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Small Businesses Navigate COVID-19 With Caution

Heather Claborn
Glenn Dromgoole holds a Howdy Neighbor gift basket at Texas Star Trading Co.

Governor Greg Abbott has said he will issue new orders on April 27th that will begin to reopen Texas’s economy.  The governor has said there will be different phases, and businesses won’t just open their doors and conduct business the way they did before COVID-19.  

Struggling small business owners hope the governor’s executive orders will start the flow of dollars back into their shrunken bank accounts.  But they also have reservations.

When Cypress Street Station decided it would close during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the management moved quickly to secure funds from the Paycheck Protection Program.

“I know that we will be good on the other side of this.  But I will also say that it definitely hurts a lot,” said Matthew Fraley-Nowacek, Cypress Street’s general manager.  He says a few employees, mainly students, moved out of the area.  One opted for unemployment, lured by the 600 dollar weekly bonus.  But most of the servers, bussers, and cooks are still collecting a paycheck.

Credit Matthew Fraley-Nowacek
Cypress Street Station deep cleaning during the COVID-19 closure.

In Texas wait staff make $2.13 per hour.  But the paychecks also include what they usually make in a week in tips-which is easy to track since most customers pay with credit cards.  For the most part, the staff doesn’t do anything for those paychecks.  But Nowacek says some bored staff members have called, looking for something to do.

“You could probably have surgery in our kitchen right now.  We have dismantled it and literally used a toothbrush, wire brush on tile, on every crevice and corner that we can.  We’ve always run a clean spot.  But there are some things, like shelving on walls, that just there’s no way to clean behind it unless you dismantle it and take it apart.  So we’ve done that.  We’ve literally taken apart everything in that kitchen, cleaned it, and put it back together.”

Cypress Street has also done a little catering.  And the management decided that with a lack of income and a surplus of time they would refinish the existing dining room furniture instead of buying new tables and chairs.

“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” Nowacek laughs.

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Matthew Fraley-Nowacek scrapes paint off a table he's refinishing at Cypress Street Station.

That’s an old-restaurant adage.   But during this pandemic, Allison Carroll, the owner of Monks Coffee Shop, says cleaning is about more than just productivity.  “We have a very concentrated sanitizer so we’re sanitizing all of the high contact surfaces, door handles, register after every guest,” Carroll says, a cloth face mask resting around her neck.

Besides lots of extra cleaning, Monks employees also wear masks during their shifts.  

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Monks Coffee Shop is selling more merchandise during the pandemic, and brought back an old favorite until May 5th only.

The pandemic, the restrictions, and the loss of business have led to other changes.  Monks now closes at 6:00 p.m. instead of 10:00 or 11:00.  And like all businesses right now, Carroll is careful about how many people she schedules for each shift.  Carroll says she’s had to get creative to find ways to keep employees on the payroll who felt they might need to self-isolate

“It doesn’t very easily lend itself to working from home,” Carroll admits.  “But we’re trying to look for ways we can do at home tutorials or increased learning, different ways that we might be able to keep people on the payroll, even if they can’t be making drinks in the shop.”

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Monks Coffee Shop is making fewer individual drinks and offering 96 oz travelers of cold brew and hot coffee.

And that’s lead to a pivot in Monks’ temporary business model.  Instead of lots of lattes and teas, they’re selling more gift cards and 96 ounce travel-boxes of cold brew and hot coffee.  Monks has also started selling whole beans, which is entirely new, and t-shirts, which isn’t new at all. “We rereleased our iconic ‘Keep Abilene Boring’ shirt,” Carroll enthuses.  “We have not sold that for many years.  But we kind of brought it back out of the vault to kind of help support our sales during this time.  So we can keep our people working.  That’s been a kind of exciting addition.”

In recent weeks, Monks has also revamped its website.  Besides adding coffee cups and T-shirts to the site, and Carroll says she hopes to add tutorial videos soon.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Just down the street, Texas Star Trading Company has also shifted its focus online while its doors are closed to shoppers.  Online sales can be hard for a business that offers lots of things that people might buy on an impulse: Texas themed notepads, and kitchen towels as well as clothes and jewelry.  Owner Glenn Dromgoole says  they have seen big demand for a few of their unique items during the pandemic.  “We’ve about sold out of jigsaw puzzles.  And we’ve got more coming,” Dromgoole says.  “And then my wife came up with the idea to do some howdy neighbor gift baskets.  And we’ve gotten a lot of orders for those.  If people live here we’ll deliver them.  If they’re somewhere else, we’ll mail them.”

