CORONAVIRUS

Cedar Rapids businesses have propped each other up in the pandemic. Locals hope it lasts

'This is a critical moment for companies'

Baker Mark Williams checks the internal temperature of a loaf of honey whole wheat bread June 25 at the Great Harvest Br
Baker Mark Williams checks the internal temperature of a loaf of honey whole wheat bread June 25 at the Great Harvest Bread Com. 5070 Lindale Drive NE in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When her regular sales plummeted in the pandemic, Laurel Williams, owner of Great Harvest Bread Co., looked forward to a call every Saturday in March and April from McGrath Auto for a $300 to $400 catering order for employees.

Marion-based Farmers State Bank, too, asked Williams to cater boxed sandwich lunches for essential employees like firemen and health care workers as part of the bank’s Thankful Thursdays campaign. The bank also ordered for every employee working at the bank’s seven branches — which took the 17-employee sandwich shop and bakery two days to make and deliver.

“It was the single biggest catering order — I mean you have to figure it was multiple orders really — but it was certainly the biggest billable that we’ve ever done,” Williams said.

To Williams, it’s businesses such as Farmers State Bank and McGrath Auto that kept her own business afloat. In mid-March when sales were down nearly half from a pre-pandemic $9,000 a week, a $1,000 catering order from Farmers State Bank would “single-handedly catapult you into a salvaged week,” Williams said.

“It was two things, it was both the financial support, which was significant, but it was also a shot in the arm of having something to do,” she said.

For businesses around the Cedar Rapids area, focusing purchasing power locally — in addition to federal and state aid — helped keep doors open and workers busy during state-mandated closures. Doug Neumann, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance executive director, said he hopes such support continues as businesses reopen.

“This is a critical moment for companies that may very well fail if they can’t regenerate some of the business activity that they had pre-COVID,” Neumann said.

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To encourage support for local businesses, the alliance launched a baseball-themed Rally C.A.P. campaign in early June to encourage area residents to shop locally. C.A.P. stands for “champion and protect.”

After picking up five “rally cards” from participating businesses, consumers can pick up a rally hat.

As of June 19, a handful of hats had been picked up but Ellen Bardsley, interim communications manager for the alliance, anticipated an uptick with increased social media messaging.

Neumann said businesses, too, can look to other area businesses to fill a supply chain gap or service need, such as catering.

“We want you as a business leader to think about supporting local companies that have what you need in the supply chain,” he said.

Bob Walker, a lecturer in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business’ John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and chief financial officer of Iowa City winery and farmstead Walker Homestead, said the focus on local stems from a number of factors, including the risk of local staples closing.

“If I don’t get carryout from my favorite restaurant, that restaurant may not be there again,” Walker said.

A study in mid-May found that an estimated 100,000 small businesses nationwide had shuttered permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bardsley said the Economic Alliance didn’t have a list of Cedar Rapids area businesses that had closed in the past few months.

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Walker said the business-to-business help also is in line with a growing philosophy that the reputation of being a community partner is an increasingly important part of operations.

“I like to say in my business classes, ‘When you build a business, you’re building a community, and be mindful of where your money goes,’” Walker said.

Other non-food Corridor businesses also opted in to the business-to-business mind-set.

ImOn Communications, a Cedar Rapids-based cable, internet and phone service, suspended payments or worked on payment plans with 79 businesses that needed it, said the company’s Director of Business Markets Marc Abel.

The company has more than 2,000 business customers, the bulk of which are in the Cedar Rapids area, Abel said.

“Early on, we had examples of a bar or a restaurant where they get their internet and their phone and also cable TV services from us to entertain their customers,” ImOn Communication Vice President of Marketing Lisa Rhatigan said. “ ... They’re still going to do takeout orders, but they’re not going to have people in there. So they don’t want to continue to pay for cable while nobody’s using it. So we would just suspend that service for them if that’s what they needed.”

On the flip side, other entities have turned to the Cedar Rapids-based communication network as a local internet provider. Abel said the company has set up churches with added bandwidth for livestream worship services and worked with some school districts to set up Wi-Fi at some students’ homes.

For Williams, without the extra catering and the federal small business loan program — the Paycheck Protection Program — her bakery probably wouldn’t be open.

She said she “literally burst into tears” after seeing the dollars in her business’ account.

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“Early on we had a lot of people who — when the shutdown order came to restaurants — who said to us, you know, ‘Don’t you think it’s kind of irresponsible? Don’t you think you should actually be closed so that people are not encouraged to come out?’” Williams said. “Then all we said to them was, ‘If we close our doors for two weeks, we will never open again.’”

Comments: (319) 398-8370; sarah.watson@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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