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Behind the business: Lockbusters brings safety, security, and community to New York

Jay Sofer, founder and owner of Lockbusters in New York City, is picking up his homemade hand sanitizer and taking off his protective mask when I join the Zoom call. He’s parked in the heart of Manhattan on 9th between 1st and 2nd, and there’s absolutely no buzz or bustle around him—just silence and rows of businesses gated and chained closed. Many haven’t opened their doors in over three months.

“This pandemic is like a meteor hitting the earth,” Jay said. “It’s been devastating for everyone. Every business is taking a hit because every function of the city has come to a grinding halt.”

I’ve known Jay for years and can personally attest to his incredible perspective and expertise—particularly when it comes to positivity, resilience, and giving back to the community. And during the challenges of 2020, these focuses are even more important and impactful, especially for small businesses. I caught up with him to hear more about how he chose the life of a locksmith, how he’s dealt with COVID-19, and why he chooses to give back to dog rescues and food banks.

Let’s begin with the story of Lockbusters. How did you get started as a locksmith?

I started this company in my mother’s garage in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the teeth of the 2008 recession. I did not expect to be a business owner. I really never thought about opening up my own business, let alone jumping into the deep end of entrepreneurship. To be honest, I was kind of pushed into the deep end.

I was in school at the time studying sign language. I was en route to becoming an interpreter when the recession hit, and I lost the gigs that were paying for an expensive private school and a small, crappy apartment. It was hard just making ends meet, and within three to four months, I had to drop out of school, lost my apartment, and moved back home with my mom. I didn’t have a lot of other options, so I became a professional locksmith. 

I learned this trade as a kid from my dad and my uncle. I grew up in a family business, working in local stores in old school neighborhoods with people that had businesses since the 50s and 60s where they knew all their clients. I knew every shop owner in a 10-block radius of my house growing up. It was a real neighborhood. You didn’t think you were in New York City—you were in a real small town. You were only reminded you were in New York when the horns would honk. 

I got to see business at a very young age run on a super cool, local level. I also knew there were a lot of inadequacies and holes in the trade. The internet and everything prior to that didn’t really work well for local locksmiths in service industries. A lot of bad actors flooded the space very quickly, and then the trade quickly became synonymous with rip-off artists. I knew I could create a business that worked against that and addressed that part of the industry.

How did being in New York contribute to your evolution?

I honestly just couldn’t wait to be a part of everything in New York—the coffee shops, people delivering food. There are bars buzzing, even in the afternoon. There are nail salons and taco joints, food trucks, and just everyone doing something to make money. All the hustle and bustle. Every one of these shops represents another person’s dream. It’s the culmination of their lives to the point where they can open up a business. It’s like, how many years did it take them to see that through?

When I first started Lockbusters I had my bag of tools on my back and business cards in my pocket and that made me feel like I was finally a part of this ecosystem. It felt so good.

How would you describe New York City right now?

I’ve been here my whole life, and I’ve seen a lot of tragic events. 9/11 is the most obvious one. We had Hurricane Sandy—that was really devastating here. There was a blackout that didn’t last too long, and I don’t know if that hit the news too much, but that was a real major interruption.

The reason I bring that up and everything that happened, including the 2008 recession, is because it brings the best and the worst out of people. But I’m really trying to not minimize all the best that’s coming out. Through all that devastation, 9/11, the recession, Sandy—it didn’t bring New York to its knees. We’re a very resilient bunch here. When it comes time to help each other, we do. We’re terrible to each other in traffic, but I feel like we’re good people. When you peel back enough layers of the onion, we’re good people.

Right now though, I see a lot of gated businesses. I see these shops open at limited capacity, especially coffee shops. They’re giving all the medical workers free coffee, and that’s wonderful. There are lots of services collecting donations for meals for workers. Small businesses are donating things like personal hygiene items for workers that are locked in the hospitals, so there is a lot of support for the medical community here, and it’s very well-deserved because they are working triple overtime, and if it wasn’t for them… Also, there’s been a lot of acknowledgment of the delivery workers here. They’re the unsung heroes of this whole pandemic—if it wasn’t for them, everyone would be starving. They’re bringing all the essentials to everyone stuck at home.

