Help is on the way? Depends on the type of small business

Patty Talahongva

‘Three weeks ago we were doing great! And now we’re done.’

It’s a sparse lunch crowd at the Bee Line Cafe in Payson, Arizona. Only four tables have guests seated and eating. Business has slowed considerably in the past week says owner Kassie Sexton.

“People are not wanting to come in because they're afraid they’re going to get cooties.” She laughs nervously as she looks around her nearly empty cafe.

The Bee Line is a place where you know the food is home-cooked. Biscuits and gravy on the breakfast menu, pot roast and fried chicken on the lunch and dinner menus. Plus there’s a whole selection of fruit pies, also homemade. The locals have been going to this cafe since 1962. But it’s the business traveler that really adds to the bottom line and those would-be customers are driving right past these days. The coronavirus is making people second guess eating out.

Kassie and her husband Danny took over the family business from his parents Millard and Mildred. Millard is Choctaw. He and his wife bought the restaurant when it was a walk-up ice cream stand. They turned it into a restaurant which was one of the few in the mountain town.

Payson is 89 miles north of Phoenix and sits at an elevation of 5,003 feet. Just five years after opening, the young restaurateurs faced a natural disaster. The blizzard of 1967 dumped six feet of snow on the town. Everything shut down except the Bee Line.

Millie, as she was known, kept cooking for the utility workers who were busy trying to repair downed power lines. The story printed on every menu says the workers would park their trucks in front and shine their headlights into the cafe so Millie could continue cooking at night.

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It won’t be so easy this time.

COVID-19 has prompted the Sexton’s to install a hand sanitizer at the door and they vigilantly make sure customers use it.

“We’re sanitizing everything. Making everybody sanitize on the way in. Most people are ok with it. We get a couple of people who get upset because we ask them to use the sanitizer.”

They employ 12 people and have already been forced to cut back hours. “We had to let people go home yesterday and we closed early yesterday because there wasn't anybody here,” says Sexton.

This St. Patrick’s Day was vastly different from last year. “Usually St. Patrick’s day is in spring break. Usually we have a line out the door on spring break because everybody is traveling, everybody is going camping, everybody is doing things, and we were empty yesterday.”

“We depend a lot on people going through and they're afraid to stop.”

As she gets the latest news she knows it’s only a matter of time before the virus hits their town.

 “Our locals aren’t really worried about it because we haven’t had any cases in Payson yet. Once we have a case in Payson that will probably change.”

She looks up to thank a customer who is paying, it’s a cash only cafe, and then glances at her servers. “Beeline our staff is doing the best we can,” she says.

They practice their own form of social distancing by seating people one table away from another. They are sanitizing the tables, menus and doors.

“Yes, I’m sure as soon as we have one person in town, they’ll shut us down. It’s inevitable. I'm sure that somebody in town will test positive and that will be it. That will be it.”

She’s hopeful they will, at least, be able to do to-go orders. “It will still be a big hit but at least maybe we’ll still make something.”

A week later the family started closing the Beeline at 2 p.m., six hours earlier because they just didn’t have enough customers.

Three thousand miles to the north Vivan Mork is saying goodbye to her gallery.

“We started our business with no loans,” she says proudly. “And everything has changed in no time at all. We went from expanding to literally having to close our doors,” she starts to cry and then apologizes.

“You have called me on the day I’m packing up everything to put in storage. And we’re done.”

Vivian Mork, Tlingit, and her partner Aakatchaq Schaeffer, Inupiaq, opened Planet Alaska last May and sells art made by Alaska Natives.

Always our in-store sales have been greater than online,” she says. Which means when the cruise ship industry shut down she could see the writing on the wall.

“Here in southeast Alaska we are heavily dependent on the tourism industry. It’s one of the main industries in the region. My business is not the only one that’s going to be hurting.”

Cruise ships, she says for good reason are not being allowed to go into ports right now.

“Even though that is hurtful for us we are also understanding that that’s what needs to be done for the safety of all of us. These things that are supposed to help businesses like ours are not helping”

She’s referring to the recently passed $2 Trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by the president.

“We don’t have employees so we won’t get that help. Loans with limited interests aren’t helpful either because our economies are destroyed. If we don’t have people buying we can’t stay open. It's as simple as that. It’s basic economics.”

“We do have a lot of local support, it’s just not enough,” she says adding that she’s also worried about her friends and neighbors who are going to be hit hard as well.

“We help a lot of artists around the state. But art is definitely not one of the things people are buying right now. Three weeks ago we were doing great! And now we’re done.” 

To add to her mental and physical exhaustion she says she is packing up the gallery by herself. “Physically moving the store is tiring. During social distancing it's hard to find people to help you move.’

Each small business has unique challenges and the business structure, sales and credit worthiness all play a part in what government help is available.

There are a handful of Native American chambers of commerce across the country. Some, more active than others. The American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California is run by Tracey Stanhoff, Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation. She’s a past tribal chair and is also President and Creative Director of her company AD PRO, an advertising and graphic arts company.

