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Rethinking business: Chamber members share how they’re doing during pandemic

Posted on 13 May 2020 by Tesha Christensen


Tetra Constantino of Elsa’s

How are local businesses working through the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Midway Chamber of Commerce, together with Finance and Commerce, organized a panel of business owners to answer that question during a virtual meet-up on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. It is the first of several being organized to help businesses navigate through the coronavirus situation.

Rapp: Working remotely
Rapp Strategies (333 S. 7th St., Minneapolis) offers strategic communications and works primarily with hospitals, nursing homes, school districts and electrical industries. Nearly all of their clients have stayed with the company. Their work for projects out six weeks to two months has disappeared, but other work is sustaining them, according to Todd Rapp, who moderated the Zoom panel.
Their staff started working from home in shifts prior to the official Stay At Home order to work out any issues, and has been totally remote since the order. One staff member was let go, a position the company had considered eliminating prior to the pandemic.

Elsa’s: contactless delivery
Elsa’s House of Sleep (1441 University Ave. W.) is a second generation, family-owned furniture store. Tetra Constantino‘s mother, Elsa, started the company in 1997 to make sure families could afford nice items for their homes, and that’s still the driving force of the company, observed Constantino.
As the African American community has been especially hard-hit by the coronavirus, Elsa’s took steps before the shutdown to limit contact to keep both their staff and customers safe, according to Constantino. Elsa’s began selling items on its online store and via telephone orders, and are still working to organize 6,000 items in their online shop. The store does Zoom consultations and offers free contactless deliveries. Staff use masks and gloves. “We make sure safety is our number one priority,” said Constantino. They still believe their customer service sets them apart from large online stores, and sales keep money within the community.
They initially furloughed employees, but have been able to bring nearly all of them back as there is work cleaning the warehouse and reorganizing the showroom. They’re working to set up business for a new normal, said Constantino.
They’ve partnered with a local musician, Jamilah Pettiford, on a song that will be released on local radio stations.

Urban Growler: lean is the new normal
Urban Growler Brewing Co. celebrated its fifth year last July, and is trying to figure out how to still offer a fun experience with food and beer while maintaining social distancing. Pavlak pointed out more training is needed on social distancing so their customers practice it.
“Summer is when we make hay and we survive winter,” observed co-owner Jill Pavlak. They were just starting to pick up and had added several new staff positions when they had to shut down their tap room and laid off 37 servers, bartenders and kitchen staff. They were left with nine managers. Since getting a Payroll Protection Program loan, they’ve added back some kitchen staff. “We’re still a very lean team and we believe that will be our new normal for awhile,” said Pavlak.
They didn’t miss a beat, but started offering takeout immediately as there was no other option for them, said Pavlak. “We had to stay open or we would not survive.”
Pavlak admitted it is hard to wrap one’s brain around this situation, and there is a lot of grief and loss. Overall, their staff is a tight group, and are sharing tips with those who aren’t working, letting them know they’re missed.
“Love can keep us afloat,” said Pavlak. “We will survive because we’re received a lot of love form our team and customers.”

Mendoza: diverse base
Tony Mendoza operates a small law firm in the heart of the Midway. His primary clients are from the telcom and technology industries, entertainment and the non-profit sector. He’s grateful for their diverse make-up, which means he has continued to work through the pandemic. He let one staff member go in a position he had considered eliminating previously, but hired a paralegal for a different type of work.
His two staff members work remotely, and he works out of his office as his house is busy with students engaged in distant learning.

PPP loans and staying engaged
Given his small size, Mendoza didn’t seek a PPP loan.
Rapp staff continue connecting through weekly staff meetings. They received a PPP loan, and are focused on getting the money in the hands of staff. They’re not entirely sure if it all needs to be paid out by June 12, or not.
At Elsa’s, they have worked to stay engaged with each other through conference calls. “I’ve had to rely on our team to be creative,” remarked Constantino. “It’s a challenge to completely shift your business model. We are here to meet the needs of our clients on a budget who want a great living situation. They can have a shutdown, but not be shut-in.”
It doesn’t make sense for Urban Growler to bring back a bunch of staff, said co-owner Deb Loch, so they know they’ll end up paying back some of the PPP loan they received. “We’re maximizing what we can for the forgiveable piece but a lot will be unforgiveable. For us, that loan didn’t help as much as it could,” she said.

Managing anxiety
“Anxiety is at a high level for everybody,” observed Mendoza. “I deal with it by trying to stay informed.” He is helped by the shared sense that “we are all in this together.”
He’s working to maintain his routines as much as possible. His gym is shut down, but every morning he’s running, biking, and using resistance bands.
Pavlak and Loch take a daily walk. They also insist their staff take off two days in a row, and have opted to be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. It helps to know “this isn’t just happening to Urban Growler. This is happening everywhere,” said Pavlak.
Instead of dumping beer they couldn’t sell, Urban Growler partnered with two distillaries to make hand sanitizer that they donated to a hospice center here in their Midway neighborhood. “It helped us feel a little bit better about beer we can’t sell,” said Pavlak.
“Anxiety is high in the black community,” stated Constantino. He deals with it by educating himself and staying informed. “The more you know, you have a plan and that relieves anxiousness,” he said.
Rapp only listens to jazz music until 11 a.m. each day and stays away from the news until then. He makes sure he gets 10,000 steps a day. He and his wife have reinvented “date night” on Saturdays. He cooks and his wife picks an AcademyAward-winning movie to watch.
Mendoza pointed out that he is wondering what businesses will drive the recovery. He observed,“We will need to rethink how we do business as a society.”