Even In Wichita's Pandemic-Weary Economy, Some Bright Spots Remain

Jul 31, 2020

Since the pandemic started in March, The Range has chronicled the economic difficulties of a variety of industries and businesses: restaurants, airlines, musicians, nonprofits, theaters.

It’s been a pretty steady drumbeat of hard times.

But believe it or not, there are some bright spots in this pandemic economy.

In fact, some businesses have – unexpectedly – seen a bump in customers because of the pandemic.

Phillip Fisher is the manager for the Wichita office of Ryan Lawn and Tree. On a recent weekday morning, he was preparing to inject iron into some droopy river birches in a neighborhood near Crestview Country Club.

He said the early days of the pandemic were confusing. The company was uncertain whether it would be allowed to remain open when the statewide shutdown went into effect. So employees worked long hours trying to get ahead.

But the industry was labeled essential under state guidelines.

At the same time, the order forced many other people to work from home. That’s when they began noticing problems with their lawn and landscaping.

"So they're seeing their places … (and) realizing that their places are not in as great of shape as they thought it was," Fisher said.

"And they're like, 'What in the world is going on?' And so they'll call us and get us back out there to take care of the problems that they've probably been putting off for a while."

Fisher said business in Wichita has grown slowly but steadily the last several years. But he expects it to grow 15 to 20% this year.

He has hired a few more employees since the pandemic started, bringing the company’s total to 35.

Most of them – like Fisher, an Oklahoma State University grad – hold some type of agriculture degree. At the start of the year, Fisher said the company laid out three goals: create happy customers – Fisher calls them "raving fans" – keep customers from leaving and grow the lawn business.

"And I tell you, the two – lawn growth and the raving fans – have been really good for us going into this pandemic because taking care of the people was put number one," Fisher said. "And man, we're not losing them nearly like we have before."

Phillip Fisher stands next to some birch trees after treating them with an iron injection.
Credit Hugo Phan / KMUW

Fisher said the company has about 6,000 customers in Wichita. The company, based in Merriam, also has offices in St. Louis, Springfield, Missouri, and Tulsa.

Ryan Lawn and Tree also does landscaping, pest control and irrigation. But if you want a new sprinkler system, you’ll have to wait two months because of the demand.

Fisher said the other local lawn care companies he has talked with also are busy.

But even though his business is good, Fisher said he feels for other companies that are struggling right now.

He said all you can do is stick to your core values, work hard and have a little faith.

"I think you have to put the customer first, no matter what, that's my best advice because I know they're going to be struggling," he said. "But that means also there's going to be less competition because someone's going to go away.

"And so I think you just keep at it, keep to your golden rules that you have. We're a faith-based company. We believe God's taking care of us.

"So that's what I come back to: just keep the faith … and keep doing the right thing."

The shop at Signs Now in east Wichita
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

And lawn care isn’t the only industry faring well these days. All those signs you see around town — ones that say "heroes work here," "mask required," "now open for takeout" — have to get printed somewhere.

Signs Now owner Matt Withers and his son, Grant, say a few months ago, in addition to the usual business signs and car wraps the company produces, they started to get some more unusual orders.

"The first wave was actually those 'we're still open' banners," Grant said. "And then probably our biggest jobs in the beginning were a lot of the senior congratulations yard signs, believe it or now. That was the first thing that we really noticed picked up because of the coronavirus."

Matt Withers, left, has run the local Signs Now store for about 30 years. His son, Grant, now works for the company.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Matt’s been a franchisee for Signs Now for about 30 years; he opened the Wichita store in 1991, and moved to his location near Central and Greenwich about five years ago.

The company was deemed an essential business and has been able to stay open throughout the pandemic. A letter stating the designation hangs in the front lobby, not far from the plastic face shields and model plexiglass barrier Signs Now has started selling.

"We were doing stuff for hospitals, clinics, schools, wayfinding signs and social distancing signs like … 'stand back,'" Matt said. "There was a big need for that stuff so we were busy doing that."

He says those kinds of order haven’t made up too much of his business this year – not as much as he expected – but sales in April, May and June were up between 15 and 20% over last year. He applied for and got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, as a safety net. Along with Matt and his son, Signs Now also employs two designers.

Matt and Grant say they feel fortunate they’ve weathered the pandemic so well. Matt’s wife, Nancy, owns the neighboring interior design company, Kitchens Wow, and has also seen an increase in business as people have taken on more home projects.

"Very fortunate," Matt said. "They need us to do stuff. I feel so sorry for the restaurants and bars. It’s on the news every day. They just can’t do anything. But we’re kind of essential so we have to stay open."

Grant says the sign business has seen each wave of the pandemic — first the restaurants, then entertainment venues, now schools.

"When people came in asking for all those coronavirus decals, it felt like they were struggling, and we could kind of help them out," he said. "And that’s kind of where we felt essential, that’s where our niche was.

"We were the people who were helping others."

Matt says no one can predict what happens this year, but he expects business will stay steady in the coming months.

"I think it’ll probably go up a little bit because we're in a campaign season, so they’re gonna need signs." he said.

"So that flood’s gonna come in here, I think, now too.”