Small businesses, big problems in a time of pandemic
Jenna Cao is trying to breathe life back into her 13-year-old Atlanta-area business, Chateau de Nails.
Georgia was one of the first states to reopen in late April. These days it means limiting the number of people in her salon, while coaxing the fearful – those still reluctant to venture out – to come back. Cleaning, sanitizing…for their sake, certainly, but also to stifle Cao's own worries about bringing something home that might infect this single mom's daughters, aged three and six.
Cao said, "I'm gonna be very honest. I am still very scared. Every day when I work I come home thinking, 'Did I do the right thing today?' And I get scared to kiss my kids wondering if I picked up anything today."
David Wood runs a dairy farm outside Amsterdam, New York. He's 78, and that makes him particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. He doesn't like it, but he needs to stay away; he can only visit his farm once a week.
A milk buyer called while "Sunday Morning" was there. There have been a lot of cancelled orders lately. "We'll figure it out. It's always something," Wood said.
Thirty workers care for what is now a herd of 3,600 head of livestock, all oblivious to the coronavirus. The cows do not care that 40% of the milk they produce normally goes to restaurants that are currently closed or heavily scaled back. Nor do they care that one of the farm's tractors broke down that day.
"So, we live with it," Wood said. "We've got extra tractors. I always keep three or four extra just to accommodate something like that."
Special contributor Ted Koppel asked, "I have no idea what tractors cost, or what it costs to fix a tractor."
"I sent one of our tractors to be fixed. And that had a price tag of $44,000," Wood said. "I wasn't ready for that; I thought it might ben $20,000."
Rodney Morine is an independent trucker. He comes from a long line of truckers. His father drove a truck, as did his father's father and several of his uncles. Morine does almost all of his own maintenance. He told Koppel, "If I have to change the entire head on the engine, I'll do that, head gaskets. Pretty much everything. Ninety-nine percent of what needs to be done on my truck, I do it myself."
Home is Opelousas, Louisiana. Business is picking up a little, but Morine still spends more time at home than is good for business: "Another load cancelled. Personally I think they found another carrier to do it cheaper than I would."
He hauls everything from soap to oil refinery equipment. But he hasn't been landing contracts for the essential goods that are helping some truckers and companies prosper.
Koppel asked, "Tell me what kind of jobs you've had over the last month."
"I think I've moved two loads and I've had about six of 'em cancelled on me simply because I wouldn't reduce my rate, and they just found another truck that would do it cheaper."
"So, wait a second, in the last month you've only had two runs? Is that enough to keep body and soul together?"
"For the average truck driver? No," Morine replied. "But I'm not the average truck driver. I have additional skills. I've changed two transmissions for other people. I just finished a welding job yesterday, actually. I have additional ways to make income. But I'm an old school trucker. I say, 'I came through the old-school way of trucking, and when I graduated the old school, they locked the door and closed the school!'"
According to news reports there are hundred of billions of dollars that are being made available for small businessmen. But Morine says he's not a small businessman: "I'm a microbusiness."
A microbusiness is one that employs fewer than 10 employees. Since he talked with "Sunday Morning," Morine got $6,800 in federal loan assistance, but that, he says, won't last long. "So, right now we're using our personal credit to stay in business," he said.
Jenna Cao's nail salon is open; but business remains limited: "We're only open at this point maybe two to three days a week," she said.
"Can you stay afloat financially?" asked Koppel.
"If you're asking if we're breaking even, no, we're not. We're not at all. We need to open every single day. But there's no demand right now."
Her clientele is predominantly ages 45-plus. "So, a lot of them are still scared," Cao said. "They always call back and cancel and say: 'You know what? My daughter says to hold off.' I've gotten so many of those phone calls."
To complicate things further, Cao was on the verge of opening a second salon, Blush Haus of Beauté, in a brand-new shopping center that's still under construction. Several of the other businesses, she said, have already folded. "Hearing that is just really scary," Cao said, "because if I don't open this business, then I lose everything that I already put in."
"When you say a lot of money, what are you talking about?" Koppel asked.
"So far I dumped about, like, $40,000 into it already of my own money!" she replied. "So, it would be a huge loss for me."
And her biggest worry? "The biggest worry is just, you know, the business not surviving, because this is how I feed my kids. This is my livelihood."
David Wood's dairy business operates on a much greater scale. For about a week in April, he told Koppel, he was losing about $20,000 to $25,000 a day.
"The worst day that's happened is we had to dump some milk," he said. "I lost about eight loads of milk. And that's expensive."
A load – that is, a trailer load – of milk is about 7,500 gallons. Eight loads = 60,000 gallons of milk, dumped, over the course of three weeks. Cows do not stop producing because of a changing market.
Koppel asked, "Millions of hungry people, and you have thousands upon thousands upon thousands of gallons of milk that you have to throw away. Isn't there some way of letting organizations come and pick up that milk and feed people?"
"Well, the milk that we produce is raw milk," Wood said. "And there is a chance that some type of bacteria could be in it. So, for us to have somebody come in and take our milk, I'd be glad to do it – it's better than giving it away or throwing it away – [but] you can't do that for the risk. And, it's illegal."
The challenges are staggering; but what David Wood and Rodney Morine and Jenna Cao have in common is an uplifting sense of optimism.
Wood said, "I don't know, I suppose I could be a negative thinker, but I choose not to. I choose to look on a positive basis and try to be ready for the unexpected if that happens."
Koppel asked Morine, "Are you gonna make it through this all right?"
"Oh, absolutely, 'cause that's what we do," he replied. "When we break down on the side of the road and we walk six miles, four miles to get what we need, to get back to fix our truck and still deliver our load in the morning and no one knows the difference? That's what we do. We're the modern-day cowboy."
When asked for the bottom line, Cao offered, "We're all doing the best that we can. And you know, for everyone to be kind, and everything that we're doing is, everybody use their best judgment. So, if you wanna come out, get your nails done, then you use your best judgment on that!"
For more info:
- Chateau de Nails, Alpharetta, Ga. (Instagram)
- Eildon Tweed Farm, Amsterdam, N.Y. (Facebook)
- Morine Trucking & Construction, Opelousas, La.
Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Steven Tyler.
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