Houligan’s Steak & Seafood Pub co-owner Jon Seybold has been forced to lay off about half of his 30 employees because of significantly decreased revenues as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Houligan’s Steak & Seafood Pub co-owner Jon Seybold has been forced to lay off about half of his 30 employees because of significantly decreased revenues as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

“We’re All In” grants aimed at helping small operators keep their doors open.

When Erin Klaus heard about the recently announced disbursement of $70 million in additional aid to small businesses in Wisconsin, she felt both hope and relief. 

Klaus and her friend, Jamie Kyser, co-own the Tangled Up In Hue store in downtown Eau Claire. Like many other business owners in the state, the duo was forced to shut down during the safer-at-home order issued in late March to curb coronavirus cases. 

In-store sales have been down significantly since they reopened their shop in May, and as COVID-19 cases have surged in Eau Claire and across Wisconsin in recent weeks. While she and Kyser have altered their business model by expanding online sales significantly, overall revenue is down $5,000 to $6,000 monthly compared to last year, and the store’s future remains uncertain as the pandemic drags on, Klaus said.

That’s why the Nov. 20 announcement by Gov. Tony Evers’ office of added funding available to Wisconsin small businesses in the form of “We’re All In” grants was good news to Klaus, Kyser, and other owners. Those dollars, providing between $2,500 to 30,000 to eligible small business owners, mark the third round of grant program disbursements since the summer totaling $185 million. 

“We really do need this money,” Klaus said. “Right now any little bit helps.”

Klaus and Kyser aren’t alone among Wisconsin small business owners struggling to keep their doors open as the pandemic reaches eight months and COVID-19-related cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are at their highest point. 

Many businesses across the state, particularly small businesses, have been hit hard by the coronavirus. Business owners report revenue losses of 50% or more from a year ago. Some owners say they may well be forced out of business if COVID-19 continues at high levels for upcoming months. Others have already shut down because of the virus’ impact.

Mary McPhetridge, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses across Wisconsin ranging from restaurants and taverns to mom and pop retail shops to hotels face significant financial challenges because of COVID-19. 

Those businesses in Ashland County and elsewhere are “extremely vulnerable” because of reduced income related to the pandemic, she said. Owners of those establishments are “very, very concerned for the upcoming season,” she said. 

Business owners are adapting their operations to stay in business, McPhetridge said. Some, like Tangled Up In Hue, are making more products available for purchase online, she said. Others have restructured the layout of their shops to better ensure social distancing, and some are limiting the number of shoppers in a store at once. 

“Many have alternate methods of shopping if folks are feeling uncomfortable physically going into a shop,” McPhetridge said. 

Despite the ongoing pandemic, McPhetridge and others hope Small Business Saturday, happening this Saturday, will boost revenue for those smaller outlets. The Ashland Chamber of Commerce and other similar organizations throughout Wisconsin are promoting small businesses as holiday shopping kicks into high gear. 

Organizers of such events are emphasizing the need to support local businesses to keep their doors open. “This year, it’s more important than ever to shop small and shop local this holiday season,” a message on the Downtown Green Bay website states, a reference to business challenges during the pandemic.   

In Ashland, the chamber is sponsoring several promotions intended to prompt purchases at small businesses. Among them is the Shop Local 7$15 program in which participants pledge to spend at least $15 in seven local small businesses. The chamber also partnered with the Wisconsin Downtown Action Council to take part in the “Shop WI Downtowns” initiative. 

Sarah Hammes-Murray straightens a hand-made soap display Tuesday at Tangled Up In Hue in downtown Eau Claire, where she is manager and creative director. The store benefited from a state grant earlier this year intended to help keep small businesses up and running during the coronavirus pandemic, and its owners plan to apply for another round of that funding as the pandemic continues. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

“We’re doing whatever we can, even more with what they’re facing this year, to try to help our small businesses,” McPhetridge said. 

Among businesses in need of assistance are restaurants and taverns. Those staples of Wisconsin are typically extremely busy during the holidays, but this year many across the state say COVID-19 has reduced customer numbers substantially. As many as half of the state’s restaurants could go out of business in upcoming months without additional assistance from the federal government, Wisconsin Restaurant Association President Kristine Hillmer said. 

Similarly, the Tavern League of Wisconsin said many bar owners are struggling financially and could shut down without additional government assistance. The U.S. House of Representatives has approved further funding for businesses as part of Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act funding, but the Republican-led Senate has held up that measure.  

Jon Seybold, co-owner of Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub in downtown Eau Claire, said income at the eatery he has helped operate since 2002 is down by at least 50% compared to last year at this time. Lower revenues have forced him to lay off half of his 30-member staff. He worries about upcoming months as predictions call for continued rising COVID-19 cases.  

Houligans needs financial help, too, Seybold said. But because its total revenues last year barely exceeded the $1 million allowable cap, the business isn’t eligible for “We’re All In” funding.

“It sounds like a lot of money,” he said of the $1 million total. “But by the time you subtract all of the expenses from that, there’s not that much left. The restaurant business is known for its small profit margin.”

Seybold, who adheres to strict measures to protect against COVID-19 spread at his restaurant, said he could face a temporary shutdown as soon as February without further assistance. The holiday parties that typically occur nearly nightly at Houligans in December are nonexistent this year. On a recent weeknight the eatery was nearly empty, and only three people were seated at the bar. 

“I am very concerned that if we do not get some aid, especially in the form of grants, our industry will be in even more dire straits,” Seybold said. “Many people will be closing, either temporarily or permanently.”

Seybold said he’s especially thankful for the customer base he has built up over the years, saying their support is keeping him in business now. Klaus was similarly grateful for the backing of her patrons, noting a GoFundMe campaign on the store’s behalf earlier this year raised more than $5,000. 

Klaus said Tangled Up In Hue likely avoided closure when, in addition to GoFundMe donations, it secured $17,000 in Paycheck Protection Plan funding last summer. Klaus also obtained a $2,500 “We’re All In” grant in the summer, money she and Kyser used to increase online sales. As the economy continues to struggle and with predictions of continued COVID-19 cases ahead, another grant through the state would be especially timely for her business and others, she said. 

“Right now, we’re all doing what we can to get by,” Klaus said.