By Dan England | Photos by Ben Bradley

At the end of 2019, Vicky Bittner’s Taste Local restaurant finally turned a profit after two years, and she looked forward to 2020 the way a kid looks forward to a trip to Disneyland.

Bittner started a successful catering business in 2008, so she figured the jump to a sustainable, family-friendly cafe would be easy. She was wrong. Everything was different, from the way she interacted with customers and took care of a building and a staff to the way she had to relearn everything, even something as simple as how she served the food.

“It was way more than I thought it would be,” Bittner says. “I learned a TON. It made me resilient. It made me open to change.”

As you know, she needed those skills in 2020. It was not her year. It probably wasn’t your year, either.

And yet, those first couple of years as a new business owner were harder for her than the pandemic: She was on her own in 2017. In 2020, she got some federal aid, obtained a deferment on her taxes and found creative ways to adjust, such as boxed lunches. Most of all, she felt a sense of camaraderie and support. People bought gift cards and donated a portion back to her. They snapped up a load of pies she baked for the holidays. She could commiserate with other owners.

“You don’t feel alone,” Bittner says.

All those hard times have left Bittner with a cautious outlook for this year, and officials and other businesses from all three major cities in Northern Colorado share her feelings. They want to be more optimistic. There’s a vaccine out—more than one, actually—but as of late January, it’s been slow getting those shots into the arms of residents.

“The vaccine rollout hasn’t gone as promised,” says Justine Bruno, assistant to the city manager in Loveland. “The initial projections now are late summer for everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that got further delayed.”

President Joe Biden was putting together an ambitious plan to make up for the Trump administration’s lack of one. “What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” said Jeff Zients, the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator, a day after Biden was sworn in. Even so, that plan will take time to implement.

That’s why, as hard as it is to say it, officials think 2021 will look a lot like 2020, at least until fall. The good news is Northern Colorado’s economy was strong, so it wasn’t quite as bad as you think. But that also means cities lost millions in tax revenue and plan on losing millions more this year, at least compared to the boom times of 2019.

“We are bracing for a continuation of the pattern we’ve seen,” Bruno says.

Cities are trying to help as much as they can, and that extends to getting the word out that the vaccines are safe, effective and available. Those vaccines offer hope, but as of late January, that’s all it is.

“I don’t like to put all my eggs in one basket,” Bittner says. “I won’t feel like we are in the clear until we are in the clear. We’ve opened and closed twice now. You get a little gun-shy.”

Targeting the vulnerable

The coronavirus went after businesses the same way it went after people. It did the most damage in the most susceptible groups. Strong, large corporations such as Amazon and Walmart grabbed gobs of profits, and drive-thrus such as McDonalds ate up the few discretionary dollars we had to spend on a night out. That squeezed small, specialty businesses, entertainment venues such as concert halls and movie theaters and, as you know by now, restaurants such as Bittner’s, where take-out was a small, or even non-existent, part of their profits.

Fort Collins lost $4.4 million in sales tax, and a big portion of that came from restaurants and bars that recorded a 16 percent loss in revenue. Given that fast food restaurants are included in that figure, the local places did much worse.

That left cities’ economic teams, used to supporting and attracting industries with their plump jobs and tax dollars, focusing their energy on propping up small businesses. They needed that support throughout 2020’s shutdowns and re-openings, inconsistent information and uncertainty over what tomorrow would bring (let alone the next couple of months).

SeonAh Kendall became Fort Collins’ economic recovery manager, a job that seemed similar to her previous job working for the city as a watcher and curator of its economic health. The two jobs couldn’t have been more different.

“Our manufacturers were doing OK, and tech businesses were going gangbusters,” Kendall says. “I had to learn so much about how to support small businesses and restaurants. We did have some systems in place because we knew they were important, but it became all hands on deck.”

Much of that meant helping the businesses navigate their way through the confusing federal aid rules and getting them the federal money to keep them going. Fort Collins created a website to help them do this as well. They also helped businesses get certified for the Level Up program, which allowed them to operate with less restrictions than the state guidelines as long as they demonstrated they could exceed those state health guidelines to keep customers and staff safe. Fort Collins had to get its own approval from the state to run that program, which also meant a lot of work.