In her 32 years of business she says nothing compares to this pandemic. “First Gulf War, 9/11, but this is totally different! There are no customers. That’s just totally a different problem.”

Her chamber of commerce started helping its members with loan applications last week. “206 tribes and thousands of Indian businesses have access to our programs,” she says. “We’ve also gotten a lot of grants from major corporations. We’re a bunch of business owners. We have to advocate for ourselves!”

“We have everything from mom and pops all the way up to tourism,” she says of the chambers’ membership.

Stanhoff says the chamber has held webinars to help members fill out applications. She cautions small business owners to know what to apply for and when. To help them understand those differences the chamber is opening its webinars to all Native businesses. The next Tribal Business Empowerment Webinar is set for Tuesday at 11 a.m. PST. It’s being held in partnership with Wells Fargo, Google and the National Congress of American Indians.

She’s especially interested in the loan forgiveness programs.

“I would encourage every tribe and small business to get your loan documents together,” she advises. She points to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan information. Small business owners in all U.S. states and territories can apply for low-interest loans due to COVID-19.

And she says, if your company has a product, service or materials that can help with COVID-19 support you can register your business at this link. This also applies to helping HHS and the CDC.

Resources:

  • Register your business for the HHS OSDBU's Small Business Customer Experience (SBCX) on their website. You can also submit proposals for medical products for novel coronavirus here.
  • Small businesses can also contact the SBA directly by calling or emailing its customer service center: 1-800-659-2955 or email disastercustomerservice@sba.gov.

Last week the Navajo Times highlighted Rhino Health LLC. The company makes nitrile gloves which are used in the medical field. They are busy filling orders nationwide during this pandemic. Rhino Health is located on the Navajo Nation in Church Rock, NM.

Such companies can register for disaster response contracts via www.sam.gov. Stanhoff reminds Indian Country business owners that contracting officers are required to search the registry for contractors that can provide disaster or emergency relief services.

She’s also mindful of the fact that monies being offered now most likely won’t be seen until mid April.

Her group is working with the state of California and other regional government entities to advocate for more resources. She’s also banded together with other ethnic business groups to send a strong joint message. “Let’s figure out a realistic pragmatic plan,” she urges. “The expenses keep coming even though the world has stopped.” She lists more of her chambers advocacy points:

  • Access to contracts and forecasting of contracting opportunities for Indian Country’s enterprises – everyone is going to need jobs/projects and ways to spur their businesses back
  • Advocating and assisting the terms of negotiating contracts and purchase orders that have been stopped/canceled/postponed -what are the rights of the businesses and how we can get these projects “booked” after the pandemic is over
  • Working with all levels of government agencies for stimulus support

“We know in Indian Country we are always the last ones to be thought of,” she says. So she’s encouraging all small businesses to sign up for all the benefits being offered.

“If Indian Country wants to help ourselves, we need to invest in our businesses,” Stanhoff says. “There are thousands of Indian owned businesses that can help provide products and services, and construction.”

“We need to take care of our own people. Buy Native! Buy Indian. Contract with us!

“We needed immediate action and it took a while for that to come to pass,” says James Parker, Chippewa Cree, executive director of the Oregon Native American Chamber.

“As we find ourselves facing (this) crisis for the Native enterprise ecosystem, we have moved full into needs assessment, advocacy at the municipal and state level, and prioritizing business services that are congruent with disaster planning and recovery, moving digital, and access to emerging capital.”

Parker’s chamber represents Oregon and southwest Washington and serves 250 businesses. “We have a handful of brick and mortar store fronts,” he says as well as construction design and architect firms.

“Half our citizens do not live on reservations,” and he says businesses are located both in cities and on reservations. “We have an obligation to take care of all our citizens, no matter where they live.”

His organization put out a notice of what the chamber is doing to help small businesses during this pandemic.

For the past two years the chamber has also cultivated relationships with other chambers representing people of color owned businesses. “We were just looking at how to better advocate now in this emergency we can have a unified voice in the face of a crisis.”

Parker says the groups are asking state governments for changes in the way businesses and subcontractors are paid.

“We’re calling on state government on how we can deliver services and still contract with these small businesses and shrink that payday down to 30 business days.” Currently payments take 90 days and he says sub contractors get paid after the main contractor gets paid.

“We are working hard to prevent the decimation of Native entrepreneurship across the region,” says Parker. “We really need government relief rooted in economic justice.”

It all sounds good for some small businesses. Yet one Phoenix based Native owned restaurant is facing reality. It typically caters to the large lunchtime crowd. Now the corporate building it is located in is closed and the catering side has dried up. Take out orders aren’t enough so the family is looking at bankruptcy options. At the very least, they want to keep their home for their family. 

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Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is the Executive Producer for Indian Country Today based in Phoenix. Follow her on Twitter: @witespider.

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