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Denton businesses find new life after pandemic closures

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Juice Lab

Owner Loni Puckett closed the doors of Juice Lab on South Elm Street last year, but now operates out of a food truck at 110 W. Mulberry St. Juice Lab had to scale down to stay afloat during the pandemic.

When Juice Lab’s brick-and-mortar space on South Elm Street had to close amid the COVID-19 pandemic, owner Loni Puckett thought that might be the end for the smoothie and juice bar.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Puckett said.

But a few months later, she found a path to reopen in a new form.

After temporarily shuttering amid county shutdown orders, Juice Lab reopened in May 2020 at the prompting of the landlord who owns the nearly 2,000-square-foot space the restaurant was in. But Puckett soon discovered that she couldn’t make rent given the 85-90% reduction in sales Juice Lab was experiencing and closed permanently.

With the uncertainty of the pandemic, Puckett wasn’t ready to commit to another long-term building lease, so she wasn’t sure what might become of Juice Lab until the owners of Sweetwater Grill & Tavern and Mulberry Street Cantina reached out to her about a food truck that local caterer and restaurateur Jimmy Meredith had for lease.

Puckett got a grant from the Denton County OPEN program, which was aimed at helping business owners impacted by the pandemic, and leased the truck. She now operates Juice Lab out of it three days a week in front of Mulberry Street Cantina, storing product in Mulberry’s walk-in cooler.

The juice bar is one of several local businesses that have found new beginnings after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted them to shut down in 2020.

Success in new forms

Mad World Records, which operated a storefront on the Denton Square for nine years, closed its doors in June and moved its inventory to an online store that has been operating since, owner Mark Burke said.

One factor in Burke’s decision to close the store was that his family was impacted personally by the pandemic early on. Burke’s brother — a former employee at the record store who now lives in New York City — contracted a particularly bad case of COVID-19 through his work with people who have special needs. Now, about a year after getting sick, he still suffers from complications, including fevers and lung trouble, though Mark Burke said his brother was healthy and athletic before contracting the virus.

“We had no desire to be any kind of source where people are going to go in and touch everything and breathe on everything and be in this enclosed space,” Burke said. “We were always so busy with so many people, even if they weren’t buying stuff. There are so many people on the Square all the time that it was just a germ trap, and my wife and I both decided there’s no way we’re going to put money over lives.”

While the change has been a drastic one — Mad World did not sell records online at all before the pandemic, preferring to keep inventory local — the business has found success in its new form, Burke said. The online store allows sales to all 50 states, and local shoppers can still get records delivered to their door or pick up their orders at More Fun Toys!, which operates out of Mad World’s former location at 115 W. Hickory St.

And although it has been extra work with just Mark and his wife, Maria, handling Mad World — his wife also works a full-time job — it has allowed Burke to spend more time at home with the couple’s son, Wren.

“I feel like if I had the store still open, I wouldn’t know him as well as I do now, and vice versa,” Mark Burke said.

Reduction in staff also has affected the workload at Juice Lab. At their busiest, the juice bar employed 12 people alongside Puckett, who managed the day-to-day. Now, Puckett runs Juice Lab alone, meaning she no longer serves food in addition to drinks as she did on South Elm, and she had to reduce her operating days to Thursday through Saturday.

“I just can’t physically work the truck any more than I am already doing because on the other days I have to receive my orders and also still do our custom cold-press juicing that covers our cleanses and bottle programs,” Puckett said. “There’s just not enough time in the day for me to do everything.”

Entering new territory

For Board at Home owner Katie Burke, the pandemic also brought an end to business as she knew it.

Board at Home was made up of Katie Burke and a team of artists who guided guests in crafting wooden sign boards and other decor items at home parties. The business was growing in 2019, with team members across North Texas, in North Carolina and Oklahoma, and plans to expand into Austin. But when the pandemic hit, demand for the type of events Board at Home helped host declined drastically.

“Board at Home kind of died with COVID,” said Burke, who is unrelated to Mark Burke.

Katie Burke tried to pivot the business online, but with a new baby on the way and her team members focused on their own families amid the pandemic, Board at Home fizzled.

But now, with the possibility for increased mobility as the vaccine becomes more widely available, Burke said she sees an opportunity to take the concept behind Board at Home and fold it into a new, broader event-planning business: Madeby Events.

While Board at Home centered around making sign boards at home parties, Madeby, while still offering private events such as office parties, will focus on working with businesses to host public DIY events that will help bring people back into commercial spaces. And Madeby will offer different kinds of creative events, from bracelet stacking to the home decor that was at the heart of Board at Home.

Burke said Madeby events allow for space between participants and for everyone to have their own materials to work with. With parties being hosted inside local businesses, Burke said she plans to follow the guidelines businesses have in place as well as CDC recommendations.

Madeby’s first event, a bracelet stack, will be Saturday at Roanoke Trading Co. from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. When the event service gets off the ground and eventually has more team members, Burke said she also hopes to help boost other local creatives, allowing them to list events on Madeby’s page and acting as a consultant to support makers.

“I really want to help local businesses activate their spaces because I know a lot of them have plenty of space, but people haven’t been coming out,” Burke said. “And so, you know, giving them a reason to come out [for] something to do and get out of the house and utilizing those spaces is something that we can all benefit from.”

More to come?

Other local businesses also are hinting at comebacks. Free Play Denton, which closed in July, has posted several “loading” graphics on its Facebook page over the past few months seeming to suggest it would be back, as the post announcing its closure last summer promised. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which closed its Denton location in September, also announced in March that plans to reopen during the next few months remain unchanged.

While many Denton businesses did not survive the pandemic, for these and others, hope remains. Mad World is doing well online, and the Burkes have no plans to open a storefront again, Mark Burke says. At Juice Lab, the smaller operation has meant lower overhead. Puckett hopes warmer weather will bring more customers and, eventually, allow her to hire staff and expand her operating days and menu again.

“I almost just feel like the universe is pulling me and Juice Lab along because we’re supposed to be here,” Puckett said. “I’ve been able to have these opportunities come up, especially during the pandemic, that I don’t think a lot of other people have had. I feel very fortunate for that.”

AMBER GAUDET can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @amb_balam.

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