Many of the state guidelines applied to small businesses, without much help from the feds, and those were confusing at best, says Eric Nordhagen, owner of Nordy’s Bar-B-Que and Grill in Loveland.

“Not really getting direction or any help from people making the rules didn’t help,” Nordhagen says. “The Colorado Restaurant Association has been great with updates and advocacy, but I never once got an email (from the rulemakers). It feels strange for me to be grateful [to them] to allow me to operate my restaurant even at 50 percent when I pay all the fees.”

Loveland authorized $750,000 to its small business assistance program and found rent relief through the downtown development association for those businesses. Federal assistance helped as well. Loveland still had a good enough year to leave its reserve alone, despite millions in losses and $10 million cut from the budget, Bruno says.

“We are leaning toward using that in the coming years to help more,” Bruno says. “That could mean more time to pay utilities and leniency on sales tax and late fees. I imagine we will do whatever we can to support them.”

Kendall hopes to keep learning about small business’ needs and how to help them thrive again. One partnership with NoCo Nosh helped restaurants establish take-out and an online business, which even meant helping them take pictures of their food.

“There’s only so much money you can throw at them,” she says.

Even so, that money WAS important, says Lisa Paugh, the owner of Walrus Ice Cream in downtown Fort Collins. The Federal Paycheck Program helped cut their losses from $100,000 to $30,000 and kept her people working, which is what she wanted to do anyway.

“We could have made it without that,” Paugh says. “But I don’t know how. I think the perception was that it would end fast, and it hasn’t happened that way.”

The fact that it may not be untillate fall when things return to normal, given the slow distribution of vaccines, worries Greeley officials, including Jeannine Truswell, president of the United Way of Weld County.

“I’m worried about the small business owner in particular,” she says, although she also expressed concern for the Doubletree hotel built in downtown a couple of years ago that came about partly because of a public-private partnership. “The Chamber has done well, but we all know those businesses are hanging on by a thread, and yet they also employ a lot of people. There is a lot of good work going on, but there are a lot of hurting people.”

Different challenges

There are still days when Kendall comes home from work after speaking with restaurant owners for much of the day and talks to her husband, Ed, about the complexities and challenges the virus presents. They once owned two Japanese steakhouse restaurants, including one in Downtown Fort Collins. Ed retired in 2015.

“I remember back in March when this all started, I turned to my husband and said, ‘I’m so glad we aren’t in the restaurant business anymore,’” Kendall says.

The virus still presents challenges that either weren’t an issue or are now much worse than ever before, including broken supply chains, playing mask police and keeping customers out when there are too many in. It’s also difficult to communicate these rules to businesses that aren’t plugged in.

“We’ve had city staff go door-to-door, and we’ve started a newsletter,” Kendall says. “Not everyone is tied to email. There are many who haven’t had a relationship with the city or county.”

Those challenges remain even when limitations on capacity are relaxed, Nordhagen says. Nordy’s did well with its take-out business, as BBQ lends itself to that anyways, and family packs and platters are already part of the culture.

“But it was easier when it was just to-go,” he says. “Now, you have to service all your customers and keep your reputation good. We are trying to evolve, but we can do better.”

Paugh at times felt like a referee more than a business owner trying to keep the peace.

“I had customers fighting with each other over masks and which door they would go through,” Paugh says. “I turned into an adult babysitter. It was crazy.”

Travis Parry, who opened the Nerd Store in 2013 in downtown Greeley, still struggles with having enough supplies to keep his selection a reflection of the kind of quirk and geek you’d expect from his name.

“It changed the way we handle everything,” Parry says, “and I mean everything.”

Manufacturers had to shut down, too, not just businesses, and that affected the supplies of some of his best sellers. Puzzles, for instance, were a hot item, as those ensconced indoors looked for things to do. But he wasn’t able to offer a good selection of them until the end of January. That was just one of “185 different reasons” his supply chain was affected by the virus.

