isolation. 

“It's even more important now for me to connect plants with people and people with plants,” she said. “They see a new leaf growth and it gives them hope, for one thing. It makes people feel like: ‘Oh my gosh, I did that.’” 

‘Everybody's in this together’

With not much in her control, Caravati is attempting to keep business strong in the coming months by providing her customers with coupons for future purchases. 

For the customers who are keeping her store afloat, Caravati wants to recognize and thank them for their patronage, which is why she’s giving every customer $5 off when they spend $25 on plants when the store reopens. Included with the coupon is a packet of California zinnia seeds wrapped in handmade origami pouch made from the pages of old seed catalogs.  

It's a handmade and heartfelt touch that Caravati hopes will keep customers connected and coming back.

“I think that people want to know what you're up to,” she said. “They want to see what you're doing and stay connected. Everybody's in this together.”

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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