While many businesses have struggled during the pandemic, KK Sew & Vac is not one of them. Nationwide, people have turned to activities like sewing as a positive way to occupy their time. That has meant a boom in sales.

"Sewing and crafting allows people to be constructive during a time when a lot of what they used to do has been taken away from them. By being creative, they can do something they truly love and enjoy," said Lisa Peterson.

Peterson, who owns the stores in Kaukauna, De Pere and Darboy with her husband, Heath, says the customers also had the benefit of giving back.

"I can't even fathom the number of masks that our customers have made. It had to be in the thousands," Lisa Peterson said. "It made them feel like they could help when they might otherwise feel powerless. Most of the masks were made as donations."

Because the shops had fabrics and machines for making masks, the businesses were deemed essential by the state. When they first opened, most of the business was curbside only. They stayed busy with fabric sales so customers had supplies for masks.

They now do most of their sales in the shops, but they remain diligent regarding distancing, the number of people allowed in the store and sanitation. Classes, once held frequently in the stores, are now virtual.

"People are itching to learn new techniques, and we've got classes coming up in embroidery and quilting," Lisa Peterson said. "There are those who would love live classes, but they have been very understanding."

She recognizes that the situation is fluid, and looks forward to the day when it is safe to gather. The continuous change is something she and her husband recognize as they have adapted to a growing business.

Heath worked at KK Sew & Vac, then owned by his mother and stepfather, in high school. He became skilled at repairing sewing machines and vacuums. After joining the Navy and then working for another company, his parents were ready to retire (by then they owned two stores), and the Petersons purchased both in 2012.

Lisa had worked as a social worker for many years; it was a career that she says provided the perfect experience for working with customers.

"It was a surprisingly easy change for me; getting the opportunity to work with people just like I did before," she said. "Social work gave me the insight to be a good listener and make sure I know what they need."

Although she didn't have much sewing experience, she has learned and says she is now great at explaining the technical aspects of the machines. Yet, she says, her strengths are customer service and management, and it is Heath who has the best technical brain and skill with the financial aspects of the business.

They split their time between the stores, and with a recognition of each other's strengths, get along really well.

"There is that mutual respect," she said. "The challenge, especially for Heath, is turning it off when we're at home."

That can be a bit difficult, also, because they keep a huge white board in their home office that has all of their written goals on it. They have a written business plan, but prefer to have goals front and center rather than tucked away in a drawer. It all points to growth, and they have had success in doing just that.

Now with 11 employees, and top brands, Peterson says they focus on training so that team members can support their goals. Unlike other businesses that have had difficulty hiring good workers, she says she has been blessed with amazing people who are eager to learn.

"Our business is incredibly healthy right now," Lisa Peterson said. "The one difficult aspect has been the back orders, but apart from that, people are getting back into sewing and crafting because they have fewer options."

She considers her customers to be a community, and she and one of her employees try to build that feeling on social media. The marketing plan also includes paid advertising and email newsletters. Although there is competition in the area, she focuses on KK Sew & Vac and what makes the business special.

"Our niche is that we offer free training on our machines for life," she said. "Our team is fantastic at learning those machines, and we can provide the expertise for getting the most out of the brand.

"There is nothing that has helped us more than our concentration on customer support and doing the best we can for our customers."

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.

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Lisa Peterson