When Brad Bowelle’s karate students approach their opponent, there’s a level of mystery and uncertainty. It’s why they train for the unknown, to be ready for anything.
And although Bowelle’s training as a fourth degree master black belt has been extensive, even he was not ready for the unknown enemy that he was set to face earlier this year.
First it was the challenge of having to move from his longtime Mechanicsville Road studio due to a potential school system land deal that would’ve required his former landlord to sell the property.
The situation couldn’t have come at a worse time for Bowelle, as the studio was already reeling from the COVID-19 caused shutdowns and facing the unknown enemy of the coronavirus.
“It was immediately impactful on our income,” Bowelle said. “When the initial lockdown took place, I was only able to make my bills based off the grace of other families to continue to pay their contracts. I would not have been able to do it any other way. The stimulus would not have been enough to cover my expenses for the 90-plus days that we were officially down.”
Yet through it all: an over 90-day shutdown, declaring bankruptcy, being forced to relocate; Bowelle kept fighting.
Now he looks back and calls it a blessing.
DOWN NOT OUT
“It’s been a great journey,” Bowelle said. “I’m very excited about our new location...I’m very blessed in these uncertain times.”
Bowelle managed to find a new location where Morrison Moore Parkway meets Auraria Road and was able to hold his first classes there in September. While having to move made for a difficult time, it turned out to be for the best as the new building is in better condition for a dojo and gives the instructors more space to work with.
“[The landlord] put in air conditioning for us which is a huge thing for us from that other building,” Bowelle said. “It was amazing. This has been a very positive move....We have a little bit larger space and I was very happy with that.”
Bowelle said he feels that the move puts him in a better position with the community to continue to grow his business as they recover from the shutdown.
“This move provides a lot of visibility,” he said. “People in the community know me, I’ve been here a long time now, about 15 years and so I feel like I'm a part of the tapestry here.”
Once the move was all lined up, Bowelle found out that he wouldn’t actually have to move, after plans with the property changed on the school system side.
“About a month before I moved in, I got a call from the former landlord over there and he goes, ‘I hate to tell you this, but the sale of the property that precipitated all the moving fell through,’” he said. “They didn’t buy his property. I guess throughout the COVID times, they had an opportunity to reassess what they wanted to do and redesign it a little bit and they bought property on the opposite side of the hill.”
However it seemed fate was looking out for the studio, which was rebranded as Brad’s United following the shutdown, and Bowelle continued on with the move.
“We had already been on our hunt, we had made commitments,” he said. “We had people sinking money into preparing a place for us that would be suitable. So all the other barriers had already been lifted…It totally worked out for the better for me. I hate it for him because he was a really great landlord.”
Bowelle, who says the business is his family’s primary source of income, maintains that he would’ve been unable to continue the business he loves in the community he loves if it weren’t for his loyal customers.
“We live in a part of the nation that is very pragmatic in certain ways and while we take care of each other,” he said. “...I’m very blessed in these uncertain times that people are continuing to patronize the business and spend the money here and I’m just thankful for that.”
In a pandemic that’s really taken out its aggression on small businesses, Brad’s United has fared better than many martial arts studios across the nation.
“As far as the volume of people, related to COVID, I actually think that I’m doing ok,” he said. “We’ve added some students. We’re growing back. We’re not where we were when we left but we’re maybe 15 percent off, 20 percent off our target of where we would be last year at this time so that’s not terrible. I know a lot of businesses…have been hit so hard that they’ve had to shut the doors, several martial arts studios across the nation...Every month there’s three or four locations saying ‘I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to have to close up shop.’”
KARATE VS. COVID
Wayne Marshall, who also helps at the studio as an instructor, says that the resilience shown by Bowelle embodies exactly what they hope to teach in their classes.
And when it comes to facing COVID-19, it comes back to the same principles that the students take to their competitions: being prepared for the unknown.
“It is the unknown,” Marshall said. “When we go and we train in here, we train for the unknown. You never know your opponent. It’s face-to-face first time most of the time. Same thing with competition, you never know who’s showing up, so you got to bring your best game and adapt to overcome that situation.”
Brad’s United continues to adapt even now that in-person classes at the studio have resumed, as such a physical environment makes practicing martial arts in a COVID world difficult.
“We’ll wear masks even in this environment just so we can minimize the potential transmission of COVID. We have students who have elected to wear masks and we have students who choose not to…,” Bowelle said. “We’re a place that has a really difficult time social distancing because of the activity that we do, so we have to be very careful.”
Another challenge for the studio is keeping the students goal-oriented when the competitions that served as the big payoff for training have also been put on hold due to the coronavirus.
“Competition is a thing that we not only pride ourselves on, but we feel it’s an important part of the children’s development and that has been shut down,” Marshall said. “...What that translates into our day-to-day stuff, that type of exposure really builds their character and they enjoy the competition. So it’s kind of that carrot that’s always in front of them to push harder in class and I, with this going on, have seen where that’s fallen back a little bit, so we just have to get creative in that area and try to find ways to motivate them, keep that carrot in front of them.”
Bowelle and his instructors are hoping their students will get to compete again at competitions in February.
While the future is still uncertain, Bowelle is just glad to still be a part of the community and doing what he loves.
“How it impacted me as a small business is that it was immediate and it was not positive,” he said. “It was almost like the cure was worse than the illness. I guess only time will tell whether or not we remain solid. I don’t feel like we are on as unstable ground as we were initially.”