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7 St. Louis small-business owners explain, in their own words, what they’re doing to survive the pandemic

They share their story in their own words, from the time the outbreak became a threat to how they've adapted their staffs, their businesses and themselves
Credit: SLBJ

It was all going so well. 

Qui Tran's Brentwood Vietnamese restaurant Mai Lee was named a semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard Award in February. The Vines brothers of Cherokee Street t-shirt shop STL Style were expecting their best year ever. Tony White, a Chesterfield farmer who supplies tomatoes to area restaurants, was expecting at least $100,000 in sales this month. 

Then the coronavirus upended their worlds. It's upended everybody's world, eliciting new fears and emotions that just a few weeks ago seemed unthinkable.

Janna Westbrook, for example, finds it difficult to rationalize her good fortune. The former nurse's startup, Provider Pool, a developer of on-demand health care staffing software, is likely to surge as a result of the pandemic. Embracing success in crisis is a challenge unto its own.

The leaders of these small businesses are among a group of six who have agreed to share their stories with the St. Louis Business Journal over the coming weeks as they navigate the disrupting force that COVID-19 has become.

In this first installment, they share their story in their own words, from the time the outbreak became a threat to how they've adapted their staffs, their businesses and themselves to what will, for many, be a long and hard road ahead. 

This is a huge commitment for these individuals, who could just as easily — and understandably — retreat. So thank you to them for their courage and leadership. Our hope is that their journeys through this crisis provide inspiration and insight.

It's clear now that 2020 won't turn out as well as it started for many of you. But hopefully there's comfort in knowing that you're not navigating this coronavirus crisis alone. 

— Erik Siemers, editor, St. Louis Business Journal

My mother, my father and I immigrated here in 1980. We were refugees. Mai Lee started in 1985. We were the first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis. I started wiping tables, washing dishes when I was 8 years old.

I decided to grow the business in 2010 and make it bigger, so we moved the restaurant from University City to Brentwood. And then three years ago, I started Nudo.

In January, when all this stuff started happening around the world, I knew. I was like, "we’re screwed." When people are falling sick and dying like that in one area, it’s going to spread. I mean, there’s just nothing you can do.

I feel for the restaurants that can't open, because they have no source of income whatsoever. Fortunately for us, we still have the carryout business. But here's the kicker: If carryout’s 20% of my business, I'm still 80% down. And so, it’s one of those things where if I'm just holding on, then God knows what other people are going through.

We’re just crawling right now. We're not even walking. That's how serious this is. It’s a sad and very difficult time right now for everyone, and we're just trying to figure out how to make do.

I’ve had to furlough my front-of-the-house staff at Mai Lee. At Nudo, we haven't laid off anyone. We’ve talked with the team and said, "Hey, listen, we need to come together, and I don't want to furlough anyone, so if we could all take less hours we can fit everyone in."

I've come up with some numbers that I need to make per day to pay the staff. And that's really all we're doing. There's no money for me to pay bills or rent. We can't even pay our sales tax. Right now, a lot of people are filling out for these loans, but the last thing I need is to be in more debt. I'm in debt up to my ears.

We’re trying to figure it out day by day. I'm trying to pick up whatever catering we can pick up with companies that are able to do it. And that's helping out a little bit. Wash U has been great. They've given us business. Schnucks right now is giving us business. I didn't sleep till four o'clock yesterday, and I was at the restaurant at 7:30 a.m. this morning cooking for the Wash U order. We're just doing whatever we can to stay afloat right now.

There's been a big outpouring of support from the community. I had a gentleman that I don't even know, he called up one day and was like, "Hey, I want to buy 20 sandwiches, and give ‘em out to whoever you want." And I told him, "I tell you what, because of your good gesture, I’m going to match it." So we ended up matching his 20 sandwiches, and we made 40 sandwiches, and we just gave them out to whoever came in that day, and people were very appreciative. 

There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of heartaches in our industry right now. But I don't look at it as if I’m a special case, because everyone is feeling the same way. So I try to put that in perspective and just kind of push forward. In this business, we don't know what tomorrow brings, and I think that holds more true now than any other time.

— As told to Lea Konczal

I have a friend from Northern Italy who worked for Pfizer and stuff like that. We were watching the Super Bowl and this is when the virus started taking off in China. I asked her, what’s going on? She said, “This is going to be really bad. Science doesn’t lie. You need to be prepared to protect yourself.” When you hear people say stuff like that, how do you interpret that? 

I looked at my business and thought what risk do I have out there? I had the Lori Strawbridge CPA firm conduct an audit and started to get caught up on some invoices and was able to collect $57,000 in outstanding money. That’s one of the things that has me able to sleep at night because we kind of closed the gap on that. We still have an aging report (unpaid customer invoices) and it’s probably going to be a little fight trying to get that money from people until they start to see the stimulus money. 

My business is way off. You can almost say it’s non-existent with what my monthly expenses are compared to what you bring in in revenue. It was not uncommon for Annie Gunn’s (restaurant in Chesterfield) to buy 300 pounds of tomatoes a week from me. And now that number is zero. With an average cost of $3.25 a pound, that was a very good customer. Then poof, disappeared. We found out that eight of their employees tested positive for the coronavirus, so they don’t even have the opportunity to even try to do takeout. Then you have businesses like Twisted Tree Steakhouse, they sell a fantastic hamburger. But they’re doing 16 pounds a week of tomatoes with takeout compared to 200 pounds before. 

Click here for the full story.

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