Forbes: 8 Smaller Brands That Are Helping During The Covid Crisis

December 15, 2020By: Riverside Communications

It’s inspiring to see the growing list of large brands — household names such as Google, LinkedIn, Keen Footwear and Dole — who are doing the right thing and stepping up to help society during the economic and social challenges of the current global pandemic. The great news is that many smaller brands, like these six whose story Forbes shared in April, are also responding to the call for COVID-19 crisis assistance. Here are eight more inspiring examples: Lifeway Foods probiotics, BrightStar Care homecare, Baloo Living vegan weighted blankets, FastSigns International (which has pivoted to manufacturing COVID signage and PPE), Vardagen t-shirts, MadeGood granola bites and bars, Kenny Flowers leisure wear (which has pivoted to face masks), and Wealthchild.

Julie Smolyansky
Julie Smolyansky is the CEO of Lifeway Foods.

Lifeway Foods

Lifeway Foods is America’s leading supplier of the probiotic, fermented beverage known as kefir, and has been recognized as one of Forbes’ Best Small Companies. Kefir, a cultured dairy drink, has been popular in Eastern Europe and beyond for centuries. As emigres from the former USSR, Lucy and Michael Smolyanksy saw an opportunity to share their culture with their newfound home. In 1986, they started Lifeway Foods and sold the first bottles of kefir in Chicago. Two years later, they took the company public on the Nasdaq. Since then, Lifeway has grown and innovated while staying close to its family roots. Today, Lifeway CEO Julie Smolyansky is leading the way. In addition to its line of drinkable kefir, Lifeway produces a range of best-selling probiotic products, including specialty cheeses and a ProBugs kefir line for kids. The products are sold across the United States, Mexico, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the company has instituted the Lifeway Hero Award for production and warehouse employees – an hourly bonus program to show gratitude for those who work every day to keep the company going and make sure Lifeway products get to shelves. They’ve also reconfigured the production floor plan to make it easier for employees to practice social distancing, and requisitioned additional PPE to help keep workers and their families protected.

Beyond company walls, Lifeway is contributing to COVID-19 relief efforts through a donation of over 50,000 servings of their immune-supporting probiotic kefir. They’ve increased production to support increased demand and donations, and have mobilized refrigerated trucks to ensure nutrition gets to those most in need, supplying food banks, shelters, and health professionals working on the front lines across the U.S. Lifeway began donating to local organizations in early March and has since ramped up its efforts significantly, looking to increase them even more in the coming months.

Lifeway is also providing self-care resources to their communities. With gyms closed and outside entertainment drastically limited, they’ve partnered up with best in class experts in wellness and spiritual health, including tarot card reader to the stars Angie Banicki, Alex Rodriguez’s fitness studio TruFusion, and kids cooking classes with Chef Seamus Mullen. The brand is streaming content for free every day on Instagram Live in an effort to help people feel as mentally and physically healthy as possible.

“At Lifeway, we give because the health of our community is more important now than ever,” says Julie Smolyansky. “We’re so lucky to be able to offer nourishment and immune support to our doctors, nurses, and everyone on the frontline as long as there is a need. I have so much gratitude and respect for all the food pantries that are stepping up to care for their communities, and we’re proud to partner with many of the amazing organizations doing incredible work right now. There are so many incredibly brave humans who feel the call to respond to this crisis. What is sobering is how great the need is. For me, stories of scarcity and bread lines and crisis were stories that run through my veins. Stories of tenacity and resilience run parallel.”

BrightStar Care

BrightStar Care is a national, private-duty home care and medical staffing franchise with over 300 independently owned and operated locations nationwide that provide care to more than 20,000 clients. With the elderly being especially hard hit by COVID-19, BrightStar Care CEO and Founder Shelly Sun is taking action to ensure the safety of her clients and staff. The company is helping franchisees gain access to personal protective equipment (PPE) by spending $2 million to create a centralized fulfillment center for their franchisees, where they have access to gloves, surgical masks, N95 respirator masks, face shields, goggles, hand sanitizer and gowns.

In addition, every BrightStar caregiver who will be caring for COVID-19 patients is required to pass a medical exam overseen by a physician to ensure they are healthy in order to care for these symptomatic patients. Additionally, these caregivers are then assigned to care for this category of patient only, so as to lower the risk of spread and contamination across asymptomatic and symptomatic patients.

“During this unprecedented time, we need to go above and beyond our traditional roles,” says Sun. “Our mission always comes first, and that is how we have been able to create a sustainable brand. We are still putting the mission first by being the best employer for our staff and best provider for our clients. We equip our nurses and caregivers with the highest level of training possible, along with necessary PPE so that they can feel confident and safe when they care for our clients. Additionally, we wanted to take the workload away from our franchisees by sourcing PPE so they can focus on doing what they do best – providing care to those who need them most.”

