WLAA Analysis: How the pandemic is affecting our local small businesses today and tomorrow

By Jen DeGregorio / WLAA

When I was 19 years old, struggling to pay my college tuition, I landed a part-time job as a clerk in the advertising department at a local newspaper. Over time, I watched the ad reps spend their days outside of the office meeting with local businesses. Getting out from behind a desk seemed glorious to me, so I asked my boss to give me a shot, promising my college work would not get in the way. I was painfully shy back then, but the prospect of making more money was enough to get me to face my social anxiety head on. I started going door to door, meeting with small business owners and managers to try to sell them advertising. At first, I had a memorized “pitch”. But as I got to know people and more about their businesses, their dreams and what led them to where they were, natural relationships developed. I started to come out of my shell, allowing me to make passionate hard working new friends.

I saw them struggle after 9/11 and later when I came to work for The Ann Arbor News, I saw the local businesses downtown struggle – with rents, the ever changing dynamics of online shopping and so much more. My love for small businesses has grown over the years, transcending various career moves. The first thing that struck me hard, as COVID-19 started dominating the United States, is how this pandemic would affect our local businesses.

How Small Businesses are Coping

Anne Van Buren, of Van Buren’s Salon, applies for small business relief.

For Anne Van Buren, temporarily closing the doors of her 33 year old business Van Buren’s Salon, was extremely emotional.  She had to lay off her entire team, but they still try to stay connected with their clients and each other through Zoom meetings.  She’s been spending her days researching any small business relief initiatives that apply to her business and that assistance will come through.

Anne encourages other small businesses to do whatever they can to keep generating revenue.  For example, she continues to sell retail products available through drop off and gift cards for future services.  Her team has also developed a creative social media strategy that urges clients to wait until things reopen to do anything hasty with their hair.  The #StayRooted challenge encourages clients to take a selfie of their roots, post on social media and tag the salon to be entered to win a prize.

For some people, the shut down hit twice as hard. It came as brutal surprise to Stephanie Van’t Land, who was laid off from The Dexter Beer Grotto, then, just two days later, laid off from Zingerman’s Greyline.  “It’s been a huge shift going from working multiple jobs to staying at home all day, but it feels like I’m helping in a way by keeping myself and others safe,” she said.

Nonprofit organizations too, have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.  The annual ChadTough Champions for Charity Gala which was to be held in May, had to be cancelled.  Funds generated from the Gala accounts for 40% of revenue which goes to fund pediatric brain cancer research.  The organization has had to cancel other summer events as well, but is committed to hosting their signature RunTough event which will be held in September on what would have been the 10th birthday of Chad Carr (the foundation’s name sake).

“For now, we’re asking our supporters to focus on local needs related to COVID-19,” said Executive Director Ann Friedholm. “We are confident we have enough in reserves to protect the foundation through at least 2021.  That said, our ability to start fundraising again will significantly impact how much new research we can begin to fund in the coming years.”

Creative Approaches

In spite of the uncertainty caused by the shut down, I’ve noticed businesses try to come up with creative ways to generate revenue and some are even giving back to the community.

If you take a walk down the quiet Main street of my hometown of Dexter, you’ll likely see Dexter’s Pub manager Jennifer Taylor masterfully taking food phone orders.  Owner, Peter Theocharakis has been making deliveries himself and began adding family style meal options to the menu.  They’ve also begun a Give Back program where a portion of of revenue generated from gift certificates is donated back to first responders.

If you peek through a crack of the papered over window of The Beer Grotto, you can probably spot bar manager Phil Blass making improvements to the bar himself in an effort to save money from a previously planned renovation.  “The owner (Phil Mekas) and I haven’t really taken a day off yet,” said Blass.  “We’re saving money by doing the demo ourselves, then we’ll see what part of the rebuild we can do as well.”

Even though Revive Dexter has had to limit normal activity and business hours, they have set up a Pay it Forward Project in which they deliver their signature shakes to essential workers like the staff at Mott Children’s Hospital.

While the Dexter Creamery, a frozen yogurt and ice cream shop, was allowed to remain open for carryout, they took their businesses to a whole new level.  To relieve the stress of local grocery stores, the Creamery started carrying critical high demand food products in their shop.  Items like Eggs, Bread, Coffee Beans, Meats and even toilet paper, can now be purchased online for curbside pickup or delivery.

Phil Blass, manager of Dexter Beer Grotto, works on some recent renovations.

Small Business Relief

Ann Arbor SPARK, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of economic and employment opportunities in Washtenaw and Livingston counties, has been working hard to share resources to small businesses looking for information on relief.

Together with the Song Foundation and the Office of Community & Economic Development of Washtenaw County, SPARK created a Small Business Emergency Relief Fund which provides up to $5000 in capital grants to qualifying businesses.

“Having worked in kitchens and restaurants in Ann Arbor over the years, my wife Linh and I know how critical these local businesses and jobs are in our community,” said Dug Song, co-founder of The Song Foundation.

Dexter Creamery adds essentials to their frozen yogurt shop.

“We’re encouraging companies to look at the federal resources through the CARES Act,” said Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff Phil Santer.  “What’s frustrating for many companies is that this is the first time they’ve had to interact with federal resources, especially in an environment that is so rapidly changing.  I would encourage small business owners to jump on as many webinars as possible to learn more.”

GoFundMe has also partnered with Yelp, Intuit QuickBooks, GoDaddy, and Bill.com to match up to $500 to existing campaigns for small businesses that have been affected by COVID-19.  The process seemed to me almost too easy, but the funds were applied to a campaign I created on behalf of a local business within 10 days of my submission.

“I’ve spent hours applying for everything I qualify for,” said Anne Van Buren. “Now it’s just a waiting game.”

 Community Support

What has moved me to tears more than once is the way in which our community is responding to local businesses during this crisis. I’ve seen community members jump at the opportunity to buy gift cards, take-out and donate to Go Fund Me campaigns. The support is breathtaking.

I started a Go Fund Me for a local business that is near and dear to me. Almost everything I’ve ever written for my work with The ChadTough Foundation, was written from a corner table at The Beer Grotto – Dexter. I wasn’t sure what to expect when the campaign went live, but within a matter of days it became clear that the community was 100% eager to lend their support, not only to The Beer Grotto, but to all of the local businesses that are struggling.  Messages of support came flooding through, not only from regular customers, but from other businesses suffering as well.

Small businesses are the heart and soul of our community and right now are bearing a unique financial burden.  They create meaningful jobs that support our local economy.  Now, more than ever, we have to come together in supportive solidarity in order to get through this crisis.

COVER PHOTO: Revive Making Curbside Deliveries