CU small businesses tackle COVID-19 challenges

By Shreya Goel, Staff Writer

The global economy suffers the biggest hit in decades due to the coronavirus pandemic, and its impact on small businesses in Champaign reflects this reality on a small scale. 

Leslie Till, co-owner of the ‘Oh, Honey Pie’ food truck, along with her husband Matt Doyle, said the greatest hit to their business has come from the cancellation of local events around Champaign. However, they also understand that is the outcome of community leaders’ efforts to keep citizens safe and healthy. 

“A huge part of our annual business revenue comes from University events, food truck rallies, local bars, restaurant events and festivals. Every cancellation email we receive breaks our hearts even when we know it’s for the best,” Till said. 

Till also mentioned the difficulties posed by the limits on groceries placed at stores like Sam’s, GFS and Aldi, especially for gathering major ingredients like meat, eggs and dairy.

“One morning we went to five different grocery stores to try to find ground beef, and had to take turns running inside to get the allowed limit! It was a hot mess, but in hindsight, it was pretty funny,” Till said.

The Champaign Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has been aware of the problems faced by small businesses due to COVID-19. The SBDC provides small businesses around Champaign help with business plans and access to financing, business education, and training opportunities, free of cost one-on-one confidential business advice and specialized services in technology and innovation. 

Don Elmore, director of the Champaign SBDC and business adviser, shed light on various common problems caused specifically by the coronavirus faced by small businesses, as well as the solutions provided by SBDC. He stated that many concerns revolve around paying bills with little or no source of income.

“Because of the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses, we currently spend a lot of time holding webinars covering financial assistance programs, individual counseling for businesses that are applying for or have received funding, employment issues, finding PPE, how and when to reopen, etcetera,” Elmore said.

Elmore indicated that businesses that have been unable to open or that failed to find ways to adapt may have suffered the most during the pandemic. 

“Personal care services like salons, barbershops, massage therapy and gyms have been especially hard-hit but now they can open with limited numbers of customers. Foodservice businesses have definitely suffered but some have adapted with curbside, delivery and a wider range of products,” Elmore said. 

While Till quit her regular job as a teacher recently, Doyle’s regular day job as a stagehand at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for six years came to a halt due to the rise of COVID-19. They also had big plans to hire employees for the food truck for the first time this year. Till admitted the loss of both her and her husband’s regular jobs has allowed them to focus all their time and energy on their business. 

“But it does place a huge responsibility on us to really make this pie thing work out. We’ve honestly never worked harder than we have the past three months, and it feels pretty good,” Till said. 

Some immediate changes they made in the face of the unprecedented situation included taking online orders and baking “take & bake” pies which allowed them to get creative with their recipes. 

“It’s encouraging to help or even just watch businesses that adapt quickly and effectively,” Elmore said.

Accounting for SBDC’s response to growing concerns about small businesses going under, Elmore stated that they are reaching out to existing clients and promoting services to other businesses in the area they serve. To make themselves more accessible, they are now conducting meetings with clients via Zoom or the phone, and are sharing all resources available at their disposal.

“We use our existing experience, but we also learn from other businesses about strategies for staying in business when the economy presents severe challenges,” Elmore said.

Elmore also said that within the next couple of weeks both Champaign and Urbana will be rolling out grant programs to aid small businesses, especially ones whose owners are women, people of color, or belong to other underrepresented sections of society. As the funds for these popular programs will be limited and the application period will be short, Elmore suggests those interested should remain well informed by regularly visiting city websites and following them on social media. 

Being a Champaign-based small business has been extremely advantageous to Till and Doyle during these unusual times. “The CU Public Health Department has done a wonderful job at keeping us all informed and up-to-date on any requirements or changes,” Till said.

The commissary kitchen where they bake their pies, Marble’s Catering, offered two months of free use to all members. Community leaders such as Bryan Heaton at the Urbana farmers market, have helped to navigate the situation. Other small-business owners have offered support as well.

“Our fellow small business owners have been a wonderful resource for us. This is a time to come together, be supportive of each other, and to create something that was better than what we had before coronavirus. If any town can do it, I know it is Champaign-Urbana,” Till said.

At this time, customers and the local community are vital for the survival of local businesses. “All of the online orders, shares, likes, etc., have enabled our business operation to continue throughout the pandemic,” Till said. 

Elmore wants the Champaign community to make a conscious effort to buy local products, especially during current circumstances.

“If you have the means, spend a little more at your local businesses, tip generously, and don’t complain about the rules. Service workers are having a tough time under challenging circumstances right now,” he said. 

He said small businesses typically do not have the cash reserves to weather tough times for very long and polls have shown that many do not expect to survive through 2020 unless things get much better very quickly. However, he remained optimistic.

“The local business owners with whom I have the closest relationships are incredibly smart and resilient so I am optimistic about the recovery of our local economy,” Elmore said. 

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