Small businesses opened last year in Laguna Beach, undeterred by pandemic’s crush

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Andrew Soliz in his showroom at Tatankamani.

While thousands of small businesses across the state have been forced to permanently shut down due to COVID-19—some 19,000 according to a September Yelp economic report—other local entrepreneurs have established new vocations.

According to Yelp’s local economic report, in California, “roughly 20 businesses per thousand temporarily or permanently (closed) their doors since March 1.”

But many others have opened. The pandemic actually inspired woodworker Andrew Soliz to open Tatankamani Woodworks last November in Laguna Canyon with the help of government subsidy money that allowed him to shift from his slowed down construction business to opening up his own shop.

I’ve always wanted to get out of construction and do my own furniture, so I started driving around the canyon looking for space. Canyon spaces are so hard to come by,” he said. “I found one, got in touch with the owner and we struck a deal—it just kind if happened. That was the universe saying, ‘it will work for you.’”

Tatankamani, Soliz’s Lakota name, which means Walking Buffalo, consists of a 500-square-foot showroom where he keeps a collection of reclaimed tree slabs of various woods from a recycling program sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as a woodshop next door. The wood was all damaged due to fire, wind or disease, “and instead of being thrown into landfills, it was reclaimed,” said Soliz.

In the showroom, people can do their own projects, “or we take it to the woodshop next door, design a piece of furniture and fabricate it,” said Soliz, adding that “business has been surprisingly good during COVID. People are changing the way they are purchasing and where they want to spend their money. I’m finding that people are searching for custom woodworkers, and they are bringing in things they want to fix, instead of buying something new.”

Soliz pointed to two chairs he is converting into rocking chairs, and a 1964 Austin Healy dashboard he is currently transforming with a black walnut veneer as examples.

“I really want this shop to be a community shop,” he said. “For example, someone might call and say, ‘I have a few pieces of wood, can I come cut or borrow a tool?’ I tell them to come on down. For me, as a Native American, I see the trees as one of my oldest relatives and when they lay down to die, I get to give them life in another form, so they keep living with us. I also believe every tree has a spirit that lives inside if it and when I can communicate with my clients to create a piece of furniture that has a life of its own, then the spirit of that tree is recognized.”

His hope is that in the next few months, he can expand the space by bringing in large shipping containers and convert them into boutique stores with imported furniture and other items.

Also gathering the community together is single mom Shery Abbassi, whose journey from optometrist to business owner with her sister, Samone Boyce, felt like it was meant to be. She doesn’t know if it was “the insanity of being quarantined with a two-year-old, or genius,” that led them to open Soul Focus Optical at 574 S. Coast Hwy., but something “just felt right.”

Abbassi had worked in optometry for 10 years when she was approached about opening her own shop right before the pandemic happened. She had found the perfect space when suddenly the world went into quarantine and she took her time building out her shop. “I was looking at my daughter and realized she was my soul focus for everything I do and then I saw that everything was meant to be. The first place I called, I took. I gave my sister a call and asked her to help out and make it a family business.”

Shery Abbassi of Soul Focus optical

She found her space in June and soft opened in August. “All I did was work on the shop and create our Instagram,” she said. “Most of the business is from referrals, and people seeing our posts.” 

Abbassi used her Instagram account to showcase customers who bought glasses photographed under a beautiful canvas with a display of flowers beneath. It started gathering a following. One day soon after opening, the rapper G-Eazy “bought a few pairs of glasses and let me take his picture. I posted it that night and got tons of messages and from then on, locals and tourists started coming in. They would say they liked how chill the vibe is here, how it was very Laguna.”

Abbassi’s intention with Soul Focus Optical was to embrace the true timeless essence of Laguna Beach’s art district and mix it with the feel-good vibes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, “to create a space where you could wear something that not everyone else had” with exclusive eyeglass and sunglass brands such as Moscot, LA Eyeworks, Leisure Society and Ahlem.

“Even during the pandemic, we still have eyes,” said Abbassi, adding that the emphasis on eyes while wearing a mask has not hurt her business.

While Abbassi is focused on the eyes, a family of five women is focused on the body, mind and spirit with the recently opened Spa Del Rio on Forest Avenue in the Lumberyard.

In February 2020, Claudia Mendizabal, 54, and her four daughters, Lesli Del Rio Burt, 32, Perla, 31, Michelle, 22, and Nicole Del Rio,19, decided this was the perfect time to open their own business.

“My mother is from Honduras and she came to the United States when she was 17,” said Lesli, who previously worked in sales before purchasing the space. “When we were young and got sick or hurt, she always made us feel better with natural healing techniques that have been passed on from generation to generation, so we are naturally drawn to helping people.”

Because Claudia is an aesthetician, and two of the sisters were already massage therapists (Perla is a certified Holistic Practitioner and Yoga Therapist and Michelle is a massage therapist) the pandemic “presented the perfect opportunity to have downtime to find a space, renovate it and truly make it our own,” said Lesli. “The shutdown was a blessing and a curse. Some people thought we were crazy to try to open a business where you had to touch people in an enclosed space. We finalized the space in July, were shut down until September when spas were able to reopen, had a ribbon-cutting in November and were shut down again in December through January 25. It’s been a roller coaster.”

The spa offers private yoga and meditation, massage and bodywork, skincare and facial treatments, holistic therapies and Botox and injectable fillers with exclusive partner Dr. Hisham Seify of Newport Plastic Surgery.

Left to Right: Spa Del Rio family Perla, Nicole and Michelle Del Rio, Lesli Del Rio Burt and Claudia Mendizabal.

“A lot of people are in need of releasing a lot of mental stress,” said Lesli, “with so many uncertainties at work and in our personal lives. Things have really changed and people are really in need of physical touch and mental relaxation. It’s such an amazing opportunity for us to be able to provide that in such difficult times.”

According to Laguna Beach Chamber President and CEO Sandy Morales, the Chamber “applauds the businesses which opened during this Pandemic. Lesli Del Rio not only opened Spa Del Rio, but she has helped many Laguna businesses with her videos and social media posts… a great example of how we can support one another as we get through this together!”

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