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New Normal: Small businesses stay afloat on stimulus grants

Small businesses line the sidewalk of Mitchell St. in Cadillac.
Riley Connell
Small businesses line the sidewalk of Mitchell St. in Cadillac.

Some businesses were able to adjust easily to the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic — some even profited from it — but many small businesses needed stimulus grants just to stay afloat.

When people think of small businesses, they might think of the boutique down the road, or a bakery that’s been in someone’s family for decades, but locally owned commerce can offer almost every need to a community, from food, to fitness, to child care.

In Cadillac, several small businesses received funding from state and federal grants, but the adjustments they each had to make to their business varied.

Ashley Osowski has owned and operated Cadillac Tuxedo for almost seven years. When pandemic shutdowns began, she said it was at the worst possible time.

Cadillac Tuxedo owner Ashley Osowski rehangs a tuxedo after a customer tried it on.
Riley Connell
Cadillac Tuxedo owner Ashley Osowski rehangs a tuxedo after a customer tried it on.

“Well people started cancelling all their weddings, so that was kind of terrifying, and it actually happened, you know, going into prom season," she said. "So when the school shut down, it was not great for me.”

Osowski received $16,000 in state grant funding. The money kept her business going, although she still found herself having to downsize.

“When I was downtown, I had wine tasting and tuxedos, so I was in a much bigger space with the bar and everything," she said. "And with all the bar and 50% capacity and whatnot, I just had to make a call, if I was going to keep risking it and paying, you know, top dollar for a bar that I couldn’t use, or kind of just cut that out and just do the tuxedos.”

Osowski's new space won't allow for wine tasting, but she's happy to be back and working with customers as prom season and weddings return.

On the other end of Mitchell Street, consignment boutique Your Sister’s Closet was also struggling with relocating to the internet.

At the start of the pandemic, owner Kaycie Ramsey received $5,000 from state grant funding and funds from the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP). That was all she received.

“I was very grateful for the grant that I got right from the get go. However, when I tried to apply for the second go around, of course, it was a lot more red tape, and it just didn't happen," she said. "And so, for the most part of keeping things going, is having to really start thinking outside the box.”

Ramsey did think outside of the box. She moved her sales to Facebook Live, labeling items with numbers and holding them for customers who claimed them in the comment section.

Thursday and Friday afternoons became "Trivia Thursday" and "Freaky Friday Frenzy." This change was a silver lining on Ramsey's pandemic experience.

Your Sister's Closet owner Kaycie Ramsey adjusts clothing on a mannequin.
Riley Connell
Your Sister's Closet owner Kaycie Ramsey adjusts clothing on a mannequin.

"I actually think that we're doing better than what we were doing right before the pandemic, for like sales and things like that," she said. "It's not that we were fortunate for the pandemic. I don't want people to think I mean that. I think what the pandemic has done is it made people look and realize, you know what, if we want to keep the businesses going, that are small businesses, we have to shop them."

For businesses like the Cadillac YMCA, frugality was key throughout the pandemic.

"So we got real conservative real quick on spending and projects, and whatnot, while still trying to maintain some sort of services,” Executive Director Mike Kelso said.

Most services weren't provided during shutdowns, but because the YMCA offers childcare services, they were able to keep the doors open and assist community members who still had to work.

“We said, hey, this is one thing that we can do, and it’s important. Literally, we went from 60 kids in childcare, early childhood, to three overnight," he said. "And so we said this is important for us to do. This is part of our mission. This is one thing we can do right now. And for the families in need is really important.”

Kelso said that without their $10,000 state-funded grant, federal paycheck protection loans and another grant from the state for childcare relief, they wouldn't have been able to make it happen.

Bars and restaurants were hit particularly hard with ongoing restrictions during the pandemic. The Blue Heron Cafe has been a fixture in Cadillac for more than 15 years, but owner Brian Williams said the business had a hard time adapting to the dining restrictions.

“We really began a new business model. We do breakfast, lunch, and bakery, and we stayed open for one week, takeout only, curbside, we were allowed at the beginning of the pandemic, from like, March 17th, for a week," he said. "That did not work at all, we had no customers.”

Instead, Blue Heron started offering dinners for pick-up, Monday through Friday. When a $20,000 was awarded, Williams said it was funneled right into expenses payroll and rent.

As customers return to indoor dining, he said the business is now a little bit smaller, but that isn't a problem.

The outside view of Blue Heron Cafe.
Riley Connell
The outside view of Blue Heron Cafe.

"We're really in a nice place right now. We kind of hit this equilibrium of yes, our business is smaller, but we've cut back on some of our expenses, labor in particular," he said. "So as an owner, I tend to be a little bit cautious, or efficient with money as far as what we put on menus, and so that's helped us too, so I kind of am enjoying where we're at right now."

About one third of businesses were lost across the state of Michigan, according to Cadillac Area Chamber of Commerce President Caitlyn Berard, but not a single one of her chamber members were lost.

“Cadillac was very fortunate compared to other communities in the state,” she said.

Berard said stimulus payments played a huge role in keeping businesses open, but it had a lot to do with community support as well.

“Cadillac’s very unique in its collaborative efforts and efforts to support one another," she said. "From all the local communities that I worked in before this one, that's a huge difference, and it shows itself for us to come out of COVID-19 as successful as we did.”

Looking ahead, Berard said small businesses could face problems with the hiring crisis, but for now, they're standing tall.