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Small business 'roommates' helping owners slash expenses during pandemic

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Posted at 11:33 AM, Apr 20, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — With a long economic recovery ahead, business owners are getting creative to stay afloat.

Before the pandemic, San Diego chef Avonte Hartsfield was on his way to opening a restaurant. He set out to do vegan food differently: plant-based comfort food that's not processed.

“I can’t eat an Impossible Burger every day, but I can for sure eat an oyster mushroom every day," said Hartsfield. “That’s our whole mission here: eat less meat."

But with menu items like fried mac and cheese balls and a buffalo chicken sandwich loaded with fries, he says it's not necessarily healthy.

"We don’t even label it as vegan, for the most part, just because it’s just good food," said Hartsfield. “Food is something that connects everybody.”

He was selling the plant-based creations at farmer's markets but was forced to put the business on hold when COVID-19 shut markets down.

A few months later, he put his entire savings into a food truck that he named Rollin Roots.

“It was nothing else but survival," said Hartsfield.

For now, his dream of having a restaurant is delayed. But like a good meal, he found a connection during the pandemic.

“He’s probably the number one regular,” Hartsfield said, referring to his new partner in business, Sean Harris.

Harris is the owner and cider maker of Serpentine Cider in San Diego. He opened in 2017 with a unique strategy to cut costs and bring in more customers.

“The way I figure is, we have this massive space," said Harris. "There’s no reason for me to be the only one here when I can share it with multiple people.”

So, he found business roommates to share the space with; it's a model which helped them survive months of shutdown orders.

“All of a sudden, your profits go to zero," said Harris. "And you have no idea what’s going to happen in the next week.”

When space in the kitchen opened for a new business roommate, Rollin Roots was the perfect fit.

“People are hoping some of their landlords will give them partial rent, 25 percent off or something. And just right off the bat, we’re getting 66 percent off," said Harris. “We have three businesses in here that are paying rent and utilities. We’re able to split it."

Harris says it's important for business roommates to share the same vision and have discussions ahead of time to make sure they will work well together.

"Just like other roommates, you can have nightmare roommates, and that would be terrible. Having a business you have started from the ground up and then have to share it with someone who you just don’t work well and don’t mesh with," said Harris.

He vetted 15 candidates before deciding to move forward with Hartsfield.

“It will take some time, but it’s well worth it," said Harris. “It’s a lot better when you’re looking out for each other.”

As for their visions aligning, Harris sources local ingredients like pumpkins and raspberries for his hard cider recipes. They're low in sugar and have no artificial ingredients.

"We're very similar in how we see the world, the changes we want in the world. And we both feel that it's up to us as individuals to make that change. And we as small business owners have that opportunity, that not a lot of people do, to work with the environment and work with the community and help with that change," said Harris.