Firms adapt to virus reality

Image courtesy of Jacquart Fabric Products


Owning a small business has never been a career choice for the faint of heart, and small-business owners often live on a slightly comfortable shoestring with plans to be flexible and adaptable. 

But the economic tsunami of a pandemic shutdown never shows up in anyone’s business plan. Still, by the end of April, regional small business owners found themselves adapting or enhancing socially safe options while trying to keep even a trickle of business-sustaining income. Here are a few short shots representing what regional businesses did – and continue to do – to survive. 

The clothing manufacturer

  Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood, Mich., just across the border from Hurley Wis., was started in 1958 by company President Gina Thorsen’s grandfather and is probably most broadly known for its Stormy Kromer caps, a product line purchased in 2001. Thorsen said in March the writing for the pending business shift “was on the wall, even though we hadn’t shut down yet.” Then in late March, just before the governor’s order, an urgent plea came to them from two different health facilities – one in Madison and one in Ashland. They desperately needed quality masks and gowns. Could Jacquart do anything to help? The request from Madison was large enough for the company to consider a retooling of their manufacturing production, Thorsen said, especially in light of reduced orders from their retail partners. 

“This is a critical time for country; it was kind of an obligation to do so,” she said. “We worked really quickly with our engineering and production folks over the weekend, looking at the specs from Madison, the patterns.”

They found that with the materials on site, they could produce acceptable masks – though not the N95 respirator mask, but ones with a cotton layer inside and waterproof covering that met the Madison hospital’s specifications. That weekend, they created a proto-type and Thorsen’s husband drove it to Stevens Point to hand it off to Madison hospital representatives who met him half way. Within days, the order came in. They shut down everything for a day or two. 

“We called in our top-tier sewing machine operators first,” she said, to test patterns. 

“We started on masks right away,” Thorsen said. “Compared to a hat, they’re pretty simple.” Gowns would follow, and so would enough orders to tap the manufacturing branch of Duluth Pack, which carries Stormy Kromers in its retail store, and other contractors in Wisconsin and in Tennessee.

“It’s been a whirlwind here,” Thorsen said. They are producing 3,000 masks daily and several hundred gowns. The large tarps they also make for trucking companies – one of their regular products – are considered “essential” and production of them also continues.

The company retooled for employee safety as well as for new production. 

“Ideally in a manufacturing line, we’d have people in a row. Now we have people really spread out. … We’ve been real conscious of that,” Thorsen said. They also altered break schedules so fewer people are in the break room or lunchroom at any one time. Jacquart generally employs nearly 90 mainly full-time workers and now has 75 people working. Some of those not available on-site are high-risk for health issues.

In terms of sales, income was down in March because orders had declined for the caps and may not fully recover by fall, the usual peak time for sales. Thorsen fears some of their retailers across the country may not survive. April, with the new mask and gown production, may be on track, although in terms of sales these are the company’s lightest months in normal circumstances.

One thing Thorsen has noticed around their manufacture operation, though, that’s a little surprising: Fewer workers have called in sick.

The printer

Since its founding in 1977 in Duluth, Pro Print has grown in clients, production and locations – expandong into Detroit Lakes and Superior. The award-winning operation is the only “green certified printer” in the area, according to its owner, Creston Dorothy, and in normal times would employ about 54 people.

But these are not normal times. As it became evident shutdowns were looming, print jobs, even those already scheduled, dried up. First organizers of events called to cancel the printing of their programs or flyers. The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra cancelled the remainder of its season, along with all of its printing work. 

Printers, Dorothy said, found some work did not diminish – labeling, boxes for pizzas, etc. 

The shifting times also generated additional printing needs, such as mailed announcements from the hospitals about safety measures, important billing and other information from utility companies.

Businesses still trying to maintain services or inform customers of current situations ordered banners and window signs announcing new curbside services, closures or a simple message of “Thank you for coming by.”

“Informational signage is one of the things we’ve been doing,” Dorothy said. Still, business dropped off to about 50 percent of normal, and Pro Print reduced employees to about 40. Some asked to stay at home for personal health or family reasons; some continued work from home.

