This pandemic survival story brought to you by telegenic siblings and their mom in Abilene

December 11, 2020 3:42 am

Brandon and Meghan Adams, of Abilene, are stars of Cypress Bridge Candle Co.’s Facebook lives sales. (Submitted)

What’s the smell of a Kansas sunset?

“It’s like a tart, sweet candy,” says Meghan Adams. “If you can taste a sunset, that’s what it would be.”

Technically, it’s a combination of orange, pineapple, peach, strawberry, melon, Parma violet, clove, breeze and driftwood oils fashioned into one of the most popular scented candles at Cypress Bridge Candle Co. in downtown Abilene.

Lately there’s been another smell at their 2,000-square-foot storefront: Success.

“We are super ahead of where we were last year,” says Angela Adams, Meghan’s mother, who started making candles in her kitchen before opening the business nearly 20 years ago. She now co-owns it with her mother, Sharon Petersen. Meghan has worked there for about a decade now. Her brother, Angela’s son Brandon Adams, started working there a couple of years ago.

Cypress Bridge sells much more than candles, and in one way it’s not surprising that a home-decor business would thrive during a time when people are stuck inside.

But it’s not as if candles, seasonal decorations, kitchen gadgets, baby gifts, customized bath-and-body products and the occasional scarf or table runner are crucial supplies. That’s why Cypress Bridge had to close when Gov. Laura Kelly locked down the state back in March.

“We weren’t an essential business,” Angela Adams says.

There’s no resentment in Adams’ voice as she says this. I’m checking in with her for the same reason I spoke with Bryan Williams of Keller Feed and Wine Co. in Cottonwood Falls, Heather Horton at Toast in Pittsburg and Karla Fleming of Sweden Creme in Mankato: fact-checking politicians who say their party is the only one saving small businesses.

Those columns were about restaurants because that industry has been among those hardest hit by the pandemic. But it’s the holiday shopping season, so I called Cypress Bridge. I’d also heard something interesting was going on in Abilene.

“It’s fascinating to me that our community’s sales tax collections are up from the previous year,” says Julie Roller Weeks, director of Abilene’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One storied restaurant there, the Brookville Hotel, did close in October, citing the pandemic. I regret never having eaten fried chicken there.

And with tourism down in the hometown of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and other attractions, tax collections from hotel visitors to the community of just more than 6,000 people took “a severe hit,” Weeks says. But the sales tax increase is due to people shopping local and ordering online to receive locally, she says.

“It’s really easy to focus on the negative, but we can reframe the conversation,” she says. “Rather than news stories about what we’re losing, let’s celebrate those who are reimagining their businesses because they can serve as an example to others.”

Adams says she was satisfied with the government’s help in response to the pandemic. She took advantage of paycheck protection program money and a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration.

“At the time, we didn’t know how it was going to play out,” she says.

She ended up closing Cypress Bridge for five months — much longer than the statewide order — to remodel. She also “amped up” the store’s website, which allowed her to sell to a much wider customer base. Other pandemic innovations, such as curbside pickup, expanded delivery service to Salina, Junction City and Chapman on specific days of the week, will probably continue.

And then there are the Facebook live sales.

Thousands of people have tuned in for these video sales starring Meghan and Brandon, who show off items and customers buy things by writing “Sold” — or just chatter — in the comments.

“We’ve had this mindset, even before COVID, that we do live in a small town, and in order to grow we have to reach out on social media and have a website and make sure we’re being seen outside of our little area,” Angela says.

Facebook live sales aren’t new, but Angela says she hasn’t seen many home décor businesses doing them.

It helps that Meghan and Brandon have a natural rapport. It’s easy to see how people all over central Kansas might tune in just to be entertained by this brother-and-sister team in a homegrown version of the Home Shopping Network.

“We sometimes have the naysayers where, if they’re in a bad mood or something that day, say ‘Can you hurry? Can you go faster?’” Angela says. So they’ve tried to refine their performances and at least have a product on camera.

But the complainers are rare.

“Ninety-nine percent of my customer base love the lives,” she says. “It makes them excited to make the drive. Even if they live a couple hours away — we see people from Wichita come here all the time, they make a day trip of it.”

And down the road, when people get back to spending the night so those tourism taxes can go back up, visitors can ponder the smell of another big seller: Kansas Sunrise.

Correction: The Abilene restaurant that closed was the Brookville Hotel, not the Brookfield Hotel as originally reported.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.