If you haven't been out to eat yet, and you can, I suggest you do so right now. Because the only variable that experts can't predict is when customers will be patronizing food and drink businesses again, but it needs to happen for any of SLO County's fantastic programs to work.
Judy Mahan—who has a dual role as the director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the incubator director for Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the HotHouse—has been helping local businesses get back on their feet. The SBDC CIE is part of a newly developed emergency task force that helps businesses apply for disaster loans.
- Photo Courtesy Of Luna Red/facebook
- LUNA RAD The new Marketplace at Luna Red in SLO provides picnic food, libations, farmers' market fresh produce, and a butcher fridge.
Mahan said that while we've been in quarantine, her staff secured disaster loan funding for about 500 businesses.
The nonprofit has concentrated on three different markets that have been the hardest hit: brick-and-mortar retail (especially those without an e-commerce presence), restaurants, and health and wellness, which include gyms and yoga studios. Tech and innovation is their biggest focus in helping these businesses succeed.
"Last year we had banner year," Mahan said about 2019. "We worked with 350 companies. We helped raise, give or take, $18 [million] to $20 million. We were super stoked. Most of the funding came from angel or venture funders."
This year was a little different.
"When COVID hit, in that 12-week period, we worked with 450-plus companies, so we exceeded the number of companies we worked with in 12 weeks as compared to a whole year's worth."
The good news, she said, is that a lot of disaster loan capital has come into SLO County.
Mahan said they've been working with the restaurant business on everything from developing to-go menus to just being there to talk. The one-to-one business coaching that the nonprofit offers has been much of the latter, she said. Even business owners and CEOs who are used to taking on the responsibility themselves need a sounding board for these strange times, she said—a sort of business therapy, so to speak.
"Business owners are hustlers," Mahan said. "They're always going to figure it out. They work so hard. To be an entrepreneur you need that mindset. But you know what? Sometimes it feels really good to get support. Mentally, emotionally, sometimes we're here just to listen."
Now Mahan's staff is helping the local restaurant business navigate the new and changing financial landscape and streamline their processes.
"The summer season is starting," she said. "Tourism is coming back, but there is limited use of space within the restaurants, etc., so what we decided to focus on is how to help these businesses reinvent the business model."
She mentioned some great examples of innovation, such as the marketplaces that have popped up in lieu of dining in.
"They have become our Blue Aprons, if you will, where consumers can walk in, get a meal kit ready-to-go prep dinner, or just to-go meal," Mahan said. "There's been a lot of creativity that is starting to bubble up ... but what we want to see is even more innovation at that level."
To make it easier on clients, SBDC CIE sends regular email blasts and webinars for business coaching. The webinars are open to anyone who needs help and are available on both the SLO city and Chamber of Commerce websites.
- Photo By Beth Giuffre
- IMMUNE SYSTEM SHOTS Due to some guidance from SLOW Money, local food companies like BlissRiver Organics could increase its supply of elderberry syrup and keep SLO County residents healthy.
Currently Mahan and Program Manager Liz Fisher are preparing for a webinar about relaunching your business, with guest speakers and clarification on reopening guidelines by SLO County Public Health Director Dr. Penny Borenstein. To help those who need a nudge into thinking outside the box, Fisher is organizing a conversation with a renowned futurist economist for ideas about a brighter future after the pandemic.
Fisher said restaurants are used to the hustle and happen to be quite efficient as a group. Of all the markets the nonprofit works with, she said the restaurant industry has an attitude for action.
"A lot of the restaurants were definitely open-minded to switching to whatever they could to stay afloat," Fisher said. "They were our most proactive."
Among the challenges the food and beverage business is facing, Mahan said, is getting the workforce to come back to work. In a year, she said, they will have a better sense of how the challenges and changes will play out.
"It's not a crisis situation anymore, but it's definitely an unknown," she said. "Right now, with these disaster loan programs, a large amount of these loans will be forgiven or there are definitely deferral terms that are beneficial to the business owners."
It may be too soon to know how many businesses will make it and how many we will lose after the lockdown.
- Photo By Beth Giuffre
- SCHOOL LUNCHES STILL INNOVATING Erin Primer, director of food services for San Luis Coastal Unified School District, found a way to feed more students during the COVID-19 shelter-at-home. Instead of students picking up just one meal at a time, she had her team prepare a week's worth of food for one pick-ups.
SLOW Money SLO founder and Executive Director Jeff Wade is one of the two dozen or so consultants working with SBDC CIE. He explained how he's been helping farms and the food and drink businesses find nontraditional ways to stay afloat. Wade said he'd like to think people are going out and patronizing more restaurants and buying more food from food purveyors and farmers, but that's just not the case.
"In fact, if you took a poll, I'm sure there'd be a lot of pessimism about what's happening," he said. "I do know that people have been very creative. They've put a lot of energy in doing things in a unique way, that is in the restrictions, especially a month ago, when everybody was doing to-go food at restaurants."
To keep working toward a brighter future, the SLO County chapter of SCORE (a national nonprofit focused on entrepreneurship) has also been offering free mentoring for COVID-19 business assistance, Small Business Association loans, and the CARES Act, he said.
Here's just a little taste of the good news in the works:
After reaching a fundraising goal through SLOW Money, Bang The Drum Brewery in SLO is finishing up construction on a new location with an opening date set for early August.
Novo in SLO managed the lockdown with both a new marketplace counter and a family-style takeout menu with curbside pickup (two words for you: ahi nachos).
Luna Red in SLO also adapted by creating a marketplace equipped with butchery items.
The Buttercup Bakery & Cafe in Morro Bay took the SBA loan and remodeled its outdoor space.
Meanwhile, Erin Primer, director of food services at San Luis Coastal Unified School District, expanded her already impressive farm-to-school food operation by morphing the program into a complete week's worth of food for students, which makes sense, being that transportation can be an issue.
With some cash flow assistance from SLOW Money, BlissRiver Organics purchased a large quantity of elderberries to keep up with the increasing demand for immune-boosting elderberry syrup in the time of coronavirus.
Talk about coming full circle: I had just taken a shot of the elderberry syrup—which I was excited to see at Gather, Atascadero's new health food store—when Wade told me about AnnaLillian's success in growing her SLO-based homemade elderberry syrup business. That small loan AnnaLillian received had made its way into my fridge.
"In her case," Wade said, "It wasn't a comeback. She was getting a huge spike in need and desire for a product that can really be healthy and good for you. So that was a very positive story in all of the negativity." Δ
Flavor writer Beth Giuffre will take a shot of elderberry syrup with you anytime. Send positive vibes to firstname.lastname@example.org.