FOUNDER’S NOTE: This is a long-read article. If you want to skip the background on how businesses pivoted and get to current information …
There are certain words used during COVID that cause hairs to bristle for business owners in the Coulee Region – pivot, unprecedented, essential, or nonessential. The irritation is caused by having fully functioning businesses that now much change how they operate to stay alive. What the words really mean is, “Change how you operate. Change it again as we learn more. Repeat.”
Local business leaders watched the pandemic unfold first in Wuhan, China, then on a cruise ship, then, Italy, and then the United States. Travel restrictions began. The US Congress invested $8.3 billion dollars to combat the outbreak.
Events began canceling. Stores could not keep toilet paper and hand sanitizer in stock as the public panicked in fear and hoarded food and supplies. As cases rose, states closed schools and “non-essential” businesses from Washington state, California, to New York.
In the Coulee Region, within a 10-day time period, the size of group gatherings diminished from 50 to 10 to zero. The result, nearly seven months later, some businesses closed permanently, some temporarily shuttered, most partially functioning.
Shutting Down in Two Days
The executive order by the Governors came quickly, with little time to prepare. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and Minnesota’s Tim Waltz required everyone, who could to work from home. Businesses were either essential or nonessential. Governments deemed companies supporting healthcare, food, financial, and housing as essential.
Most owners will forever remember the day. “March 17, our busiest day of the year,” said Keith Carson, owner of Houghton’s – a restaurant with Irish roots. March 17 was St. Patrick’s Day. “Business dropped off. We did dine-in until 5:00 and take out until 6:30 or 7:00. Then we shut down for 45 days.”
Long-time employees, who are like family, got the word to go on unemployment.
“We started packing up groceries for them,” said Kelsey William, who owns Fayze’s Restaurant in downtown La Crosse with her husband Drew since 2008. Instantly, perishable food was a total loss. The loss for each restaurant is estimated at $2,000 to $3,000.
Many restaurants gave to food pantries and prepared to lock the doors indefinitely. “We froze what we could, which takes a ton of labor to do for who knows how long” said Williams. “I started trying to find things like grants for my employees or helping with unemployment. You just sit back and worry about everyone while you worry about your own business.”
“It was the most challenging time of my 25 years,” says Lauri Stettler, owner of Holmen Meat Locker, whose business was deemed essential as a food supplier. “My husband and I were in Florida on vacation. We came home and quarantined for two weeks. My employees had to figure it out on their own the first three weeks.”
Demand was high in that first week. People were not prepared to make all their meals at home. Grocery stores limited how much meat people could buy. This pushed sales to places like Holmen Meat Locker. “For three weeks my husband was on the phone every day finding suppliers in our area, locals, and bringing in whatever we could to make sure that we were feeding our customers.”
Prices changed daily as meat processors struggled to keep COVID-19 out of their operations. With major food users closing – schools, restaurants, catering businesses, demand shrank so quickly, that dairy farmers dumped their milk. There were no buyers.
Tourism and conventions stopped – a major driver in our economy stopped. With it came reductions in people eating at restaurants and shopping in local stores. Major holidays that spark local people patronizing local restaurants passed by.
“We were closed Mother’s Day and Father’s Day,” said Jacqlynn Hauser, who opened Jacqlon’s County Café and Restaurant in Holmen 25 years ago in Holmen. “We rely on those big days, but we were not able to do them.
Essential vs. NonEssential
The designation left a bitter taste in some business owner’s mouths. Aside from it financially determining who would keep money coming in and those taking a financial loss, it ignored the interconnectedness of our community and our economy.
“We provide breakfast for many seniors in this town,” said Hauser at Jacqlon’s. “They’re here every single day for breakfast. Taking that away, I worried about where they would be eating.
Root Down Yoga, a hot yoga studio on La Crosse’s north side, meanwhile quiet. Owners Nick and Mandy Roush closed a few days early, concerned for the health of their employees and their customers. They did so believing the closure was temporary, long enough to “flatten the curve” so caseloads do not overrun our hospitals. When that was achieved, the metric changed to reducing the spread, to the frustration of the Roushs. Seven months later, they are still closed. Nick continues to ask, without an answer, what metric determines when he can reopen. Until consumer fear subsides, he believes he cannot reopen. That is a challenging metric to measure.
Meanwhile, the Roush’s apartment rentals are essential. It is that business that has kept Root Down Yoga alive. To Nick, who is the volunteer president of the North La Crosse Business Association, every business is essential. He says the cycle money takes, when spent locally, is essential to our community’s wellbeing and reducing costs for all, “You buy shoes from a person who goes to the grocery store who goes to the car dealership who goes to the jewelry store.”
Unemployment skyrocketed to record levels, estimated as high as 30%. Those with jobs juggled working from home with home-schooling their children. Congress spent more than $6 trillion on healthcare, workforce, and business programs to prop up the economy, with programs designed to last 12 weeks. We are now approaching seven months.
