Next Doors: Local Businesses Show Resiliency — But Have a Long Road Ahead

I  worry about things, and there’s a lot to worry about right now. So recently, it occurred to me to worry about small businesses. As the owners of a small business ourselves, the missus and I try to do everything we can to shop local, eat local and do all of those good things.

When the pandemic hit, it had a massive effect on small businesses, particularly in the retail or hospitality space. Fortunately, private and public resources were made available to help some businesses make it through. But it occurred to me, a lot of those funds have dried up — and we’re nowhere near the end of all this.

So what happens now for our small business community?

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” Thomas Barr, executive director of Local First Arizona, told me.

“There’s not been another package of support from the federal government. The small businesses that have stuck around and fought through the past few months are evaluating the environment daily,” he said. “Will there be a second wave of federal funds? What resources will become available, and when? Will people feel safe shopping for the holidays? When will we return to a time when events happen again?”

You know how you spent the lockdown doing a sourdough starter or playing board games with the kids or whatever you did that you finally had time to get around doing? One of the ways the community responded was to embrace local businesses to help them make it through.

But just like with that sourdough starter or new workout plan, it seems like there’s been some fatigue setting in about making sure people shop local.

“We saw this incredible two- to three-month period where there was a huge push in dining local, and you saw it all over social media and on TV and radio,” said Josh Garcia, vice president of Miracle Mile Deli. “It was awesome to see this community come together — but I feel like that has dropped off just a little bit.”

Miracle Mile Deli is a Phoenix institution — it’s a three-generation family-owned business in its 71st year of operation. During the height of the spike of COVID-19 cases in the summer, it did something it had never done before.

It closed.

“For the first time in our 71-year history, we shut down everything, not because of COVID infecting the restaurant, but because none of us felt comfortable being at work,” Garcia said. Fortunately, they were able to modify their operations, continue to focus on safety, and reopened the restaurant after a couple of weeks.

“I’ve related this to riding a surfboard,” Garcia said. “When you’re riding a wave, that surfboard has to be constantly moving, or you’re going to wipe out. That’s how this has been for us.”

Barr said that it’s the uncertainty that has been so challenging for many small business owners as they’ve worked to navigate the pandemic.

“All of these things are out of their hands — they’re in the virus’s control,” Barr said. “A lot of people are asking, ‘Do I stick with my business and see it through?’ If so, they need resources for debt restructuring and pivoting their business model. Or they say, ‘Do I get out now?’ which is a real reality.”

Local First Arizona wasn’t built with a pandemic in mind. Still, they did find themselves uniquely equipped to jump in and help local businesses. They started by creating the Small Business Relief Fund, which has distributed more than $13 million in the community. They also took a leadership role in connecting businesses with expertise and resources that helped tap into the Payroll Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which have helped many companies stay afloat.

But the most critical need of small businesses in our community right now is a simple one — customers.

“I ask people to think about when they used to walk into their favorite coffee shop and restaurant,” Barr said. “They’d see plaques of T-ball teams or Scouts or clubs that this small business sponsored. That’s because small businesses have always stepped up and supported our community. Now is the time we have to step up for them. If we don’t, they’re not going to be there in the long-term.”

Barr pointed out that there’s some good news out there. Some service industries have done particularly well during the pandemic. And as Arizona’s weather improves into the fall, winter and spring, businesses will be able to expand their footprints outdoors. But there’s still a long way to go, and no end in sight.

“You’ll hear different things, depending on the source right now,” Barr said. “Some sources report the economy is doing great and booming back. Others might be more doom and gloom and say things are bad and will take years to come back. I think we’re in between.

“We have a community of entrepreneurs whose job is to adapt, and I’ve seen more success stories of businesses rising to the occasion, pivoting, working hard and maintaining and sustaining themselves — more than businesses that are not doing that. Unfortunately, we are losing some businesses, and there is a path to recovery that is going to take some time.”

Garcia said that you’re not going to hear complaints from many small business owners because of the pride they have in what they do — but the hurt is real, as is the need for support.

“Long-term, there are so many questions about the future, and I think the only way we can feel good about what the future holds is with the community’s support,” he said. “We’re nothing without our customers. The big chains are going to survive — they have plenty of money and investors. People need to support the local businesses that they want to survive. Without that support, these businesses might not stick around another six months or a year.”

About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and a partner at ON Advertising in Phoenix.
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