Baloo Living

Baloo Living produces eco-friendly and vegan weighted blankets, linen duvets, and a Sleep Stone Mask designed to soothe stress and anxiety and help people sleep easier. The brand always donates a portion of profits to the Pajama Program, supporting the most vulnerable children in our communities at bed time. Additionally, Baloo is a carbon neutral company and invests in projects that offset their carbon footprint.

Founder of Baloo Living Elizabeth Grojean currently is raising money via this GoFundMe page to donate as many masks as possible to hospitals being overwhelmed by patients with COVID-19. Through Baloo’s international supply chain, she has access to manufacturers of face masks at a large-scale facility for export to the US. Baloo’s suppliers are able to provide 100,000 KN95 masks at a cost of just $1.40 each. With many healthcare systems currently paying more for masks due to the desperate need for supply, Grojean’s mission is to bring in as many masks as possible at cost to protect our doctors, nurses, and medical professionals on the front lines. She is working directly with hospitals in the NYC area to donate these items. In addition, Baloo has donated 500 weighted blankets, worth $84,500, to health care workers on the frontlines in NY, NJ and New Orleans hospitals.

“It’s time like these, when we feel most vulnerable, that we are reminded how inextricably linked our lives are,” says Grojean. “What we do for others, we do for ourselves. I’m grateful we’re in a position to be able to offer help. Helping hardworking doctors and nurses know that we’re there for them, both for better sleep and for personal protective equipment, is what we can do. We must all do what we can.”

FastSigns International

FastSigns International is a sign/visual communications franchise with more than 725 locations worldwide. The brand’s individual franchise owners have completely altered their business model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They immediately began producing PPE and medical equipment including face shields, isolation gowns, testing site signage, intubation boxes, and more. As a result, hundreds of FastSigns centers in the US have been deemed essential businesses, for providing gear and signage to hospitals, public parks, mass transit and more.

Franchise owners are using their ability to stay open and their access to materials and equipment to help during this pandemic as much as they can. For example, Glenn’s in Dallas has provided 15,000 face shields for the Dallas Police Department and North Texas Hospitals.

“We’re fortunate to have a business model that has allowed our franchisees to be nimble and respond quickly to whatever their communities need the most,” says FastSigns International CEO Catherine Monson, who is also Chair of the International Franchise Association. “Broader COVID-19 sign products — like social distancing, germ prevention, operational and directional signage, and more — have been 90% or more of our business since early March, to the tune of 48,000 orders built. An order can have 5 banners or 15,000 face shields, so the numbers are significant. Our centers are focused on providing solutions to protect the community and help organizations run smoothly.”


Vardagen makes and sells graphic t-shirts with carefully curated, hand-drawn designs. Since the company launched in 2006, its mission has been to celebrate the graphic t-shirt as an art form, offering experimental illustrations in brightly colored, hand-mixed inks. Screen-printing production is done in small batches so as to avoid waste. When COVID-19 hit the U.S. earlier this year, Vardagen responded immediately by creating a PNDMC line to keep its employees busy and also donate proceeds to help independent creatives who quickly found themselves out of work.

Vardagen’s PNDMC line is made up of several sub-collections with messages that do everything from encourage hand washing and social distancing to poking fun at the toilet paper shortage. Although colleagues and friends were skeptical of the idea of a pandemic collection at first, Vardagen Founder Jared Ingold pushed forward. “We’re a really small brand with a single store in LA, so we needed to act fast to make up for the lost retail revenue that we depended on,” he says.

Well, Ingold was right. The line has been a tremendous success. Vardagen has sold over 2000 pieces and seen online growth of nearly 4000% over last year. As a result, the company has been able to share proceeds of sales with dozens of freelance artists.

“It’s been really encouraging hearing back from people about how much the money we have given them has helped them. Also, it has encouraged them to keep creating,” says Ingold. For example, one artist Vardagen has supported through its PNDMC line wrote, “God bless man. I’m about to cry over here. It’s the perfect amount to help cover my bills and food for the next month. Thank you so much!”

“I wanted to make sure we were taking care of our own but also thinking of others during this time,” says Ingold. “The hoarding of products at grocery stores made me really think about how we can go too far into survival mode and forget about the people around us. I knew the coronavirus financial fallout was going to be a lot harder on freelancers than someone who is employed with a company. I also had concerns about how devastating this can be for people dealing with drug abuse, depression, and other situations. I was pretty sure Vardagen would get through this, as well, so I wanted to model an approach of taking the challenge head-on and working through it.”