“We have had to let a few people go for sure; the rest of the folks are on cut-back hours. You have to match the (employee) resources with the volume that you have.” 

The restaurants

As states ordered restaurants and pubs to close their doors to on-site seating, many created take-out and delivery options for the first time. That has been the case for three regional operations – one in Bayfield, one in Grand Marais and one in Duluth.

Pier Plaza Restaurant, a family-run business for four generations since the mid-1900s, sits beside the Bayfield waterfront. While its operations, like everything in the small tourist-powered town, slow considerably in winter, Pier Plaza maintains popularity with residents all year.

“We’ve always been the hub of the community,” said Sharon Johnson, one of the family owners.

Janine Johnson, co-manager and also a family member, says this time of year, they usually employ about 25 people. They’ve ushered in many changes over the years. The restaurant, on the site of two other previous incarnations, used to be open daily except for Christmas. Now in the slow season, it closes November and December and then opens only Mondays and Tuesdays. Once the shut down order came for Wisconsin, Pier Plaza first continued its take-out options, but closed because of lack of orders and “to keep safe,” Janine said.

Lately, the restaurant owners, with the help of the Bayfield Area Chamber and Visitor Bureau, tested the social media waters to ask residents if they wanted more take-out options. The positive response (99 percent) was overwhelming – and so was the ordering when the restaurant then offered the carry away version of its popular “all-you-can-eat” Friday fish fry.

“It was crazy,” Janine said. With a staff of just five, it was hard to keep up with the incoming calls. “My Fitbit was going crazy,” Sharon joked about the number of steps she was taking. “Janine and I were in the front, our head chef is our son and my husband, Don,  and cook, Brandon, were cutting and getting fresh fish.”

Of course, take-away meant modifications – all you can eat equals one and a half fillets of Lake Superior trout or whitefish (which was the average anyway, Janine Johnson said), plus the usual side salad, fresh veggie of the week and a starch of your choice. Customers drive up, wait for their name on the whiteboard for pick up and drive away with fish or other menu items.

Now they are offering pick up Thursdays and Fridays from 5-8 p.m., with the phone orders starting at 1 p.m.

“We’re going to see how these nights go,” said Janine. “We may possibly offer a third day and possibly lunches. There are ‘essential’ workers looking for lunch.”

The family is also thinking about business beyond the shutdown. 

“We’re really trying to think of what we can do outside the box,” said Janine. They’ve calculated that removing three of their 12 dining tables would put guests six feet apart while dining. They also have dining on the deck. Servers likely will wear gloves, the menus may be disposable. Their daughter-in-law suggested bringing back car hops, a feature on site when an A&W was on the location.

“When you take an area like this that is so art driven and tourism driven, it’s very worrisome,” Janine said of the future. Still she added, “We just need to take a moment to be thankful.”

At the popular My Sister’s Place in Grand Marais, take-out has always been an option, said the restaurant’s marketing person Jenny Schuler. Delivery, though, is something new with the shutdown.

“We’re doing curbside, our storefront is closed and we do delivery Friday and Saturday nights,” she said. The restaurant typically employs about a dozen people, and continues to do so. The shutdown, while uncomfortable, comes at a usual slow-time anyway in the northern tourist town. “April is always the slowest month up here, so we’re used to always losing money,” Schuler said. 

During the stay-at-home days, My Sister’s Place has been “busier than expected,” she added, providing pizzas, burgers and fish dishes that feature locally caught favorites. 

“It’s nice,” Schuler said. “We can support local, too, buying fresh fish from the commercial fisherman.”

There may be new rules for table distances and such when restaurants can reopen, Schuler acknowledged, and the business will make the necessary changes.. “We’ll obviously comply.” 

Just how close this year’s visitations compare will also depend on when things can open … on both sides of the international border. With a solid clientele from Ontario, the restaurant marks the beginning of tourism season a little differently than other Minnesota businesses. This year, that would have been May 18, a Canadian holiday. 

“We say Victoria Day, or the weekend before. It our official start to the season, but mid-June is when we get crazy.”

