MASHPEE — Hira Rafiq was at a crossroads. She was working as a pharmacy tech but didn’t go to school for it and was looking for another job. But Rafiq found it hard to switch fields on the Cape. While earning her master’s in business, she found herself in a part-time job at Verde Floral Designs in Mashpee.
She began by washing buckets but worked her way up to become the manager. The previous owner wanted to retire and offered the shop to Rafiq.
“We were really nervous,” Rafiq, 32, said when she talked about taking over the business with her family. “But I said, I gotta take this opportunity. I have nothing else I can branch off into at my age to make it work on the Cape.’ I took this opportunity and ran with it.”
Rafiq is among many young professionals ages 25 to 44 who are bucking the trend of leaving the Cape. Some are pursuing their dreams of owning and operating a small business on Cape Cod. The new business owners are giving a fresh start to the mom-and-pop shops that had been selling fried seafood and beach-themed tchotchkes for decades.
The pandemic shifted many people’s mind-sets, and they no longer wanted a typical nine-to-five job. Instead, many pursued their interests, turning them into businesses. As a result, new restaurants, retail stores, home health care, and even a professional photo booth for corporate events emerged on the Cape.
“I think many people have realized they love baking, so they’re going to start making cookies and make it a business. They love making jewelry, so they’re going to make a business,” said Rafiq. “And we’re seeing a lot of that on the Cape.”
Compared with the state as a whole, Barnstable County resident skew older, with a median age of 53.9 years, compared with 39.6 years, according to the Cape Cod Commission. Those ages 25 to 44 make up about one-fifth of the population, according to the American Community Survey five-year estimates from 2021. Around 40 percent of the population is over the age of 60.
The nonprofit Entrepreneurship for All Cape Cod accelerator program has helped 116 young professionals start their businesses, said Christin Marshall, the executive director. Marshall said that with a 70 percent success rate, many young professionals make it work.
Emily Mandirola, 28, and Mariah Fidalgo, 32, moved home to the Cape during the pandemic and met doing pop-ups making clothing and selling artisan accessories. The pair teamed up to open a brick-and-mortar store in 2021 called Wild Water Collective, on Main Street in Orleans.
Neither Mandirola nor Fidalgo relies on the store for their total income. Mandirola bar tended and worked at restaurants on the side before securing a remote job. Fidalgo works in the entertainment business as a costume designer, which has been tenuous between the pandemic and the strikes in Hollywood.
“It has been a blessing to have something else that I’m passionate about in those moments,” said Fidalgo. “We wish that were our only job, but living on the Cape means you have to be creative in your revenue.”
The pair have seen many people in their age group — late 20s to late 30 — moving home and starting passion projects.
Caroline Laye, 41, owner of the Falmouth-based e-commerce Atlantic Soap Co., moved to the Cape with her husband in 2015. Laye took a job on Main Street in Falmouth at the local hardware store without knowing what she wanted to do. A few years in, she began looking for something new.
“And I looked around. I think it’s not unusual for other people on the Cape as well to say, I don’t see what I want,” she said. “And so I’m going to have to make it for myself.”
In 2019, she quit her job and began showcasing her soaps at fairs. When the pandemic hit, she pivoted to selling online.
“I think the Cape is a great place to start a business,” Laye said. “It’s tough. It’s very seasonal, and you have to account for that. But there’s a way to think outside the box.”
Laye said there are more young professionals here than one may think, and owning a small business allows people to call the Cape home year-round.
“A lot of the newer shops, a lot of the shops that are doing something a little bit unusual and a little bit new, are owned by people my age —30-, 40-somethings, who have come back,” Laye said.
With an unlikely location between car dealerships and auto repair shops, a restaurant and nightclub on Willow Street has seen a revamp. Jessica Wilson, 41 and her husband, Kevin Dellarciprete, 49, took over the Willow Street Tavern on a major thoroughfare to Hyannis when the previous owner left after the pandemic.
The new owners redid the interior space, including the nightclub, which is used for storage. They also revamped the menu — don’t worry, the recipe for the famous chowder remains! — to cater to a larger audience, with gluten-free options.
Like Wilson, who worked at the restaurant before owning it, she said the younger generations are reconsidering their career paths.
“I saw an opportunity and jumped on it,” Wilson said.
But for some, traditions outweigh the new. Paulo Paraguay, 34, took over the Kandy Korner 11 years ago from the previous owner. The store continues to make homemade taffy on Main Street in Hyannis.
During his senior year at Suffolk University, where he studied finance and marketing, the shop’s previous owner was ready to retire and asked if he wanted to take it over, since he had worked there from a young age.
Without even thinking about it, he said yes.
“Before leaving the Cape, I never thought I would be back on the Cape,” said Paraguay. “You have that mind-set, ‘I’m going to go off and do something different,’ and then once you leave the Cape, you have a better appreciation for what the Cape has to offer.”
Paraguay has become a part of the community, bought a pizzeria farther down Main Street, and watched how businesses have changed through his work at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.
Paraguay said, “We have started to see some of that shift — some folks are ready to retire and to pass on the gavel to the next generation.”