Indianapolis bar owner says feds have "failed small businesses across America"

Bar owner: Government “failed small businesses”

Denice Benefiel, a 50-year-old Indianapolis bar owner, is one of the millions of small business owners around the U.S. struggling to stay afloat during the coronavirus outbreak. Although she is grateful for getting a $2,300 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, she calls the sum a "drop in the bucket." Benefiel now fears she will be forced to shutter her business. She spoke with the CBS Evening News about the state of her business and her frustration in trying to secure financial assistance. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Benefiel first shared her story by texting Norah O'Donnell. We would like to hear from you, too: text (212) 217-1107.

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Denice Benefiel pictured inside "Zonie's Closet," her Indianapolis, Indiana, bar. Courtesy of Denice Benefiel

CBS Evening News: Tell us about Zonie's Closet and what you set out to achieve when you opened it. 

Denice Benefiel: I felt that we needed a small "Cheers" bar, if you will, in the gay community. And that's what we have done. We're like a small family here. Most people that are just starting out in the drag business, they start at Zonie's Closet. We give them that opportunity. We have a stage for them, an open mic night for them, so they can get started in this business. Most entertainers that live in this city, they have been right here in this bar. And it does feel like family when you're here. That's what we intended to do when we started out, and I just hope that we can continue to do that.

I've owned it for 12 years and put my heart and soul into it, and I'm basically watching it go down the tubes after all of my hard work. It has never paid me what I was paid in the real world, but it gave me the ability to work for myself and make my own decisions. It's all I have. I used everything that I did have to put into it.


CBS Evening News: What has your experience been like applying for a Payment Protection Program loan?

I first applied for the PPP loan through JPMorgan Chase. I was only really eligible for a couple thousand dollars, because I only have a few employees. That's still not going to keep my business afloat. The very first day the site was available was literally a few weeks after the loans were even announced. Once it was up, it continued to crash. We finally got the application through about three or four days before they said the money was already gone. And we obviously didn't make the cut off. You hear about all of these huge businesses and big corporations that got money, and a lot of small business owners, like myself, we didn't receive any money. I was told that I probably should go apply at a smaller bank for the second round.

CBS Evening News: Did you already have a second business account at a smaller bank?

I set up an account at a very small bank called [State Bank of] Lizton when I bought the building, and only when I called and explained the problems I was having with Chase did I learn it was a business account, not a personal account. I applied a second time through them. They've been a great help in this. I just spoke with my banker on Friday and was informed we will be receiving the PPP loan, probably sometime this week, for $2,300.

CBS Evening News: You would think that a larger financial institution is better situated or better resourced to help small business owners. But your experience doesn't demonstrate that at all. 

Yes, absolutely. It seems like the bigger banks help the accounts that had the most money with them already. I understand they're going to get some kind of preferential treatment, but this is supposed to be a small business loan. It was supposed to be for small businesses — not businesses that are getting millions and millions of dollars in returns every year.

CBS Evening News: Does receiving a loan or knowing that the loan is imminent change your expectations for keeping Zonie's Closet going?

It is absolutely not going to help me pass through. We're going to do everything we possibly can, but this is a drop in the bucket. That's all it is. We're so far in the hole now, we don't really know what to do.

CBS Evening News: What will the $2,300 enable you to do?

75% of that has to be used for payroll. I trust my employees and I want to keep them. So it will allow me to pay my employees for maybe a few weeks. The rest that's left over will allow me to pay one utility bill, possibly two.

CBS Evening News: What about other federal or state help — stimulus check, unemployment, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration?

I've been denied unemployment. I don't know if that's going to go through or not. I was denied by the state. And the federal program, PUA [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance], I haven't heard anything from them. I have still not received a stimulus check. Every single day that I check, it says "payment status not available." And, of course, there's nobody to call. I still have rent to pay, I still have utilities to pay, I have my home life I have to pay for. I've used most of my savings. We're going to be the last type of business to open back up. I'm going to probably lose my business and do something else.

CBS Evening News: Has this experience shaken your faith? Do you feel that the institutions that are supposed to help American citizens failed you?

I absolutely do feel that they failed me. They have failed small businesses across America. When you own a small business, people think that you have a lot of money, that you're rich or well off. I'm not rich by any means. That's what my business does — it just pays the bills. And as far as shaking my faith, it absolutely has, because we're the backbone of America, and I just — I don't know....[Benefiel chokes up]

CBS Evening News: If Zonie's Closet had to close, what would you do next?

I really don't know. I'm 50 years old — how do you start over? I would probably go back to school. I have a few classes to take to get my RN degree. I had been in health care before. At least I'd still have a job. I'd still be in contact with people and helping people.

CBS Evening News: How was business before the shutdown? 

Things did not taper off before the shutdown. We got shut down on March 16. We were open the weekend before and we were slammed, because people just weren't taking this seriously at all. I had been watching the virus in China since January, and I was like, "This is a bad deal." I had a meeting with my employees that day and planned to close before the governor announced it. 

CBS Evening News: Do you think customer demographics will change when you reopen?

I think our clientele would change after — our clientele is mostly 30 and above. and I think we would probably end up switching to a much younger clientele. They don't have the same fear of the virus. My older clientele, I don't think they're coming back. Being a drag bar, it's a very small community. We're one of only two bars that do drag consistently. I think that we will still get some business.

CBS Evening News: Will social distancing guidelines change the way you conduct business in a bar?

I think we're going to try to gear a lot of our business outside because we have a patio. We haven't quite figured out how we're going to separate people. We have a very small venue — our space is maybe 1,600 square feet. So if we were to talk about social distancing with the parameters they've put out there right now, that means I could have seven people in my business. I just don't know what we're going to do with such a small space.

— Video edited by Josh Carney