While virtually finishing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Akron in March 2020, Nicole Norris, a Wooster native, had to find a caffeinated drink to help her stay awake to finish her assignments. After searching through Facebook, Norris found a Dalgona coffee recipe, made it and loved it. “My son was very vocal about me selling the coffee,” said Norris, “so I put up a post on Facebook about delivering the coffee and it took off.” Norris’ coffee was so popular that on Sept. 10, 2020, she opened up Whippt Dalgona Coffee in downtown Wooster. Whippt Coffee is one of the 15 businesses to start up in downtown Wooster during the pandemic.
“It is my job to not only make one of the best cups of coffee you’ll ever taste, but it’s also my job to educate you about what it is. So Dalgona coffee doesn’t just offer a different cup of coffee, it offers a really different experience,” Norris said.
Despite massive economic downturn and staffing shortages due to the pandemic, Wooster saw a proliferation of fifteen small businesses in the downtown area. The new businesses include Grigio Wine & Cocktail Bar, Son Apothecary, B. Radiant Lash, Wooster Nutrition, Boba Bowl, Whippt Dalgona Coffee, Boo Bear Brews, Sole Purpose, Bleach Custom Hairdressing, RE/MAX, Cookie Snob, Meraki Artistry Permanent Cosmetics, Studio 217, Addison Scott Hair Company and Blackbird Records.
However, downtown Wooster also lost four small businesses during the pandemic, including Everything Rubbermaid, a Wooster staple for nearly three decades, who closed their doors on April 29, 2021. The Rubbermaid location will be replaced by E&H Hardware.
When asked her thoughts on the number of new locations in downtown Wooster during the pandemic, Shannon Waller, Executive Director of Main Street Wooster, said, “It honestly took me by surprise.”
Waller said that the pandemic led many people to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams through business endeavors. “What it seems to be is people who really had to take a hard look at their priorities when the pandemic hit and decided that if they want to go after a dream, they really should not waste any more time,” she said.
Norris agrees with Waller. “Whippt Coffee would not be here if it was not for a pandemic,” said Norris. “This is not something that I probably would have gotten into.””
Norris, whose grandfather owned a local barbershop in Wooster during the 1970s, pointed out Wooster’s unique history of small businesses. “Wooster has always had a lot of small businesses and entrepreneurs, like Freedlanders,” Norris said, “so historically Wooster has been known to be one of the easier places to open a business.”
Another new business in downtown Wooster is Blackbird Records, Wooster’s premiere record store. Blackbird Records’ location is the home of Wooster’s previous record store, Lucky Records, but Josh Lehman, owner of Operation Fandom, bought the store from Lucky Records owner, Dave Rodgers, and rebranded the store to “Blackbird.” While Blackbird opened their doors on March 5, 2020, the record store had to delay their grand opening due to the pandemic.
“Our store and our goal is to make it all inclusive,” said Lehman. “We try to appeal to young and old through all different genres.” Blackbird Records offers a wide array of vinyl records, speakers, turntables and other music accessories.
Nick Harling ’22, said he greatly enjoys Blackbird Records’ ambiance and music selection.
“As both a music lover and a student, I love Blackbird,” he said. “It’s therapeutic to explore their eclectic inventory, and chat about my purchases with the owners. It’s a really pleasant place to visit.”
Along with Harling, Lehman said that his stores, Operation Fandom and Blackbird Records, have seen an increase in visits from College students. “Since things opened back up, I think we’re seeing an uptick in College students coming down on Saturdays,” Lehman said. “I think there is a bigger attraction to coming downtown, because you have a fandom store, record store, Sure House Coffee and Boba Bowl, so there is a good draw to get people off campus and come downtown.”
While some students are able to visit downtown Wooster to enjoy the new businesses in the area, Waller said that Main Street Wooster would like to see more students in the area, citing transportation as an obstacle for students. “We would really like to make it a lot easier for students to access downtown,” said Waller, “so we are trying to figure out if there is an easier way to get students to and from downtown.”
On Nov. 19, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Main Street Wooster will host downtown’s “Wooster Window Wonderland,” an annual event where community members can enjoy Holiday festivities and downtown businesses. “This is a tradition that we have had in downtown Wooster for a couple of decades,” said Waller, “and we are really excited to go back to the historical program that we have offered, because the restrictions on gatherings have been lifted somewhat.”
The event is downtown Wooster’s largest annual event, as nearly 5,000 community members enjoy the festivities. The event is free to the public.
“We know that Wooster is a strong community,” said Waller. “The economic crisis and the pandemic really showcased how strong it is, as we were able to have this positive growth during this chaotic time.”