By the time money from the Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program (PPP) hit Annette Peters’ business account last week, she had wound her way through three federal websites, made multiple phone calls to government offices and tapped the collective brain trust of her banker, her lawyer and her accountant.
Like millions of small-business owners across the country Peters needed help withstanding the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus and government-ordered bans on large gatherings cut business at her wine import company in half, she looked hard for ways to keep it alive.
While the U.S. Congress debated various proposals for its COVID-19 relief package, Peters studied them. When the bill passed the House and then the Senate, she knew the broad outlines of what it contained. Her persistence paid off. She received funds from PPP, whose national rollout has been marred by delays and misunderstanding by business owners and banks. The program already has run out of money, leaving millions of unfunded small businesses at risk of layoffs or closure.
Through April 13, 33,819 Minnesota businesses received roughly $7.6 billion in paycheck protection loans, federal records show. On April 14, thanks to Peters’ effort, Bourget Imports, the 17-person Eagan company she co-owns, joined the list. Her business will survive.
At least for the next eight weeks.
It was not easy. If the devil was in the details, she initially faced a mess.
Peters chose PPP because she will not have to pay back money used for payroll, utilities and rent.
“We can’t use it for inventory,” she said. “It is strictly to keep businesses open and people employed.”
Still, when Peters decided to apply, she found no procedure outlined. She scoured the websites of the Small Business Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor. She called government offices. She called her accountant, her lawyer and her banker. They knew little more than she did.
Peters looked at other government lending programs and Congress’ COVID-19 relief law. PPP, she decided, was the best way to keep her sales force whole.
“PPP looked faster, easier,” she said. “Quicker payout was promised, which we needed ASAP to keep our staff. I looked at EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster loan] and EIDL advance. The advance comes out of whatever loan you eventually get, and when I looked at the EIDL application, it looked like it was designed for hurricane disaster relief more than an economic situation. Although they updated and did a streamlined version, the document and information ‘ask’ was greater and more complicated. Additionally, word was that the SBA was backed up and it was likely it would be weeks to see any money. We simply could not wait. We needed swift action more than anything.”
Still, there was “a definite ramp up to know how to do this,” Peters added. She kept pushing because she wanted to save her company. She is 62 and has been in the wine business one way or another since she worked at Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale in Minneapolis at age 18.
Her bank, Fidelity Bank of Edina, called April 2 to say it had finally received information on the application process.
Peters filed her application the next day. She had to show evidence of her payroll for 2019.
She also showed her payroll for March 19, 2020, the last payday before pandemic restrictions applied. She had to rehire two furloughed employees and hire one new worker to reach the staffing level required to get PPP money.
A week later she signed promissory notes. Four days after that, on April 14, money showed up in her business account.
Now all she has to do is figure out how to keep everyone employed when her PPP money runs out.
“This bridges the gap for us,” Peters said. “But it is just a bridge.”
Her big concern remains keeping her staff working until the pandemic passes and the economy starts to revive.
To that end, Bourget has had to rethink its marketing strategies. Because of stay-at-home orders, the sales force can no longer make the rounds of liquor stores that sell the company’s imported brands of wine. And restaurants that once bought from Bourget are closed except for takeout orders.
So Peters and her social media director, Lauren Voigt, moved quickly to accommodate the new normal. As soon as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered restrictions on group gatherings, Peters and Voigt invited people to sign an online petition on Voigt’s Minnesota Uncorked blog. It called for alcohol sales to go along with restaurants’ food takeout orders.
Within a week, Peters delivered more than 6,000 signatures to the governor’s office. Last week, she delivered 12,000 more.
She was hardly alone. Restaurants and alcoholic beverage associations double-teamed the governor and the state Legislature. Still, the petition proved again Peters’ willingness to take initiative.
“We just said alcohol [in the petition]; we didn’t say which kind,” Peters said. “We made it general and easy to support. We wanted to see a revenue stream.”
The Legislature announced a deal last week to let restaurants sell a bottle or wine or up to a six-pack of beer with takeout meals.
Unable to stage live tastings of its imports, Bourget now posts online descriptions of the wines and where to buy them. Then the company measures responses to see which brands did best.
“We know the influencers for wine drinking are family and friends,” Peters said. “They will say, ‘I had this and it tasted good.’ When we post a wine online, we look and see how often it gets clicked on, opened and shared.”
Despite herculean efforts to sustain her small business, Peters knows risks remain. No one can say with authority when and how shelter-in-place orders will end and the restaurant and hospitality industries will recover.
“I’m not confident we will do that before July,” she said.
Her PPP funds run out in June.