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Puzzles are a hot seller on Texas Star Trading Co.'s website.

And Texas Star Trading Company is the only store in town selling a new paperback.  “One of the good things that we’ve had going is Julie Goodenough’s book,” Dromgoole says as he points to a copy on the counter.  “That came out the first of April, and we’re the only place selling it, really.  And so we’ve gotten a lot of orders for that.  She came in and signed a bunch of them and so we’ve been able to send out a number of autographed copies.  So that’s really helped too.”

Still, Dromgoole says business is down 70% to 80%.  The Paycheck Protection Program funds he got are key to his ability to offer his two employees their usual pay.  It will also help with rent.

The way the program works, as long as the borrowers follow the rules, spending the funds on payroll, utilities, rent or mortgage interest-they should be able to get up to 75% to as much as 100% of the loan forgiven.

Abilene-based First Financial Bank wrote nearly $600 million worth of PPP loans statewide, and $100 million of that total was for Abilene’s small businesses.

Scott Dueser, the CEO of First Financial bank says the program brought a lot of business through their doors.  “We have opened more accounts than we have opened historically, this period of time; because people are putting a lot of this PPP money separate accounts so they can account for it so they can get it forgiven.”

Applications for the program opened on April 3rd.  From then until it ran out of money on April 16th, First Financials loan officers worked 12 or more hours a day seven days a week to make sure businesses like Texas Star Trading Company, Monks Coffee Shop and Cypress Street Station got what they needed to make it through this unprecedented business climate.

Dueser says company-wide First Financial has taken other steps to support local small businesses, while taking care of their own employees who were showing up for work. “We fed them lunch every day.  All 1,400 employees across the footprint.  And we’re using restaurants every day that are our customers, so that we’re helping them stay in business,” Dueser said.

Governor Abbott included Dueser on his Strike Force to Open Texas, in part because First Financial kept its lobbies open to customers when other banks moved to online, drive through and ATM only transactions. Dueser says he’s proud to represent Abilene and excited to help plan the next steps for the state’s economy.  “We’ve got to stop the spread of the virus.  Social distancing is by far the most important thing,” Dueser said.  “But the other side of it is we’ve got to get back to work.  We’ve proven that you can do it, and do it safely.  So other businesses have got to take that same thing and we’ve got to get back to work.”

Governor Abbott is scheduled to issue executive orders that move in the direction of reversing the stalled economy.  But some small business owners are wary, wondering where their business will fit into the picture.  Cypress Street Station’s General Manager, Matthew Fraley-Nowacek says there’s a lot to figure out. 

“From my understanding approximately 65% of the 22 million were from the hospitality/restaurant industry.  And I think that they don’t quite know what they’re going to do,” Nowacek said.  “When we talk about social distancing and what that looks like-you bring people into a dine-in restaurant, well  does that mean the tables have to be this far apart?  I think they are trying to figure out a plan to do a graduated opening.  This is what you can do.  These are the restrictions that you’re going to have in place.  I think the reason we didn’t hear anything-is because we’ll be on the back end of it. “  

Credit Heather Claborn / KACU
Monks Coffee Shop makes sure to-go customers aren't tempted to linger.

But while they’re anxious to see their financial tanks start to refill, some small business owners, including Monks’ Allison Carroll, don’t want officials to rush these decisions.

“If some of the executive or local orders were lifted in the near future, I would really struggle with the decision of whether or not to allow seating to allow seating again,” Carroll said.  “I think it’s important that we all remain vigilant at this time.  I don’t think we’re quite as far along as we need to be before we can all relax a little bit.  And so I would hate to see some of that progress undone by being too cavalier too soon.”

Carroll says she’s not really sure what would make her more comfortable; but she would like to have a clearer picture of COVID-19 testing in Abilene as well as the rest of the state.  

So far the coronavirus shows no indication of having peaked in Abilene.  According to county health officials, they would want to see at least six days of declines before they’ll feel confident that that the worst is behind them.  

Find out which Abilene businesses are still serving customers during the pandemic restrictions with this list.

Editor's Note:  Monks Coffee Shop and First Financial Bank are supporters of KACU.

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