Keeping viable during a global pandemic; the toll on local small businesses
By Angela Widdis
As Michigan struggles with how best to recommence business, some small businesses are fighting to keep viable from the COVID-19 pandemic’s forced shutdowns that continue to be in place or the ones that have just recently been lifted.
Like many households, small businesses are known to work paycheck to paycheck.
According to the Small Business Administration, in 2010 there were 27.9 million small businesses that make up about 40% of the economy. Yet, these are the businesses that are experiencing some of the most challenging times to continue “business as usual” during this global pandemic.
The Tri-City Record, over last week, contacted many local small businesses to talk to owners whose blood, sweat and tears have been poured out into the businesses that they are trying to save from the pandemic fallout. This is what they had to say.
Beauty business bounce back
Rochelle Ulleg’s hope for 2020 business was looking good before this pandemic struck. In mid-March, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that forced facilities that perform non-essential personal care services be temporality closed. Businesses that were affected by this order are places like hair, nail, tanning, massage, tattoo, and piercing service providers.
The owner of Robert Michael Salon and Spa LLC., in downtown Watervliet, has spent the 12-week quarantine studying and documenting all Executive Orders, CDC guidelines, along with the Michigan Department of Licensing guidelines to ensure all guests a proper and safe opening of the salon.
The stylists at the salon are now filling their appointment books with clients that were scheduled to get their services done but got canceled due to the shutdown in March. Once those people have been serviced, they will open their books to those that have called in over the past few weeks.
The new normal for the salon includes their COVID-19 procedure posting upon entering the salon, consent for services form, and no walk-ins per the State of Michigan licensing department.
Keeping up with social distancing protocols, appointments at this time do not allow more than one guest per appointment unless they are accompanying a minor or the elderly.
This pandemic was difficult for Ulleg even though she knew it was inevitable. The Governor’s timeline from closure (announcement made March 21 at 3 p.m. that the industry was closed by 9 a.m. on March 22) to the many possible reopening dates was never promising. She quoted saying that she was “hopeful the industry could be opened by Independence Day,” so she was not set for the June 15 opening, thinking she had a few more weeks to get ready.
Ulleg applied for multiple forms of federal relief from MEDC in March to the Small Business Administration (SBA) at the beginning of April, and then the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). She would it so far in the application process and then “all funds have been exhausted” would appear on the screen. Rochelle was even told after making it through three of the five steps of the PPP application that “all government loans aren’t for everyone.”
After numerous emails to SBA as to where her April 4 application was in the process of approval, she had no reply so she emailed the corporate office for an additional follow-up. Thankfully, her application was found and processed and approved on June 19. This helped cover the past 12 weeks of rent and utilities only. However, Ulleg said, “It is definitely a bittersweet moment to get this news during the week we are re-opening!”
Going digital with dance
On March 13, new “Stay Home – Stay Safe” directives mandated Fusion Center for Dance – Coloma, at 6777 Paw Paw Avenue, to take a new look at their delivery of services to keep the beat going in their dance studios. Christine Waterhouse and Jennifer Loy, both co-owners of two dance centers in Berrien County say they stayed functioning during the entire crisis.
The timing was poor as they were working on recital dance numbers and ordering dance costumes. But this didn’t stop Waterhouse and Loy, as they used technology to bridge the distance between themselves and their students. The coronavirus crisis has pushed video conferencing apps to the new standard for connecting with others face-to-face virtually in both business and personal settings, and they wanted to try it out too.
They used Zoom, a cloud-based video communications app that allows someone to set up virtual video and audio conferencing, webinars, live chats, screen-sharing, and other collaborative capabilities. Participants don’t need an account to attend a Zoom meeting, and the platform is compatible with Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. Meaning nearly anyone can access it through their mobile devices, desktops, or tablets making it one of the best choices to reach a wide audience.
For 14 weeks straight, dance classes happened via Zoom, and they only experienced a 40 % loss in students due to the change. In hopes to retain even more of their students, the owners also put together eight to ten weeks of activity packets for their students that contained a dance activity, a worksheet, and even a coloring or art page to go along with the instruction for that week. These packets were sent in the mail to try to keep their students engaged. It became clear to Waterhouse that her students were stuck at home with the need to have an outlet for their energy. She stated, “It was so much more work, so much more different type of work than we were used to, but it has been so rewarding to see the parents and students engaged in this process.”
