KASSON — "I miss the people," said Paula Ricke. "I enjoy meeting people, and I’d like to do that face to face."
Running a small business in a small town has been rough, said Ricke, who owns and operates EmpowerYou Wellness in Kasson.
Like all fitness centers, Ricke had to shut her doors in March during the first round of executive-order shutdowns from Gov. Tim Walz. Then she needed to do so again in November.
But if surviving through the shutdowns has taught her anything, it's that there are creative ways to keep a business open, and some of that creativity can be utilized when the economy moves past the pandemic and COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past.
Everything from Zoom classes to training and coaching sessions via telephone have become a mainstay.
"I’m the main staff person," she said, adding that independent contractors teach classes, and while some are teaching via Zoom, others are just not teaching — and not making money outside their other full-time or part-time jobs — while the pandemic progresses.
Like many small businesses, Ricke took advantage of CARES Act funding, but she's also had to rethink how she delivers her services to clients and how she spends the limited capital she's got.
Like others in the community, Ricke said the support of community has made the difference.
A little help from friends
Crystal Whitmarsh said while the pandemic has been a mixed bag of pluses and minuses for Trail Creek Coffee Roasters, the business she runs with her husband, Jim, overall, the positive effects have outweighed the negative ones.
Trail Creek Coffee Roasters roasts coffee beans and sells them either wholesale to businesses or retail to consumers.
"The greatest impact we felt in March is the restaurants we wholesale to were shut down," said Crystal Whitmarsh. "We lost a good portion of our wholesale business at that time. On the flip side, people were drinking a lot more coffee at home, because they were working at home."
Whitmarsh said because their business grew in 2020, they didn't feel they should ask for CARES Act money.
A lot of that growth came from the support of consumers in the community and working with other businesses, she said. During the summer, Trail Creek's coffee cart set up at the Rochester Farmers Market. That helped bring visibility to the business and bring consumers out to Kasson to buy roasted beans.
And while the company lost accounts with the closing of businesses such as Daniel's Restaurant and Misplaced Magnolia, an eatery on Main Street that closed its doors, other businesses helped them survive.
Whitmarsh said St. James Coffee in Rochester exclusively carries their product, and when Rochester rallied to save that business, it saved Trail Creek, as well. Furthermore, when Trail Creek is open with its coffee cart in its brick-and-mortar location two days a week, they occasionally feature baked goods from local businesses, like Roasted Bliss, a bakery and coffee shop in St. Charles, or Sweet House Bakery in Rochester.
Small town, big problems
Chamber of Commerce President Cathy Pletta said Kasson doesn't have that one big employer — think Rochester with Mayo Clinic or Dodge Center with McNeilus — business owners have needed to support one another. The biggest employers in town are likely the school district, A&A Electric or Mayo Clinic.
"I wonder even with this graduated reopening, if some of these businesses are not going to make it," said Pletta, who manages the Kasson Liquor Store. "It’s going to be tough. It’s going to take a long time for things to come back. And for people to trust coming back."
After opening her business 18 years ago, moving, expanding, and finally feeling like things were on track, Marlo Bungum said COVID-19 has made her business see rough times again. She owns Just Like Home School Age Childcare with her sister, Maggie Fitch.
Bungum said the child care center, which caters to children in kindergarten through sixth grade with before- and after-school programs, plus summer programs, saw huge declines in its clientele back in March.
The day care, which is licensed for 120 kids at a time, went from having usually 110 or so kids to hosting six at a time.
"We had so many parents that were working from home that our numbers just plummeted," she said. "We were operating at 10% of our capacity."
The business rebounded some by May and ran its summer program, but at a reduced capacity. While Kasson-Mantorville Public Schools has had in-person teaching for K-6 students all this year, Bungum said her business is still running at about 50% capacity.
"Parents can’t come in the building," she said, adding that rules are always being changed. "Every month, we revise how we’re operating again."
Payroll Protection Program funds and CARES Act money have helped, but without any new funding initiatives in the works, Bungum said she's concerned for the future of her business.
"If we can’t return to normal, and we don’t have additional funds coming in, we’re going to be in trouble in three to four months," she said.