Kenny Flowers

Kenny Flowers is a namesake brand that offers affordable beach and swimwear for both men and women. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the company swiftly transitioned its factory, launching non-medical face masks that are 100% machine-washable and sustainably made from unused fabric scraps. For every mask sold, the brand will donate a mask throughout Bali, where they are made. Additionally, 100% of profits are being donated to Direct Relief, a non-profit organization providing medical-grade equipment to those on the frontlines. Within 30 minutes of launching the masks, Kenny Flowers sold out of the first allotment entirely.

“As a small business, Kenny Flowers is determined to make a big difference in the US and the global battle against COVID-19,” says Kenny Flowers Founder Kenny Haisfield. “As the CDC now recommends that all Americans wear cloth masks in public to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, we are now committed to making tens of thousands of printed Kenny Flowers face masks to brighten days and help protect our customers, their loved ones and their communities in the months to come. Since more than 50% of our sales right now are charitable masks, we’re essentially operating a nonprofit organization within our vacation wear brand now.”

Already, Kenny Flowers has sold more than 10,000 masks, which means the company has donated more than 10,000 masks to those in need. In addition, they already have made a $5,000 advance donation to Direct Relief to get coronavirus response efforts into action immediately, with more to come as soon as production and shipping expenses are sorted within the next week.

“Feeling good and doing good go hand-in-hand for me,” says Haisfield. “I’ve always been a believer that doing good shouldn’t be looked at as a burden or chore, but something that’s incorporated into your daily life and routine. With my focus on this non-profit initiative, I wake up and the goal is clear: help others and the rest will fall into place. In a time when we can all agree it’s challenging to focus on work, this new mask mission has given me a new purpose.”


Nima Fotovat is the founder of MadeGood


Riverside Natural Foods are the makers of MadeGood granola bars and bites. As the need for healthy, shelf-stable snack foods continues to rise, the brand has performed well even during the COVID crisis. As a result, MadeGood has donated nearly $250K to four organizations providing essential services and relief programs in underserved neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canad

MadeGood was born out of need, but with purpose at its core. As he shopped the snack aisles at grocery stores in search of healthy, allergy-friendly snacks for his children to take to school, Riverside Natural Foods President Nima Fotovat carefully read the labels. He noticed that most of the items lacked important nutritional values and many weren’t made with clean ingredients or with the environment in mind. So, he started MadeGood in 2013.

“MadeGood prides itself on being a purpose-driven brand that is family-owned (my two sisters are part of the company as well), with a passion behind making products that are good for consumers, good for the environment, and good for the world,” says Fotovat. The brand is focused on expanding the availability of organic products to consumers worldwide, sourcing ingredients grown by responsible producers in Canada and around the globe.

To aspiring changemakers, Fotovat offers this advice. “Ideas are easy to come up with. We all have great ideas. It’s when you get into action and work hard to make them into a reality that makes the difference. Grit and building long-lasting relationships go a long way. During these times, we can build great long-lasting relationships by helping others wherever we can. Pay it forward!”


In addition to being the author of the book The Art of the Sale, 26-year-old serial entrepreneur Jercori Freeman is also the founder of Wealthchild, an immersive online course platform where users can learn how to start a business from experts in a particular industry. Due to COVID-19, Freeman is currently offering his enrollment classes for free in order to help entrepreneurs both start businesses and keep their existing businesses alive. At a time when many business owners are ready to throw in the towel, Freeman shows them how to use out-of-the box methods to redirect their business model, adapt to major change, and grow more than ever.

Last week, Freeman helped a restaurant owner reach their monthly revenue goals by creating family meal food specials for the menu that could be delivered or made available for pick-up. He also helped a nail technician create an online virtual workshop that teaches women how to remove their own gel and acrylic nails.

Furthermore, Freeman is helping health care professionals. To date, he has donated more than 4,000 masks and socks to hospitals in the greater Atlanta area. He started doing this a month ago, after overhearing a registered nurse express her concern about her safety due to the lack of masks at her hospital. Freeman called around until he found a manufacturer. Just six days later, he loaded up supplies in a truck and gave them out himself

Freeman got his start working with one of the fastest-growing financial services companies in the nation, where he was named #1 Sales Professional. Later, he started Safe Capital, the first ever 100% minority-owned, app-based loan marketplace in America. He has been honored by the City of Atlanta for developing initiatives to improve the economic mobility of residents. He has completed over $30 million in sales transactions, marketed to over 100 million viewers, and advised multi million-dollar companies