The 40% loss of students during the crisis definitely played a role in the filing for the Paycheck Protection Program. They were approved as self-employed individuals that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program allowed them to keep all their teachers on the payroll while they worked on a new way to teach dance.
The troubles are not over for Fusion Center for Dance – Coloma or any business that is lumped into the same category as gyms and fitness centers, as they are still under the closure order. However, this did not stop the Fusion Center for Dance from having their year-end dance recital. They moved their event into the open air. They hosted the 2020 recital in the parking lot of their Benton Harbor location by having only one class at a time be present.
Where does that leave fall dance sign ups? Well, they are currently signing up students for the fall lessons on their website at www.fusioncenterfordance.com, or by calling 269-985-8144.
Waterhouse stated there will be some differences for the 2020-2021 season that their current students might notice; using one door for entering and another for exiting, no lobby waiting for parents (they will need to wait in their personal vehicles or drop off and pick up), smaller class sizes, and social distancing as much as possible during lessons. To learn more about the 2020-2021 dance season Waterhouse and Loy invites interested persons to the annual open house that will be held on September 1, 2020, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Coloma location on Paw Paw Avenue.
Working it out
On March 17, Tim Perdue, like many other gym and fitness center owners, had to close their doors to Top Notch Physiques, located at 6740 Red Arrow Hwy. in Coloma. Perdue was hopeful when a federal judge in Grand Rapids announced that on Thursday, June 25 they could re-open. However, that soon changed when an appeals court upheld Whitmer’s emergency order to keep them closed until July 4 or longer.
“I didn’t just work as hard as I could for the last 4-1/2 years to have a virus or someone who doesn’t care about me, my business, or the community, take away all my hard work,” said Tim.
Working a full-time job with overtime has not allowed Perdue time to focus on pursuing in more detail some of the government programs that are designed for small businesses. However, when he tried to apply for the programs, he thought were suited for his business he received notices that they were no longer taking application and that money was no longer available.
The entrepreneur has incurred $10,500 in operating expenses over the last three months of not being open and the business was facing extreme hardship if they didn’t make the move to open. Perdue was on the brink of having to close Top Notch Physiques for good, unless, he opened his doors. With his back against the wall under protest, he decided to go against Governor Whitmer’s last-minute ruling that ordered gyms to still be closed.
What Tim finds most frustrating is that if people are allowed to assemble to protest, then why is it that his customers can’t assemble to protest and work out their frustrations. In his own way, Tim is fighting for his rights to protest the closures of gyms by opening his so that he can provide a service to the community that is in need of a stress-relieving outlet that he can provide.
Tim is dedicated to helping people live healthier lives. He feels that opening up his gym allows his customers, who already place a high priority on health, the opportunity to charge their batteries both, mentally and physically. When asked about new rules and such, he tells everyone to follow the guidelines that have been recommended to everyone over the past few months, and wearing a mask is at your own discretion because breathing is essential.
To further ease any sanitary apprehension, Tim has introduced a spray bottle sanitizing system where the member can wipe down any equipment both before and after their workout so they can personally make sure the cleanliness of the surfaces meets each person’s personal standards. In addition, the staff will be going around and sanitizing the gym when there are no members on the equipment.
Top Notch Physiques is offering 24-hour access memberships for any budget. One of the current specials that are being offered is if someone signs up for five months for $150.00 they will get seven additional months for free. Call Tim at 269-468-5433 for more information.
Since the governor’s mandated restaurant shutdown, the bakery-cafe at 126 N. Church Street, Soulard’s, had to change things around a bit to stay afloat. By pandemic standards, Soulard’s is one of the success stories.
Owner Taylor Prestige stated, “There is so much that goes into owning a small business that people don’t realize unless they have been a small business owner themselves.” She added, “To make matters worse, this year we are dealing with a global pandemic that makes it that much harder.”
With the looming cloud of the pandemic, Prestige said that she and her husband, Matt, have put all their finances into the development of the bakery. Because of this investment, Taylor has been working 12 to 18 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week to do whatever it takes to make her business a success. These long hours are taking a toll on her family time, but the fear of not giving it her all could mean that she will be forced to close the doors, and that is something she is not willing to do.
No matter how many hours are put in, if supplies are not available then there is the need to change up the menu to reflect what can be sourced. When Prestige noticed that it was getting harder for her to get baking supplies such as yeast, she had to eliminate her popular cinnamon rolls for two weeks from the menu. Even to this day, her suppliers have created a waitlist for highly sought out goods like yeast and meats; the same meats that they use to create their deli sandwiches.