In Duluth, the family owners of Dubh Linn Brew Pub anticipated an off year. After all, its main entry from Superior Street would be disrupted all spring, summer and early fall by the final leg of major construction. Still, they hadn’t counted on losing the busiest day of their business year.

Since the restaurant opened in 2006, St. Patrick’s Day draws a significant revenue, said co-owner Mike Maxim Jr.  

“St. Patrick’s Day week, that’s normally our biggest week.” This year, though, a shadow loomed. “That Friday and Saturday up to the 17th – the week and a half before – we started to see a decline in numbers,” Maxim said. “People started to isolate a bit. (University) students left from spring break and never came back. Then the governor announced the day before –all restaurants had to be closed on St. Patrick’s Day at 5 o’clock.” 

St. Patrick’s Day was a Tuesday and business from the week and weekend that followed was to have been the back-up plan for surviving the Superior Street construction, Maxim said. 

Instead, they had to kick into high gear to get another part of the construction-zone plan operating as quickly as possible. The restaurant pub always had offered take out, but the owners had sought a growler license to let customers enjoy its craft brews off site. “We started our process sooner, about a month earlier, than we’d planned on,” Maxim said. 

They also established delivery as an option and put into place virus-safe practices with gloves, rigorous sanitizing protocols, a rotation of staff that meant only one cook, one person answering the phones, one person taking delivery to the alley out back (remember, Superior Street is closed to traffic) and plenty of room for all of them to stay socially distant. The restaurant usually would employ 25 full- or part-time people.

When the state allowed take-away of wine bottles and beer and cider cans from the restaurant, that helped with sales, he said, but added, “Our sales are a fraction of what they normally would be. We accumulate what we can, even in small chunks.” 

Like the other regional restaurants, Dubh Linn is looking at changes in seating for more space – and hence fewer customers – but still hopes to bring back its live Saturday night comics. “We’re seeing where all of that goes,” Maxim said. “In one year, will everything be kind of like a dream and everything will be like it once was … or will the public have new boundaries and expectations? That’s the challenge for the business owner is to recognize what the people in the know are telling us to do, what the temperatures of our customers is and react to that to make our customers to feel a comfortable.”

The Realtor

Realtor Beth Wentzlaff with Consulting, Management & Realty Associates (CMRA) already had all the remote tools in place for enticing house and commercial property browsers before COVID-19 restrictions altered her usual sales trajectories. And she was well acquainted, too, with projects on hold.

Wentzlaff started CMRA in the mid-2006 and weathered the 2008 recession. This year did not look at all like that market crash. 

“It started off marvelously. Even through the winter, it was a strong market,” she said. “Then came what seemed might be ‘a little hiccup,’ but as nationwide shutdowns began spreading like this virus, the market slowed to a crawl.”

How does one work that sales magic without face-to-face experiences?

For Wentzlaff, the online tools already in place have become increasingly important. Virtual tours help to satisfy the purely curious, keeping them at bay from actual showings, while piquing the interest of those seriously intending to buy.

“The technology and new cameras show a true house layout.” As an example of long-distance advertising paying off, she cites a recent sale. “We listed a house where we used regular photos, but there was not much action. We added a virtual tour so people could ‘walk through’ from their own home. Within a day an agent called for a showing, and then made an offer.”

Physically showing the property remains critical, Wentzlaff said. 

“You shouldn’t purchase a property without going through it in person. You need to feel how it fits, smell it; you need to view it as if it were yours.” 

When on-site, of course, booties, masks and gloves have become usual attire – and the handshake at the end is not required.

Wentzlaff believes things already are looking up. “The Twin Ports market has added 123 new properties in the last seven days, and there are 248 pending homes on the market right now. … Things are beginning to ramp up.” 

As to the future, she said, “Three weeks ago I would have told you it would bounce back right away. Now, with job losses, it could be a slow comeback and unfortunately some will not be rehired.”

She sees landlords allowing tenants to pay partial rents and make plans to pay the balance as they are able, without penalty. She hopes the local governments will help in the recovery by reviewing and retracting hindrances to businesses.

 “I see a lot of businesses standing together, each helping out where we can. But to weather this one, we will need the city government to come in and support businesses as they have never done before. … We can turn it around and do things better than before this virus began.”