By Matthew Koehler
The SW Soda Pop Shop is only two years old but the Jones sisters, Brittany, Brianna, Andrea, and Lena, who run the shop, have a much longer family legacy down at the Wharf. Their dad Darryl owned Virgos Fish House, which was one of the first black-owned businesses down at the fish market.
“My dad was [a small business] owner down here for 25 years,” said Brittany, the oldest of the four Jones sisters. “We were originally just going to house sodas, ’cause my dad, he had just the…soda machines around the buildings.” Those dozens of soda pop machines Darryl owned were the genesis of the idea of the SW Soda Pop Shop.
Several years ago, Darryl realized the fish shop wasn’t making the money it used to, so he thought to change up the business model. Brittany said when her dad was reimagining their business model, the developers wanted a different look. “When he came home and gave the idea to me and my sisters, we took it and ran with it. And, that’s how we ended up being the SW Soda Pop Shop.”
The Wharf has always been one of those locations of great promise, for both tourists, business owners, and the community. Since the Wharf opened, though, several small businesses have left due to various reasons. For the Jones sisters, the last two years have been a slow start to their aspirations but the pandemic was on another level.
“Being down here is great in theory,” Brittany explained, but there wasn’t much passion down by the fish market when they first started, which means clientele, and the winter before COVID hit it was really slow. “We weren’t getting that many customers and what was sustaining us was the spring and the summer time.” She continued, “With any business, three years is when you start seeing the profits. For us, our two year mark was met with COVID. Then we [had] nothing.”
SW Soda Pop shutdown March 14, by order of the Mayor and reopened May 29. However, the slow opening of the economy could not, and did not, solve their financial woes. They were hardly seeing more than a handful of customers during an average weekday, maybe a few more on the weekends. After the slow winter, they were looking forward to the start of the tourist season, which many businesses like theirs rely on to get through leaner months.
Brittany said they did apply for a PPP loan when the stimulus was released but like many small businesses, especially black-owned ones, they did not get it. They did receive a small EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan), which helped with a few bills, but it went quickly and not far enough. That’s when they decided to change their strategy.
“We were forced [to] think about having to actually shut down. We had to put our pride to the side. My younger sister, she goes to school for mass communications… She was learning how to really reach the public, and we had to reach out.”
While they were preparing supplies to hand out to protesters before the June 6 protests, the younger sister Andrea sent out a tweet saying that SW Soda Pop had been hit hard by COVID, and if the neighborhood wanted to see them stay, then they needed support. Andrea linked their GoFundMe and fired off the tweet.
“We are very proud and independent. The GoFundMe was something we tossed around for a while.” Brittany said they opened the account around May 28 but didn’t want to go forward with it due to concerns about their image – about how starting a public funding campaign might damage their image. But, they “reached a point where it was ‘do this or close.'”
Andrea’s tweet went viral and their arbitrary GoFundMe goal of $10,000 (Brittany explained that the initial goal of $10,000 was more than they thought they could get) was quickly surpassed. To date, the donations are over $36,000. “Our main marketing strategy has been to use social media. And, it’s worked!”
That few dozen customers a week turned into hundreds of customers a day. A few weeks after they went viral, SW Soda Pop now sees lines of people – more than 270 on one Saturday in mid June alone. “All we wanted was just a share [about the shop]. If you could share it and let somebody else know we’re here. The community responding to us is how we’re here.”
Weathering several months of a global pandemic, especially as a small business owner, is no easy feat. Almost 70% of D.C.’s economy is fueled by small businesses and many of these businesses, like SW Soda Pop, rely on high contact (in-person) services. Many of these small businesses won’t be coming out the other side of this pandemic.
I asked Brittany what she and her family have been doing personally and professionally to get themselves through this unprecedented time, “To be honest with you, how I’ve been getting through is prayer.”
She also pointed to how the hardships have been formative in a way. From having to be there (at the shop) all the time and work through it – sort through emails and requests – there was always work that had to be done. The challenging part, she emphasized, has been learning how to handle everything and pray it (the community support) keeps going. “There will be trying times and there will be struggle…there will be other things we have to deal with,” she said, but they want to build a more permanent clientele and hopefully never have to close again.
Moving forward, SW Soda Pop Shop sees the last few weeks a small miracle that helped them “get back on track,” and are now looking for ways to show their gratitude for the community. “For somebody else…to stand in line for 90 minutes and say, ‘I just wanted to support you.’ Then to come back and stand in line again and say, ‘We came back!’ That means everything.”