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New businesses soared to record highs in 2021. Here's a taste of one of them

Juby George stands with his wife Shireen Bethala-George at the soft opening of Smell the Curry, a south Indian takeout and catering business at the Flourtown Farmers Market outside Philadelphia, on December 9, 2021.
Andrea Hsu
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NPR
Juby George stands with his wife Shireen Bethala-George at the soft opening of Smell the Curry, a south Indian takeout and catering business at the Flourtown Farmers Market outside Philadelphia, on December 9, 2021.

America's entrepreneurial spirit remains strong during the pandemic.

That's the takeaway from new numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday, which found that a whopping 5.4 million new business applications were filed in 2021, surpassing the record set in 2020 of 4.4 million.

While it's hard to say how many pandemic-era business applications will turn into real money-making ventures, the surge in entrepreneurship appears to be good news for the economy. Traditionally, startups have driven economic recovery and innovation. And with huge disruptions to the labor market and workplaces themselves, a reshuffling seems expected — even necessary.

For comparison's sake, there was no such surge in new business applications following the Great Recession. In 2019, the year before the coronavirus disrupted life as we knew it, there were 3.5 million new business applications.

It's important to note that only about a third of the applications filed in 2021 are for businesses deemed likely to hire employees, according to the Census Bureau. Over the past two years, a number of people filing paperwork for new businesses lost their jobs in the pandemic and decided to become self-employed. Still, many others walked away from stable careers, convinced there was no better time to chase their dreams.

Juby George, a software programmer for 21 years, had long thought about going into catering. The pandemic created an opening for him to ramp up what had been a side hustle and make it his full-time job.
Andrea Hsu / NPR
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NPR
Juby George, a software programmer for 21 years, had long thought about going into catering. The pandemic created an opening for him to ramp up what had been a side hustle and make it his full-time job.

Juby George, 44, is one of millions who joined the Great Resignation last year, leaving a two-decade-long career as a computer programmer, writing software for a company that trains pharmaceutical reps.

"I loved my job. I also loved cooking," he says.

Decades earlier, his father got into catering as a side hustle in the greater Philadelphia region, where the family had settled after immigrating from India. George would help out with orders and became particularly skilled at chopping chickens, a task his sisters were happy to assign him.

Well before the pandemic, George had picked up where his father had left off, catering occasional meals for small gatherings. He and his wife, Shireen Bethala-George, offered cooking classes on the weekends.

Then, in March 2020, almost overnight, coronavirus sent workers home, closed restaurants and turned grocery shopping into a risky activity. Word got around about George's prepared meals, and orders started rolling in.

He came up with the idea of offering a monthly menu, with dishes such as chili paneer, mint chicken curry and prawn curry, a specialty of Kerala, his home state. Bethala-George, who often cooks with her husband, says the food was just what people needed in those dark days.

"The feeling of having a nice home cooked meal — you really feel the love through his cooking," she says.

Smell the Curry features some popular dishes such as butter chicken as well as specialties of George's home state of Kerala on India's southwestern coast.
Andrea Hsu / NPR
/
NPR
Smell the Curry features some popular dishes such as butter chicken as well as specialties of George's home state of Kerala on India's southwestern coast.

For most of 2021, George was still doing his programming job — from home. Things had gotten a little slow. Meanwhile, his evenings and weekends were filled with chopping and sautéing and layering of spices in his home kitchen, and sometimes in rented kitchens in church basements, as he fulfilled order after order.

Then one day last October, he was driving his three sons to the movie theater in Flourtown, Pa., when he spotted a "space available" sign at the Flourtown Farmer's Market, an indoor food hall.

He arranged to see the space a few days later. It was exactly what he wanted: a commercial range, a hood, and a refrigerated display case for his curries and mango pies. Within days, he had signed the lease and put in his notice at work. On December 9, George opened Smell the Curry, the takeout and catering business he'd imagined for himself for years.

"It was a good time for me to make that jump," he says. "You know, 21 years — why not take a chance?"

Giving up one of the family's biweekly paychecks was scary, says his wife Bethala-George, who still has her own full-time job in data management. The family is in a good place financially.

"I'm confident that this is exactly where he needs to be," she says.

One month in, things have been busy. George took on a few catering jobs around Christmas and New Year's, and he's getting ready to offer food delivery through DoorDash and Uber Eats.

As is true with a majority of new businesses formed in the pandemic, George hasn't created a bunch of jobs. Besides his wife, who helps out when she can, he has one part-time employee, who's also from India and brings samosa-wrapping expertise and other skills to the job.

But already, he has expansion on the mind. His dream now — to open a location inside the historic Reading Terminal in Center City Philadelphia, a much larger and busier indoor market.

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