All signs were pointing toward the best rental year ever for James (Kimo) and Amy Bernauer, owners of A Grand Affair, Davis, Calif. The year was 2020, and beginning in late February, it all began to unravel.
The Bernauers, who had started their family-owned event rental company in 2009, were being flooded with cancellation calls as cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) began to erupt throughout the nation and states were beginning to implement lockdown procedures.
“It was crushing as we had so many rentals. We ended up refunding about $10,000 worth of deposits. We put all our inventory in self-storages to cut down on overhead. We moved our front office to a room in our house. I did everything over the phone and by internet,” Kimo says.
Event rentals had come to a complete halt. He was able to rent five tents to the City of Davis for outdoor dining use. “Those were for seven-month rentals, which helped out a lot,” he says.
But those weren’t enough to keep the business afloat. “I was afraid we couldn’t survive this. We tried everything we could to cut out as much of the hard costs as possible,” he adds.
Kimo knew he needed to bring in money, so he took a temporary job at a warehouse. “Initially, I was unloading shipping containers. After a year of doing that, I drove a truck, moving the shipping containers in and out of the doors for people to unload. That money was used to keep the storage units afloat, the phone number going and pay for insurance,” he says.
That arrangement went on for one-and-a-half years. “For any rental jobs I had, I did all my rental deliveries after I got off of work,” he says.
All that hard work and perseverance paid off. “As of September of 2021, things started to pick up a little bit — mostly small backyard parties, etc. Slowly, more business came back. In October of last year, we moved into our new 5,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and 1,800-sq.-ft. office building. That gives us way more space, including space to grow,” Kimo says.
Business is starting to boom, and he is ready to take care of his customers’ needs. “We do little parties to weddings and large beer fests. We have all the equipment and the tents to handle this. Luckily, all the larger events I used to do with the University of California, Davis have come back. They have a picnic day in which anyone can come out and see what they do. All my beer fests on the state Capitol have come back, too. Plus, all my regular orders are coming back, including backyard parities, barbecues and weddings — like how they used to be,” he says.
This is exciting because “I just love working with people. I love doing the events and looking at them after they are done and say, ‘Wow, look what we did.’ It is great to have the bride and groom or the person having the party come up to you and say how happy they are about how their wedding or event turned out,” Kimo says.
Now he is becoming “more stressed about all the orders I have coming in,” he adds. “I am scrambling to hire people. Before COVID, I had five people, including two of my sons and a friend of mine. In the beginning, most of our staff members were family. Now things are opening up, so we will have to hire more people. I purchased a lot of equipment from a rental operation that moved to Tennessee because of the pandemic. The owner’s sister-in-law, who knows the business inside and out, will be coming to work for us, which is great. I will still need more people, though, including a manager to help with the warehouse and deliveries. I am going through family and friends to find people and plan to try ARA’s [American Rental Association] Job Posting Portal,” he says.
While this type of stress is challenging, it is much more manageable than dealing with the possibility of losing his business.
Kimo admits he has gained a lot of insight from this time. “I learned that you have to look at your operation and see where you can streamline things to cut the waste. It is something you need to do anytime — even when the money is coming in. But the biggest thing I learned is you have to stay positive and just work through the difficult times,” he says. “We are on the other end, which is real nice.”