Manhattan, New York boarded businesses
Photo by Jack Cohen

New York looks different, but it definitely won’t be brought to its knees. We’ll come back. What makes New York thrive—and this is why we really need to find a way to get this economy open safely—is all the small businesses. Every small business here has a story. Everyone living in the buildings adjacent to these small businesses has a story. No one comes here to just get by. Everyone comes to New York with ambition. Literally, everyone you meet, everyone crammed into the subway together, they all have a reason they’re here. 

To have that rug pulled out from under them is so hard because this is a city that operates at 100 miles per hour. For it to be slowed down to zero, it’s not only very difficult to see, but it’s something we need to get through together to survive.

How has COVID-19 impacted your business?

First and foremost, the safety precautions are exhausting, but they’re really important. I go through a large pump bottle of homemade hand sanitizer a week. I wear a heavy duty mask, and I’m constantly wiping down all of the surfaces I touch. It’s extra work, but it’s a top priority to have myself, my staff, and my customers safe.

The types of jobs we are being called to have changed too. The normal ebb and flow of the city is how I would regularly get clients—daily actions such as moving into an apartment or an office, turnover in a company, or kicking out a roommate or crazy ex. People come home late at night, and they’ve lost their keys after a wild night out. 

Lockbusters job descriptions

But I’m primarily only responding to emergency calls at this point. Everything is shut down, so you have a lot of break-ins into businesses that have closed their doors or at offices with a seldomly used fire stairway that is not protected by video surveillance. There are a lot of attempts, and I’d say about 50/50 successful break-ins. The high 90 percent of successful break-ins are front entrances of buildings because of all the potential packages that can be stolen. Anyone up to no good is walking by a street, and all they have to do is look in through the glass, see boxes stacked as high as a Christmas tree, and you get the reverse Santa Claus going in there and taking everything out. So I’m getting a lot of calls to secure front entrances. Fortunately, no residential break-ins and up to this point, I’ve seen a lot of opportunistic burglaries. Nothing out of desperation yet. I’m not looking forward to seeing that.

What advice can you share with brick-and-mortar business owners about securing their business?

Prevention is the best cure. Having your business secured at every access point to your location may seem like a little thing, but it can go a long way.

The people that did things right before they shut down did a walkthrough with me to every single access point in their location—every little thing or area where someone could get in. And we just secured it, locked it down. They didn’t want to have to worry about it. The calls I’m getting are more obvious. The companies weren’t as thorough, and those became opportunistic break-ins. 

We’re putting in as much security as we can, and everyone is on high alert. We’re installing anti-pry bars, especially on back doors of businesses and warehouses. Lots of places have cleared out a lot of expensive inventory from their stores which is a great move. Even a place like a corporate office of an apparel company is getting broken into because burglars think there are clothes in there. So if you know that you’re in that lower hanging fruit target group, definitely address it now before it becomes an insurance claim.

What growing pains have you experienced over the years?

Honestly in the early days things were really great. Getting on Yelp was something that I was encouraged to do by clients I had originally met on Craigslist and through friends. I had no idea what Yelp was, but I got to start my free page. And put a big emphasis on free because that was the only price I could afford. The crazy part is that within six months, I was the top-rated locksmith in New York City.

What’s most amazing about that is I got in front of an audience of Yelpers and an ecosystem that was created to support small businesses. People hired me because I was just getting started, and I posted online content and pictures that they were able to resonate with. I was trying to correct all of the things that the bad actors had destroyed in the reputation of locksmiths, and that became celebrated online via five-star reviews and led to more work.

That said, hiring was difficult. It was unexpected to be busy, let alone highly regarded, so there were definitely some growing pains with hiring. How do you communicate what you do and also trust someone else with your clients and to represent Lockbusters and my reputation? Fortunately the training bit was easy enough, but the long process of finding the right people was very hard. It’s funny actually, many of my best employees came to me the same way a lot of clients come to me. The people that I began to work with and have worked with now for a number of years, they had a lot of discontent with the companies that they were working for. They thought they were asked to do things that didn’t sit well with their conscience. They didn’t like to go to a place and get looked at like—oh, here’s this mechanic, I’m going to keep all eyes on him. When is he going to rip me off?