The glass case at Soulard’s was once a treasure chest of eye-catching treats like cake balls, dozens of muffins, cinnamon rolls, cookies, doughnuts, and cupcakes the size of baseballs. Now, however, Prestige is more conservative so she has eliminated some of the offerings that were once available so that she will not have to throw anything away that didn’t sell. The changes that have taken place is the moving of the breakfast menu to weekends only, a small cut in hours of operation to better fit the foot traffic pattern, and a strong push for their customers to use their ordering system for custom orders to ensure availability.
Lights will still be on during the wee hours of the morning at Soulard’s. They are powered by the loyal customers of the surrounding area, and the hard work and dedication of its owner, Taylor Prestige. Stop in and see what new offerings they will have ready for this weekend.
Keeping it contactless
The coronavirus has also disrupted the floral industry. The eight-week shut down of The Flower Basket “could have been much more devastating if it [the shut down] continued any longer” said, Krista Krogel, the owner of The Flower Basket located on Main Street in Watervliet.
Krista told the Tri-City Record that once they were allowed to open back up, her family came into the shop to help offset the payroll expenses since income at that time was not meeting the demands of the payroll expenses. She also stated that she is hopeful that she can soon call back the two employees that are waiting to get their jobs reinstated.
Krogel mentioned that she had lost eight wedding events for the summer and that loss in income, coupled with the eight-week closure, forced her to apply for the government programs.
However, to date, there were many she didn’t qualify for, and the ones she did qualify for, the funds had run out even before she could apply. It was her planning ahead for unexpected expenses that had supplemented the lack of income that ultimately saved her business.
“The community has been fantastic by shopping local,” Krogel said. She is confident that business will continue to pick up as people are connecting more and more. The Flower Basket places the health and safety of customers and employees as a top priority. In doing so they are offering contactless delivery options that will work best to meet customers’ needs. The contact-free delivery, which minimizes contact with the person making the delivery, and the person receiving the flower arrangement, is only one step that has taken place to remain committed to sanitation.
Krista invites everyone into The Flower Basket to take a look at their summer offerings.
Mourning during a pandemic
Over the past weeks, the obituary pages of the Tri-City Record have been a vivid reminder of how the pandemic has altered even the final arrangements for our loved ones. Not only are delays seen in many businesses, but the same is also held true at the funeral home says Rebecca Yazel, of Hutchins Funeral Home at 209 S. Main Street in Watervliet.
Yazel stated that, “The delays we are experiencing are due to the state-wide mandates of limiting capacity within the funeral chapel, waiting for the mail to deliver certified copies of the death certificates because the County’s administration offices were closed and we were used to just picking them up, and the time it takes for the extra precautions to sanitize the whole funeral home after each service we host.”
Prior to COVID-19, if a family wanted a “traditional” funeral with visitation Hutchins didn’t have to think twice about the chapel being full of people. Now, they make sure people are flowing in and out to maintain social distance and the number of people invited to stay for the service is limited.
As a result, there have been more private services or people postponing in hopes of gathering everyone together later once restrictions are lifted. “We as an industry have and are still adapting,” says Yazel. There are services that have been broadcast over the radio, live-streamed through a subscription service, or even Zoom and FaceTime to become more accommodating. Rebecca said, “A building that is used to people hugging to offer comfort now sometimes feels awkward because we aren’t supposed to hug or even shake hands.”
The leveling space
What everyone needs to remember is that these small businesses are historically the most community-minded establishments that we turn to for donations for a fundraiser, ads in our local paper, or sponsorships for community events and even a space that creates our “third place.”
These people who operate third places provide community members with a location to relax in a public setting where they can see people they know and make new friends that they have something in common with. These businesses provide a different space from people’s “first place”, the environment of home, or “second space”, the workplace.
Our local “third places” know their customers too. The baristas at Soulard’s get to know the regular orders, the stylists at the Tri-City area hair salons get to know their customers the minute they take a seat in the chair, the gym and dance centers meet not only the physical outlet needs, but, they also bring like minded people together in a shared space. Finally, the local funeral homes have provided comfort in someone’s most difficult times, but they are always there.
All of the small business owners want this community to know they are committed to supplying the Tri-Cities with the third place that will provide a sense of belonging. Small businesses employ and re-circulate money back into the community. That is, they will continue to be here for us, if we continue to be there for them.