Amid COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses try to find new ways to stay afloat

A dog sits on a couch in a bookstore.
Beckett, the dog of store manager Matt Keliher, sits in an empty Subtext Books bookstore in downtown St. Paul on Friday. Impacted by the recent orders to limit gatherings due to COVID-19, the bookstore is currently closed for browsing, but is offering free local delivery and curbside pickup.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Yia Vang has been cooking for as long as he can remember and it's how he's made a living the past four years — as the chef and owner of Union Hmong Kitchen in St. Paul. When Gov. Walz announced a temporary ban on all dine in services earlier this week, Vang knew he had to get creative to survive.

A man wearing a orange hat, red t-shirt and aprong.
Yia Vang is the co-founder of Union Hmong Kitchen.
Courtesy of Union Hmong Kitchen

"I'll have one of these like late night freak out moments, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have no other skills,’” he said. “I don't know what to do, I'm not a computer programmer, I'm not a coder."

So, he and his team came up with a new plan: Instead of folks dining in, they can pick up family meals to order.

"We've done a lot of catering, so we've just jokingly told ourselves it's like doing small caterings, instead people are picking up and we're not bringing it out to them," he said.

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The change hasn't saved Vang's restaurant from layoffs, but he said he's looking for ways to bring those workers back. Restaurants aren't the only businesses trying to change the way they do business.

Like Vang, Matt Keliher, manager and book seller at Subtext Books in St. Paul, also had to get creative. Not only is he offering curbside pickup, he's delivering books to customers personally.

"And we're making recommendations over the internet and using social media to connect with people, just trying to get folks books to read while they're staying at home," he said.

In the St. Paul bookstore, it's just him and his dog Beckett, packing books, answering calls and taking orders with an occasional visitor to pick up some books. Vang and Keliher represent two of the millions of people finding ways to still safely operate by any means necessary.

According to Minnesota's Small Business Association, there are over 500,000 small businesses in the state, and 1.3 million small business employees who now have to adjust.

Economist Bruce Corrie, associate vice president at Concordia University in St. Paul, said there will be a steep learning curve for a lot of businesses that have to change rapidly, especially for immigrant- and minority-owned businesses that have started to see gains.

"They'll have to be set up, some of them don't have a web presence — so how do you bring the visibility of them to the public and then how could they be mobilized to meet the orders that might come in through online?” he said. “It would require a different mix of work in a typical establishment."

Corrie said in a time of crisis, small businesses are more susceptible to predatory lenders as well.

“During this time, there’s a big credit crunch where bills have to be paid, but there’s a loss in income,” he said

Owners may look to loans to alleviate strains. Corrie and other leaders are proposing a small business borrower’s bill of rights to protect small businesses against such predatory lending. Along with finding new business models, Corrie also suggested companies offer gift cards as a way to provide current cash flow but limit contact. Customers can pay now and redeem them later.

Vang hopes to continue to find new ways to serve patronizers and recognizes his service is needed now more than ever.

"Food plays such a big role in bringing people together when it's hard right now for people to be together," he said.

Dishes of food on a wooden table.
Union Hmong Kitchen has launched online ordering for family-style takeout meals that can be picked at their trailer at Sociable Cider Werks.
Courtesy of Union Hmong Kitchen

And Keliher hopes books from his store can offer a much needed escape.

"People always should be reading and it's a great way to turn your mind off at the end of the day and escape into a story." he said.

Both said they'll continue looking for new ways to offer that comfort to customers.