Manufacturing lines kept running if their products helped essential businesses. Companies like Mt. Borah (a bike clothing manufacturer) and VARC (a contract assembly business performed by those with disabilities) shifted production to make essential products, masks. The La Crosse Distillery switched from alcohol production to hand sanitizer.
The Roush’s focused on their apartments with the priority clearly being to communicate — calming tenants who were worried about the sterilization of common space from entrance doors to workout rooms to community space. Tenants with expiring leases did not want prospective new residents viewing their apartments. Nick recorded walk-throughs of the space.
Businesses deemed nonessential invested in online meeting platforms like Zoom. Connections with customers moved to online and outdoors. Root Down Yoga created a YouTube channel. Mandy and the instructors recorded classes. They hosted a weekly class in a park for charity because Nick and Mandy believe despite Root Down’s not having money coming in, others are struggling to eat a nutritious meal during COVID. Nonprofits lost tens of thousands of dollars in canceled fundraisers, with the ripple effect of those cancelations hitting venues and caterers hard.
The Dial Turns to Allow for Carry-Outs
Within a few weeks, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers allowed restaurants to sell carryout orders. Holmen Meat Locker, because they were always been open, was already perfecting its order-taking processes. They quickly realized selling the same amount was taking extra long.
“You go outside, take the order, bring in the cash, take them the receipt,” says Stettler. Because people could not remember the meat locker’s offerings and to meet the demand for large quantities, the business developed a menu and bulk meat packages.
Down the street at Jacqlon’s, she added outdoor tables and take-out. The Hausers quickly realized takeout increases overhead costs. When combined with food costs changes, she had challenges.
“Everything is [packaged] in single-serve portion — the box, the wrappers, the bags,” Hauser said. “It is more expensive. If something comes in at a higher price, I can’t go change it on the menu. We have to take that loss for that and then try to recoup it some other way.”
Consistently among the owners, employees are expected to make good choices to keep the rest of the work-family safe. In some situations, like the Holmen Meat Locker, for safety reasons they do not wear masks when processing meat. They trust each other. That means customer interaction is their biggest variable.
“We are more scared of you than you are of us because we’re in these four walls together,” Stettler told one customer. “We’ve been in these four walls together. Now we have to open to the public.”
Just before May 26, the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined the Governor does not, solely, have the power to close businesses. Surprisingly, they threw out the executive order keeping businesses closed and did not provide a replacement structure. Instantly, all businesses could reopen. Law enforcement quickly stated they would not enforce how businesses run or mask-wearing. Most businesses followed guidelines created by the La Crosse County Health Department, wanting to keep people safe.
The sudden surge to reopen had many owners scrambling for cleaning supplies, plexiglass barriers at cash registers between employees and customers, and hand sanitizer at entrances and throughout their business. Buffets such as soup and salad bars are shut down. All condiments come in individual portions or are cleaned between customers.
Jacqlon’s requires people to hand sanitize and wear masks until seated. Some people resist. Owners like Fayze’s believe they need to protect their employees, who are like family, and whose health is essential to staying in business. They have turned away people for not wearing masks.
At Houghton’s, employees must wear masks, have their temperature taken, and be asked daily questions indicating signs of COVID. The restaurant has a handwashing station outside for customers and requires masks until people are seated. Their visible efforts of operating safely are working.
“People started coming in, a few here and there,” said Carson. “They saw the things we are doing. They became more comfortable coming in. I think they’re happy we’re open and doing the things we’re doing so they can have a safe, enjoyable dining experience. It’s important to them.”
Curbside pickups have been a lifeline for Houghton’s, Jacqlon’s, and the Holmen Meat Locker. So much so that the meat locker is adding a drive-thru on their south side.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Still, a 50% reduction in seating to allow for social distancing equates to about the same in lost revenue for the businesses. One catering business that relies on in-person events and weddings reported a 70% reduction.
“The reality is, if a business is closed for 30 days, they’re going to lose money for the year,” Roush says as the president of the NLBA. “If closed for 60 to 90 days, most small businesses face bankruptcy. We have been closed for six months. If not for my other job, we’d be broke.”
Roush says it is like gambling for Root Down and other business owners. “You just keep putting money into the pot, hoping that sometime you’re going to make the money back. A lot of people have to make the critical decision of how far I go before I have to turn around and can’t before I go broke.”
The Hausers at Jacqlon’s planned to retire the end of this year. Instead, they are using their retirement to keep the company running, unsure if there is a market to sell the business anytime soon, as planned.
“It’s just not sustainable,” said Williams. “You cut back on your capacity, but you still have the same amount of people cooking, the same overhead, the same rent, and utilities.”
There are two questions the businesses have:
1) Most say it will take a vaccine to get back to a forever-different version of normal. When?
2) The second question, is what will the weather bring?
“We have the outside now. The parklets expand our capacity,” said Williams looking at the temporary use of sidewalks and parking stalls in front of the restaurant that the City of La Crosse allowed during COVID. “What are we going to do in the winter? What do we do when it gets cold?”
One thing they know. They are used to changing, but there are not too many more ways they can pivot.