In early 2020, Stephanie Choi and her husband, Peter, ran a successful business, Crazy Cow Ice Cream, inside the Valley Mall in Union Gap. They decided to embark on a new kind of business: an eatery that would offer all sorts of “bubbly” beverages, including bubble tea, sparkling wine and sake alongside various Asian-style snacks. At the start of the year, they worked on remodeling a space at the Westpark Shopping Center in Yakima.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Valley Mall was closed for several months, forcing the ice cream shop to close. And ever-changing restrictions created uncertainty about when the new business, Bubbles & Co., would open. They were able to open the new business last fall, but under many restrictions.

In this month’s Checking In, Stephanie Choi, 49, talks about opening a new business during a pandemic, what she learned from the experience, and how the pandemic took away a key advantage from small businesses.

How did you and your husband come up with the Bubbles & Co. concept?

Our core concept for Bubbles & Co. was to create a business where we would want to go hang out for a drink. We wanted a place for all ages — that is, nice, clean and pretty, and where you can find unique and special things and have fun exploring. That is why we have an exclusive collection of beer, wine, champagne and sake, along with bubble teas, other nonalcoholic drinks and snacks. Most of our selection is imported and not easily found elsewhere. We want to see our customers having fun exploring and tasting something they may not have seen or heard of before and possibly finding their new favorite.

When the pandemic started, you and your husband were running an ice cream and dessert shop in Union Gap and working on opening Bubbles & Co. in Yakima. How did the pandemic impact those businesses?

The COVID shutdown put our ice cream business where it could not recover. That is why we had to close the store in Union Gap permanently. We are looking to open it again in a slightly different style/concept in another location.

With Bubbles & Co., we had to delay our opening for months, and even after we did open we could not fully open. Then we had to shut down again, then reopen. To say the least, it has been a very trying experience opening up a new business during the pandemic. We had planned to open in March 2020, but we couldn’t open until September. Even though it has been around eight months since we officially opened, we still feel like the business is brand new because we had gone through so many changes to work with different sets of regulations at different times.

Looking back, what are some key lessons you learned about running a business during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic definitely has kept us on our toes with having to modify our business many times around the changing restrictions as we moved in and out of different phases. Through that, we learned to keep our emotions and stresses in check and to focus on doing the best we can under the given circumstances. We realize that a huge part of running a small business is caring for people. My husband and I remind each other during difficult times that the most important thing is to keep our employees and customers as safe as possible. Everything else is secondary. We also learned that there are so many people in our community who care about small businesses like ours and care about others. We are so grateful for those people and their support.

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic changed small and locally owned food businesses in the long term?

Before the pandemic, small businesses like ours had been all about human relationships.

Personal connections and interactions made customers choose small businesses over large chain stores. With the pandemic measures demanding that we severely limit human interaction, customers got used to takeouts and drive-thru services where interaction is minimal. Even with some dining-in allowed, we are still talking to each other with masks on that cover a good part of our faces, and for safety we still have to limit interactions with each other.

This makes it extremely difficult for small businesses to develop the connections and relationships with customers necessary to establish and grow the business. Essentially, the pandemic prohibiting this essential appeal of small businesses makes surviving much more difficult. The pandemic has changed the way we interact and it puts small businesses at a long-term disadvantage.

What are you looking forward to as a business owner?

We look forward to opening Bubbles & Co. fully and having it fully staffed the way it would have been before the pandemic. We would love to see our space filled with people enjoying each other’s company. We look forward to not wearing masks and seeing our customers’ full faces, and recognizing their faces without having to think too hard. We look forward to showing our customers our big smiles and seeing them smile back at us. We look forward to getting to know the people, making new friends and developing meaningful relationships where we live and work.