Jay with two happy clients

So my new employees often say, “Oh man, you have the best clients ever. They’re actually happy to see me. They ask about you, they ask about the dogs, they ask about the business. I can’t believe I’m getting tipped.” They were thrilled to have a job where people are actually happy to see them. And I think a lot of that was because the reputation of the business preceded them.

I still have a lot of involvement in every call. So someone can call, text, or email me, and I’ll be directly involved in that. But if it’s a job that you appreciate, and you’re working for people that appreciate you, for a place that’s a much safer environment—I’ve got their back and they know that—then it just resonates. I think it comes out particularly because they know that this client called for help. That’s our primary concern. We don’t look at people like open wallets. They’re people first. They need help. Everything else comes after that.

Photo of Lockbusters from Justin R. on Yelp

What has been encouraging through all this?

Even during COVID, it can work. It’s challenging, but it’s possible. I’m a business that’s working at limited capacity, but I’m still working. It can happen. If every business can get up to that 30, 40, 50% range, it’ll be a very different-looking city. And I really hope we can find a way to make that happen.

The other encouraging news is that I do see people out and patronizing those businesses that are open. They’re in masks, they’re distanced, and they are going. I feel like we’ve got a lot of pent-up demand here. We can’t wait to be back up and running because that’s who New Yorkers are. We’re tough and resilient, and we have dreams. 

How have you been able to give back to the community?

Right when I was able to afford it in my career, I started to donate my tips to some local animal shelters, and then I developed a relationship with some of them and eventually adopted a senior dog. After I lost him, I got very close with Amy and her partner Patty over at Sugar Mutts Rescue.

I can’t speak enough about them because they’re the most amazing charity. They’re doing such great work. They moved from a small shelter in Bushwick, Brooklyn to an animal sanctuary in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. I’ll always have a place in my heart for their work and support what they do. It’s also a real privilege to provide mostly donated work to help fund them. So in exchange for my work, my clients just pay Sugar Mutts directly—whatever the fee I would have typically charged. And my clients love that. They get to read about the organization and the cause. I get a lot of clients who are animal lovers that read that, and it was the easiest way I was able to market to my most valuable audience—just communicating what I was passionate about. I got that endorsement via an online review that someone else got to read. So I have clients greeting me with a smile that are either in the rescue community or have a rescue pup. Sometimes they’ll send me a picture and keep in touch with me online, like, “look who we rescued, look who we adopted.” So I’ve made friends and lifelong clients through this community. It’s just been so awesome to have a platform that can celebrate that connection.

Food banks are another organization that has always been on my radar. Up in Westchester, the town of New Rochelle got completely locked down in quarantine. The National Guard had to come in and distribute food to residents there because of the stay-in-place order. That’s when it really dawned on me—they couldn’t go out even if they had the means to. But people are hungry, and you’re seeing the National Guard distribute these packets of food and I was thinking, thank goodness they have something to eat, but that can’t be more than just sustenance. You’re just consuming calories at that point so you can survive. But these food banks—this one in particular that was near an account I was servicing—were making good, nutritious meals and supporting all the people in the community. They couldn’t afford it pre-pandemic, and now the influx of people that need to be supported with just the basics of life has probably increased tenfold. I can’t imagine what the burden is on the food banks, and I wanted to help! So some proceeds from our jobs go toward supporting that food bank, and we continue to spread the word so our customers can do some good as well.

And that brought a lot of things into perspective for me. In the last recession, I literally had nothing. I was completely knocked down. And if it wasn’t for my mom, her support, and her willingness to literally feed me, I don’t know what I would’ve done. Contrast that with this current recession and this crisis. The fact that I actually have something now to give, it’s surreal—I’m so grateful. And I think the best way for me to express my gratitude is to give and give big.