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COVID-19's Big Hit On Small Business

Heather Claborn
Owner Allison Carroll at Monks Coffee Shop

When federal, state and local officials talk about restarting the economy, they focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic is hurting small businesses and those that rely on them. 

Taylor County health officials announced the first confirmed case of the coronavirus on March 26th.  By then the pandemic had already started to impact the local economy.  The week ending March 21st  unemployment in Taylor County spiked, with  472 locals filing claims.  Compare that to the same period in 2019, when only 31 people signed up for unemployment.  But in 2020, the third week of March was when Governor Greg Abbott started restricting the state’s businesses-closing bars and restaurant dining rooms in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Allison Carrol, the owner of Monks Coffee Shop says she started thinking about how she would respond to the virus in February, but it wasn’t until late March that she started to see its impact.

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Notices advise customers of restrictions and Monks' recently shortened business hours.

“So the day that the governor’s order went out we saw a drop in business, just right out of the gate,” Carroll says.  “And then the day that we had to prevent anyone from sitting in our café, it definitely had a noticeable impact on our business.”

A hit of between 50 and 65 percent.  Carroll says it’s more than just the financial impact, the restrictions undermine her entire business model.  “Creating a sense of community is really our main goal.  And we’re doing that through coffee.  And so Monks has always been a place where people can come relax and interact with other people.  And so rather suddenly that aspect of the business was prevented.”

As we talked about how Monks business is suffering, how Carroll has had to limit staffing and how they’re filling time by doing a lot more cleaning, a large group of young professionals walked in and Carroll excused herself to help her single barista fill orders.  Bailey Smith and his colleagues at First Financial Bank had taken a break from writing small business loans to get some coffee.

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Monks had an unusual rush on a recent morning, when PPP funds ran out and local small business loan officers took a coffee break.

“I think small businesses are what help run this country and we want to help out as much as many people as we can.  I know they’ve been really good to us in the past and we want to be good to them, especially during hard times, try to help them out as best we can.”  Smith says his office has also been buying coffee beans from Monks to use in the break room.

More than 150 Abilene restaurants have adjusted their business models during the COVID-19 restrictions, keeping the lights on by shifting their focus to take-out and delivery.  But an increasing number of them have decided to take a break.

Matthew Fraley-Nowacek is the general manager at Cypress Street Station.  He and Cypress Street’s owners Amanda and Terry O’Connor discussed options with their head chef.  “It became an evaluation of are we going to do more damage to ourselves trying to stay open during this time period by becoming something that we’re not?  Or do we shutter the doors for the time being and make the most of the time that we can while working on different projects and things like that?”

Nowacek says they do some carryout orders normally, but they didn’t feel comfortable losing control of what their customers would end up with at home.  

“We are a scratch kitchen,” Nowacek says.  “We make everything for you when you walk in the door.  So putting a Bayou Florentine Pasta in a to-go box and hoping that 15 to 30 minutes when it arrives at their doorstep, we can’t stand by that product.”

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Cypress Street Station's sign assures customers the closure is temporary.

Nowacek says it was a hard decision because following a dip in January, spring is usually a fairly busy season for their sector of the restaurant industry, with graduation gatherings, wedding rehearsal dinners.  “We do a lot of celebrations, a lot of events.  We do a lot of business with banking and different business industries where we cater to those things, even on the political side, that’s another part when we talk about busy season.”

And of course spring usually brings an uptick in tourism.  Tourists are the target market for Glenn Dromgoole.   “This time of year would be a fairly busy tourist season,” Dromgoole says.  “We of course missed most of spring break.  And April/May are pretty good tourist times for us.”

Dromgoole and his wife have owned Texas Star Trading Company for 15 years.  It’s  a shop that relies on busy downtown sidewalks to bring in people who want to browse and pick up unique Abilene or Texas souvenirs.  But it was the fact that so much of their clientele comes from other states that helped them make the difficult decision to close the doors instead of putting themselves and their two employees at risk.  “We’re not as bad off as a lot of places.  At least we have a website.  And we’re getting some phone calls.  We have some income and we kind of prepared for this, so we’re okay.”

Texas Star Trading Company, Cypress Street Station and Monks Coffee Shop all applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans.  Tomorrow we’ll hear more about the steps these businesses are taking to keep their business afloat, and their employees on the rolls.

Editor's Note:  Monks Coffee Shop is a supporter of KACU.