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Operations

Indies face a brutal choice: Whether to swiftly pivot or shut down

During the unprecedented coronavirus crisis, independent operators struggle to make life-or-death decisions for their businesses.
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Photograph: Shutterstock

As soon as she realized the threat posed by the fast-moving coronavirus, pastry chef Sandra Schilling Holl, owner of Chicago artisan bakery Floriole, put an emergency plan in place.

In recent days, Holl and her team pivoted to curbside pickup after Illinois’ governor suspended dine-in service. And then, abruptly, she decided to scrap that game plan.

Like the hundreds of thousands of independent operators around the country right now, Holl faced a daunting—and heartbreaking—choice of whether to switch to delivery and takeout or completely shut down.

“It was working because we cut down on staff,” Holl said. “We were operating in this strange limbo land where staff hours were cut but they weren’t fully laid off, so they’re not quite eligible for benefits.”

Plus, she wondered, was staying open doing anyone any good?

“The stress and the fear was really something that was weighing on me, and the idea that as owners and operators, by staying open, we’re prolonging the problem,” she said. “What are we doing? This is crazy. We’re selling pastries. What’s the cost?

So Holl informed her 35 employees that Wednesday would be Floriole’s last day—for now. She gave her crew resources on filing for unemployment benefits. And she sold off as much of the shop’s fresh-baked goods as possible, along with bottles of wine, gallons of milk, butter, eggs and more. She added “take and bake” items to the menu to sustain customers for a bit during the crisis.

And then she shut the doors.

“[Restaurants are] a huge part of the economy,” Holl said. “It’s really tough to be an independent.”

Detroit-area gastropub Bobcat Bonnie’s, which has three units, also decided to close completely rather than shift to delivery and takeout.

“The math doesn’t work out,” owner Matthew Buskard said via text. “We will never be able to get enough business to cover the costs of product, utilities, rent, etc. … It’s also unfair to the staff person working it. If I cannot guarantee pay and hours for them to survive, then why am I holding onto them?”

Plus, there’s the emotional toll, he said.

“It’s also incredibly stressful,” he said. “You don’t know if this last-ditch effort is going to work, [or] for how long. It was easier to plan and expect to close than to try and continue into the unknown.”

Nevertheless, the decision to close was a difficult one.

“We will be opening back up ASAP once everything is safe and we get the all clear,” he wrote on Facebook earlier this week. “This isn’t an easy decision. In fact, for some reason, I keep getting so overwhelmed with emotion even knowing it’s temporary.”

In nearby Ferndale, Mich., Imperial, a restaurant-bar specializing in tacos and tequila, opted to close on Monday to prepare for the switch to a carryout-only operation.

The restaurant decided to offer its full menu, along with beer and wine, available via phone orders. The restaurant texts customers when orders are ready, and customers reply with their parking spot number.

On Thursday, it added two phone lines to keep up with demand.

“We can’t thank you enough, we are so humbled by your support,” Imperial posted on Facebook.

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