Stepping Up: Oceanside Graphics co-founder creates website to help small businesses during pandemic

WARWICK – In mid-March, Oceanside Graphics RI LLC Co-Founder Justin Gontarek was on a conference call with R.I. Lt. Governor Daniel P. McKee and approximately 30 other small businesses discussing what options were there for businesses in order to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those businesses, mainly restaurants and retailers, stated in the call that they had “different and immediate needs,” Gontarek said, especially since they were going to be the ones temporarily shutting down for an unknown period of time. So, Gontarek, who co-founded the Warwick-based screen-printing and embroidery business with Nicholas Rego, opted to be the unofficial spokesperson for small businesses and quickly took to a computer screen.

Over the course of a few days in late March, Gontarek volunteered to develop a new website called Gift it Forward which, in conjunction with the R.I. Office of the Lt. Governor, connects Rhode Islanders to support small businesses that were affected by the pandemic. The site allows the public to purchase gift cards from various businesses across the state that have registered with Gift it Forward in order to keep business continuing even though they are closed to the physical public due to the health crisis.

“A business owner can go on [the site], sign up and offer gift cards immediately in the hopes that when they open back up, they will honor their gift cards,” Gontarek said. “It was to give them initial relief to get money into their pockets at a time that they didn’t have any business.

- Advertisement -

“It was a way to bring all of the people in Rhode Island that had a resource and a way to help a small business in one centralized location.”

It’s a situation Gontarek understands. He said he had to temporarily lay off Oceanside Graphics’ entire seven-person workforce two days before the website’s launch in March because the company’s customers pulled their contracts and didn’t want Oceanside Graphics employees in their buildings with the pandemic ongoing.

To date, the Gift it Forward site has more than 900 businesses from various sectors, including restaurants, bars, fitness centers, salons, and health and wellness, registered, Gontarek said. The site also allows community members to nominate a business and, after both Gontarek and the Lt. Governor’s office properly vets the inquiry, includes the business on the site to promote the operation.

“This is where a consumer could say ‘Joe’s Deli Shack around the corner, he’s not good with technology so I’ll put his business on there,’” Gontarek said. “They would put in a nomination for that business with a name, website and phone number.”

Gift it Forward also includes various links to resources to assist small businesses through the crisis. Resources noted on the site include the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Rhode Island district office, the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, the City of East Providence Small Business Relief and the Rhode Island Hospitality Employee Relief Fund.

The website is not the only initiative Gontarek and his team are working on. With his staff back, Oceanside Graphics has since reconfigured its machinery to help make face shields for health care workers working in nursing homes. The company has since produced close to 6,000 face shields as of Friday, Gontarek said.

“We’ve been staying very busy with these two projects, which is amazing,” Gontarek said.

Providence Business News is spotlighting nonprofits, companies and workers stepping up to challenges presented by the spread of the new coronavirus.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.