“Those plastic sleeves that cards and comic books go in, those use the same materials as PPP,” Parry says. “So those get dried up.”

Collectables and games were also hot, and that created an unforeseen and unusual demand that was hard to stay in front of, Parry says, and, ironically, created more competition for him: The “big boys,” such as big-box retail stores and Amazon, snatched up the geek stuff that Parry had cornered the market on.

“We have expanded some new stuff because we are getting what we can get,” he says, “and honestly, that’s kind of exciting in a way, too. But we are still having a hard time with the flow of products.”

As the virus continues to pickand choose who it troubles, some of the most vulnerable continue to be those nonprofits without sexy, COVID-19-related causes that rely on regular money donations, Truswell says.

“We have some areas flourishing and some not,” she says. “Thank God we have a well-managed Food Bank that’s responded incredibly well to this crisis, but I’m just as concerned about the mental health programs and others we have in our community who haven’t necessarily gotten the COVID dollars. Our giving is way down, and I’m really worried about those nonprofits.”

What recovery looks like

Nordhagen said his BBQ business was down $2 million, and yet, he spoke about the bright side.

“Has it been difficult? Yes. But probably in the grand scheme of things, we’ve been doing OK,” he says.

He opened a tiny grocery store with Nordy’s items and did well with more people wanting or needing to cook at home, and his BBQ is doing well with take-out. But he’s a little skeptical that business will start booming again now that the vaccine is out.

“All the uncertainty hasn’t been good,” he says. “It hasn’t been fun, that’s for sure.”

Most restaurant owners tend to side with Nordhagen: They don’t think sales will return to 2019 until 2022 at the earliest. More businesses survived than you might think, but they changed their operations and many times contracted, Kendall says. Gyms, personal services and, yes, restaurants, may change forever. Retail may put focus more online.

“When you reduce your sizes, you reduce your profitability,” Kendall says. “We don’t know how many [businesses] we’ve lost, but we’ve seen many of them come back differently. Our goal this year is to help them survive and eventually be able to thrive.”

There are concessions and programs to help them do that, such as the Five Star programs in Fort Collins and Greeley that allow businesses to operate at limited capacities even under tight restrictions, but they require the participation of everyone in order to make them work. Communities with the highest level of cases, for instance, won’t get that consideration regardless of how well the businesses exceed the standards.

“You have to keep your cases down,” Truswell says. “Maybe it’s time to bring back out all that stuff about masking up. Unless we get those numbers down, we can’t run [those programs].”

Cities expected the worst in April and cut millions from their budgets. Loveland cut $10 million, for instance. But it “only” lost $2.5 million, even with the unexpected wildfire season, the worst ever in Northern Colorado by any standard, cutting into tourism.

“We do expect performance to vary and change,” Bruno says. “But we are not approaching 2022 from the standpoint of a major loss.”

Businesses that offered fun gatherings as a part of its aesthetic may not offer them until well into 2021. Parry enjoyed hosting Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon card tournaments on most nights before the pandemic, and they may not be back until the vaccine becomes widely available. Even when he does offer them, the games will look different, possibly with more control over who plays them.

“My customers can decide whether to risk it and attend a game, but my employees can’t,” Parry says. “So, until they have a chance to get a vaccine, we won’t have games up and going again.”

It’s possible that the partnerships forged by the virus will make things better in the long run, Truswell says. Greeley and Evans are working together, and so are UCHealth, Banner and Sunrise. That probably wouldn’t have happened without the dire circumstances of the virus.

“I have never seen so many partnerships form as I have the last 10 months,” she says. “That won’t go away when COVID goes away.”

Paugh has a lot of hope that by the end of 2021 her Walrus Ice Cream will turn a profit again. She misses her lines and misses the gatherings that brought them, but she’s also seeing downtown Fort Collins starting to return.

“I’m starting to see my regulars again,” she says. “They are seniors, and they’re coming back. I’m also seeing a lot more kids I hadn’t seen before. People are down here again. That gives me hope.”

 

Dan England is a freelance writer who lives in Greeley. To comment on this article,emailletters@nocostyle.com.