[SURVIVING THE OUTBREAK] From bowling balls to no calls, business owners struggle on

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[SURVIVING THE OUTBREAK] From bowling balls to no calls, business owners struggle on


From left, Kang Seong-min organizing the bowling balls in his shop on Monday, Kim Yeong-jun organizing the equipment in his empty jujitsu gym on Tuesday. [KIM SEONG-RYONG]

“After the government issued stern health regulations due to the coronavirus, I had exactly one customer,” said Kang Seong-min, 32. His business? Drilling holes in bowling balls.

Most of Kang’s customers are members of bowling clubs, and according to Kang, in Korea, 70 to 80 percent who go to bowling alleys do not use the balls that the alleys provide for public use, but the so-called performance balls they bring from home.

Although in-house balls are durable against wear and tear, performance balls, as their names suggest, increase performance in terms of power and precision. And it is not enough to merely own a performance ball - bowlers must visit a shop like Kim’s and get their hands measured in order to maximize performance.

Kang quit his full-time job at a company two years ago and opened this new business. It cost 5 million won ($4,100) to receive the necessary training and another 10 million won to buy the machine to drill the holes.

At first, Kang focused his business around personal contacts, but officially opened his shop for the general public from January. Customers choose the ball they want and get it customized to their preferences.

Kang explained that although the competitive prices may have been part of the reason, he sold at least 20 bowling balls in the first month after opening, which provided a “pretty good source of income.” As a result, noticing the rising demand for his work, Kang ordered more bowling bowls in preparation for March.

But then the coronavirus outbreak hit.

“Everyone advised me that the first six months are the most important for my business,” said Kang, glancing at the pristine bowling balls stacked in boxes in his shop, “When I think of how I am blowing this opportunity, I can feel my insides burn.”

Previously, Kang signed a contract with a bowling ball manufacturer, which stipulates that Kang must order a certain number of balls each month. But since he has no customers, Kang has no choice but to tell the manufacturer that he is not ordering any new shipments for this month.

He decided to look for a part-time job in March, but when he interviewed for a position at a cafe, he was told that more than 100 others were applying for the same job.

Accepting the reality of the situation, Kang is currently spending much of his time at bowling allies, collecting his thoughts.

Because of his savings, he can afford to keep his shop open until August. If the situation does not improve by then, he will have to close it temporarily.

But he hasn’t completely given up hope, referring to his shop’s potential. Due to the nature of the business, according to Kang, as long as he can carve out a place for his shop in the industry, he will be set for a long time.

“In the big picture, I am trying to think of this as a temporary blip,” said Kang. “Things will work out, hopefully.”

Grappling with the outbreak

“I have to use this money to keep the gym afloat,” said 31-year-old Kim Yeong-jun, the owner of a jujitsu gym in Bucheon, Gyeonggi, justifying why he had to sell his van on Tuesday. Two years ago, to accommodate a rise in the number of students, Kim bought the van so that he could provide a shuttle service for the children. He sold the van for 21 million won and used the money to buy a used van for 14 million won.

Since special loans are available for small business owners, Kim applied for one at his bank. However, the bank is taking too long to process the request, and now, Kim is running out of options.

Kim first closed his jujitsu gym in February, just as the coronavirus outbreak was starting to gain momentum. At that time, one of the students who attended a trial lesson at Kim’s gym was confirmed to have been infected with the virus.

As the coronavirus situation in Korea continued to worsen, the total number of enrolled students dwindled down to 20 from the original 80.

During this period, Kim opened his gym intermittently, waiting for the brief windows in which the virus situation seemed to be stabilizing.

But on March 21, the Ministry of Health and Welfare issued a two-week suspension for all gyms. A gym can file for an exception, but it must guarantee that all people in the premises can maintain a 2-meter (6-foot) distance from each other. Due to jujitsu’s nature as a grappling martial art, Kim couldn’t provide such a guarantee, and as a result, had no choice but to close the doors of his gym and hope for the best.

Although the local government is also providing relief funds for gyms which have suspended their operations, the narrow conditions required to receive the money means Kim is once again out of luck.

He finally resorted to taking on an additional job, and has been working part-time through “Coupang Flex,” a service provided by Coupang, the largest online retailer in South Korea. Originally, through this service, deliverymen could earn approximately 1400 won to 1600 won per each box delivered. But due to the readily available number of deliverymen available, many in similar circumstances to Kim, earnings have dropped to approximately 800 won per box delivered.

Although Kim’s burden decreased slightly recently because his landlord reduced monthly rent payments by 300,000 won, interest payment for an outstanding debt of 23 million won still looms over his head.

“Apart from myself, I have only one employee, and I have not been able to pay him properly either,” said Kim, “I worked at a construction site before, and I am planning on trying to get some work there if I can.”

False hope

A taekwondo gym owner and instructor (41), who wished not to be named, also started to work part-time through Coupang Flex during the coronavirus outbreak. In a March 31 interview, he recounted his experiences.

“It’s been a while since I got to work early in the morning. I headed to the warehouse at 2 a.m. A long line of cars were parked outside. They were all part-timers. I don’t know whether it was because of delivery-related issues, but I waited for two hours. When I was told to pull up, it was 4:30 a.m. The even greater catch was that I received only 26 boxes. From the deliveries, I earned 26,000 won but lost 23,000 won due to the gas fees. I got home at 7 a.m.”

His gym, which first opened in 2005, has been closed for the last 7 weeks. In September, he had moved to a bigger location in Gyeonggi, and within three months 200 students were enrolled. Including the instructors and shuttle driver, he had 7 people working for him.

But this initial success seems like a distant memory.

He and his family are managing to get by thanks to 15 million won in loans made possible by his wife’s credit. But this is only a temporary solution, and for the family, the future looks bleak.

The gym owner did receive a message that he was eligible for financial aid from the government, but upon closer inspection, learned that it only applied to gyms in Mapo, where his first gym opened in 2005 before he made the move to Gyeonggi.

BY MOON HYUN-KYUNG, ANDREW LEE [lee.joongi@joongang.co.kr]
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