A veteran restaurant owner in Minneapolis is paying himself less than minimum wage.
A successful retailer just closed her store in Rochester and is trying to figure out how to keep her remaining pottery shops open in Eagan and Woodbury. A travel agency owner in Excelsior still can’t afford to rehire half of her furloughed workers.
These are desperate times for small-business owners. Most have already run through the money they received from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which forced many owners to rehire workers they didn’t need when their businesses were either shuttered or operating at a fraction of capacity.
Now, with a slow summer looming, some entrepreneurs say their businesses may not survive until 2021 if they don’t get more help soon. Already, dozens of restaurants in the metro area have announced they will never reopen, and financial experts are predicting a tidal wave of business bankruptcies.
“If the federal government doesn’t act, the current wave of closures is sadly going to be the tip of the iceberg,” said Deepak Nath, co-owner of two Pourhouse nightclubs in Minneapolis. “How many jobs are going to be lost? How many landlords are going to have empty spaces? How many mortgages are going to fail from those empty spaces?”
Such pleas have reached Congress. Democrats in the House and Senate recently introduced legislation that would allow small-business owners to obtain a second forgivable PPP loan if they can show their revenue declined at least 50% since COVID-19 swamped the economy. So far, however, no Republicans have signed on as cosponsors, and the fate of the proposal is uncertain.
Rep. Angie Craig, a Minnesota member of Congress who is the chief sponsor of the bill in the House, said she’s optimistic that Republicans will see the bill as the best way to use more than $100 billion that is expected to be left over when the government stops taking first-time PPP applications on Wednesday.
“I’d love to see this passed in the next month,” said Craig, a member of the House Small Business Committee.
“If my Republican colleagues have been hearing the stories I’ve been hearing, particularly from hard-hit restaurant and retail owners, then they will see this as an opportunity to meet the needs of their constituents.”
When they first received their PPP money, most business owners had just eight weeks to spend it in order to qualify for loan forgiveness. The rules weren’t changed until earlier this month, when Congress agreed to extend that period to 24 weeks. By then, however, most owners had already brought back their workers, even if there was little or no work to do.
At Pique Travel in Excelsior, which received close to $100,000 in PPP money in April, Linda Bendt’s 10 full-time employees were put to work on her “evergreen” project list, which included training and writing up travelogues for her online website. Bendt also borrowed $150,000 through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program.
But the aid hasn’t been enough to stop the bleeding. Bendt usually books 800 to 1,000 custom-designed trips each year, but her business is down 60% this year, and she has been unable to rehire any of her eight part-time workers. She said she needs another PPP loan so her business survives long enough to benefit from the pent-up demand for travel that will eventually arrive. It would also mean she wouldn’t have to lay off any of her workers again.
“Time is my enemy right now,” Bendt said.
With the $72,000 Hector Ruiz received through the PPP, he was able to reopen three of his four Latin-themed restaurants in Minneapolis, including his flagship Cafe Ena on Grand Avenue South. He was also able to rehire 40 employees, or about 90% of his staff.
But the money is gone, sales are off more than half and Ruiz is working 80-hour weeks. His finances are so bad that Ruiz can’t afford to pay himself more than $700 a week, or $8.75 an hour, making him the lowest paid employee on his staff.
“Ninety days from now, maybe I’ll have to shut down a few of my restaurants, I don’t know,” said Ruiz, who would welcome the chance to receive another PPP loan. “I’m giving myself until next year to make some money.”
With Gov. Tim Walz forcing restaurants to operate at no more than 50% of capacity, among other COVID-related requirements to prevent the spread of the disease, Nath said it doesn’t make economic sense to reopen his two Pourhouse locations. He tried briefly with his Uptown Minneapolis club, but business was off 80%, and he closed it after two weeks. Nath said he spent all of his PPP money on payroll without seeing any benefit.
“Our future is uncertain,” said Nath, who employs about 100 people at his four facilities, including the Lumber Exchange Event Center.
If the federal government allows small-business owners to obtain a second forgivable loan, Nath said he should be allowed to spend the money through the end of 2021, not Dec. 31 as proposed. He said another PPP loan would allow him to reopen his nightclubs.
“If someone could show me a model that says we are done with all of this in 24 weeks, then great, 24 weeks is a great timeline,” Nath said. “But the experts are saying this pandemic is going to last another 12 to 24 months.”
Mark Turner is worried about how the government is going to determine eligibility for another PPP loan if it reopens the program.
Right now, Turner’s crews at 3 Rivers Enterprise are busy cleaning up a riot-damaged Target store in Minneapolis and working on several apartment complexes. He has 24 employees in the field, compared to 27 at this time last year.
But after a slow start, Turner said his Native American-owned business will probably do no more than $1.3 million in revenue this year, down from $3 million in 2019. The current proposal says businesses must have suffered a 50% loss in revenue “compared to a quarter in the previous year or another relevant period.”
“There are a lot of buildings that won’t be built this year in Minnesota,” said Turner, who credits the PPP with saving his business from collapse. “The owners are waiting to see what happens.”
Julie Schroeder, who received $57,000 through the PPP in April, reopened all three of her Color Me Mine locations in May.
But she was unable to make it work in Rochester, so she closed that pottery store two weeks ago, putting 10 of her workers back on unemployment. She’s worried that she may have to close another store later this year. Bankruptcy is another option.
Schroeder hopes the government will let business owners decide how to use the money if they extend the PPP instead of requiring them to spend at least 60% on payroll. Schroeder’s biggest problem is her rent. She’s paying $5,500 monthly to lease her Woodbury location, but sales last month were just $2,000. Overall, sales at her two remaining pottery shops are down 73%.
She said forcing her to maintain staffing levels at pre-COVID levels, as the PPP now requires for debt forgiveness, is unworkable.
“If the idea is to help small businesses and not just shift the burden for managing unemployment claims, then let business owners figure out what they need to do to survive,” said Schroeder, who has dipped heavily into her savings to cover $122,719 in virus-related losses. “We should be required to document how we use the money, but they shouldn’t be telling us how to use it.”