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New businesses have been created at a record-breaking pace during the pandemic

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It may seem like a strange time to start a business, but a lot of people have decided that now is the time to chase their dreams. In fact, new businesses are being created at record-breaking paces right now. NPR's Andrea Hsu caught up with one entrepreneur outside Philadelphia.

JUBY GEORGE: Hi, nice to meet you. I'm Juby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Juby, it's nice to meet you.

J GEORGE: Nice to meet you.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It's opening day at Smell The Curry, a South Indian catering business and food stall at the Flourtown Farmers Market. The chef and owner is Juby George.

J GEORGE: I started cooking when I was young. I used to help my dad. My dad had a catering business, too. I wouldn't say it was a business. It was like a side hustle for him, you know?

HSU: And until now, catering has been a side hustle for Juby George, too. For the last 21 years, he's worked as a programmer writing JavaScript and HTML for a company that trains pharmaceutical reps.

J GEORGE: I loved my job. I also loved cooking.

HSU: A few years ago, he started catering meals for small gatherings a couple times a week. And then when the pandemic hit...

J GEORGE: I started getting more and more, like, you know, maybe three a week.

HSU: People weren't going to restaurants. Many tried to avoid grocery stores. Juby George came up with the idea of offering a monthly menu - chili paneer and chana dal, mint chicken curry and prawn curry, a specialty of Kerala, his home state. His wife, Shireen Bethala George, often cooks with him but has a full-time job in data management. She says the food was just what people needed in those dark days.

SHIREEN BETHALA GEORGE: The feeling of having a nice, home-cooked meal, you really feel the love through his cooking.

HSU: Soon, their evenings and weekends were filled with chopping and sauteing and layering of spices. Meanwhile, Juby George was still doing his programming job from home. Things had gotten a little slow. And then one day this past October, he was driving his three boys to the Movie Tavern in Flourtown when he spotted a space available sign at the Flourtown Farmers Market, an indoor food hall.

J GEORGE: I told my son - I was like, hey, take this number down.

HSU: He arranged to see the space a few days later. It was exactly what he wanted - a commercial range, a hood, a refrigerated display case that now holds his curries and mango pies. Within days, he had signed the lease and put in his notice at work.

J GEORGE: It was a good time for me to make that jump. You know, in 21 years, why not take a chance, you know?

HSU: And millions of others are also taking chances. This year alone, the number of new business applications is on track to top 5 million. Now, it's hard to say how many pandemic-era businesses will survive. Many of them were created out of necessity by people who lost their jobs and decided to become self-employed. Shireen says she was a little taken aback at how quickly things materialized for them.

S GEORGE: You know, that initial like, wait, what? We're doing this right now?

HSU: But she says their boys are more independent now. They're 7, 10 and 12, and they're pretty good taste testers. And if not now, then when?

S GEORGE: Yeah, it's going to be hard. It's not all going to be easy, but this is what you want to do. You got to go for it.

J GEORGE: All I know is I think there's a need for Indian food in the area. People want it, so I'm here to service that. So...

HSU: In addition to Shireen, who helps whenever she can, Juby George has one part-time employee who helps wrap samosas and package up food. So like a majority of new businesses formed in the pandemic, he hasn't created a bunch of jobs yet, but he hopes that could be in his future. For now, he's got a very important catering gig coming up.

S GEORGE: So we always host Christmas at our house.

HSU: On the menu - celebratory food, including eggplant and, of course, lamb curry.

J GEORGE: It's a popular dish with our family.

HSU: And one he hopes will be popular with his customers, too. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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