BRATTLEBORO — February marked a time of celebration for Jason Lively and Cory Bratton.
In that month, first-time business owner, Lively, acquired Duo Restaurant at the corner of High and Main streets.
Just up the hill, Bratton and business partner Samual Schwartzkoph expanded their catering business, A Vermont Table, to include a restaurant in the space formerly occupied by The Backside Cafe in the Midtown Mall.
The menus revealed, the tableware set, the doors opened for business.
And then, a global pandemic.
To slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency on March 13. A series of executive orders incrementally tightened that order and eventually required the community to stay home, employees to work remotely. Customers who were not laid off were not out and about.
And by March 17, Scott ordered restaurants either to close their doors or offer only takeout or delivery.
Lively and Bratton responded to the order differently. Lively chose to offer takeout. Bratton chose to close his fledgling restaurant and focus on the catering side of the business.
Despite these different choices, the entrepreneurs find themselves riding a similar emotional roller coaster, one that trundles on a track of uncertainty.
So far, the emergency federal funding passed as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief economic aid bill designed to help businesses survive the shutdown either hasn't met these business owners' respective needs, or neither has qualified.
Two federal funding programs, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), both of which operate through lenders approved by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), have offered a combination of grants and loans to small businesses on a first-come-first-served basis.
The first round of PPP loans, totaling over $1 billion, went to approximately 6,800 Vermont businesses before funds ran out on April 17.
A second round of PPP money was released to Vermont on April 27 after the rapid passage of a new act signed into law three days earlier, authorizing an additional $310 billion to fund the program nationally.
As the relief funding makes its way into the economy, questions hover in the air about how long it will take the economy and communities to recover once the state of emergency is lifted.
Or what if the virus makes a resurgence before the end of the year, requiring another shutdown?
Lively and Bratton are doing their best to move forward one step at a time.
Jumping from lily pad to lily pad
Duo is offering takeout four nights a week.
“The last time we spoke, my intention was to have someone come out and review the new menu, and then the next thing, the world ended,” Lively said with a wry smile in an April 26 videoconference interview with The Commons.
“I think there's a little...not denial... but I think there's a little of this almost tunnel vision,” he added, laughing. “Right now, I can't really think about what happens next, it's just so day-to-day.”
On quieter weeknights, Lively receives between five and 10 takeout orders. On Friday and Saturdays, the orders pick up to 10 to 20 orders a night.
Though a far cry from when Duo is at full capacity, the orders still represent local support.
“The community has been really great,” Lively said.
He complimented the efforts of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance to help businesses through efforts such as working with donors to offer matching funds through gift-card drives. Coca-Cola North America in Northampton, Mass., has hired Duo to provide a one-time “lunch run” for 350 employees.
“So right now, it's just trying to land on the lily pads,” Lively said.
In February, Lively had anticipated the flurry of activity necessary for taking over the restaurant from then-owner Keith Arnold. He then planned for the ramp-up to Valentine's Day and the Harris Hill Ski Jump weekend.
Then, he and Chef Meghan Fairman, having just rolled out a new menu, were in the middle of looking at staffing levels when Scott declared the state of emergency.
At full capacity, Duo tends to need between 17 and 21 employees. Now only Lively and Fairman are holding down the fort.
“There was this horizon ahead where we could ride a little on the work we had done and just work in repeat mode,” he said. “That hasn't happened yet.”
Lively said a lot of the people he pays bills to, such as the landlord and electric company, reached out to him first about finances. This means he didn't have to negotiate in terms of monthly expenses, which he said felt helpful.
“I think everyone in my immediate business community understands and recognizes that the best way for anyone to survive is for all of us to work together,” he said.
“Some of the bigger planning stuff, that's been a little more complicated, like finances, has not happened yet - that's really stressful,” he said.
Lively explained that in most cases, if a civic authority closes the restaurant - or restricts entry - then a proprietor can file an insurance claim, and he did just that. But his insurance company denied a recent claim, rejecting liability because the closure is related to a virus.
To rub salt in the wound, a few days after the claim was denied, Lively's carrier sent a $2,000 premium bill.
Another factor working against Lively is timing. Most of the federal or state emergency funding restricts aid to businesses operating on or before Jan. 31. Lively took over Duo on February 3.
He is in the process of working to obtain a traditional SBA loan.
Even with the community support and patience of vendors and utilities, “I'm not making money by any means,” Lively said. “My bank account is not growing, it's gradually shrinking, so right now it's a matter of trying to keep funds in my checking account so when we do open, we can purchase what we need to so we can try and start back up again.”
“Then also, I need to get paid,” he said. “So it's really just trying to hold onto as much as possible.”
Going into this pandemic, did closing Duo ever feel like the easier option?
“There was never a question as to whether we would try and stay open,” he said. “The only way I would have completely closed was if I was told I had to, or if I had completely run out of product and money.”
Lively said that his business decisions have been proactive. Before the state mandated that restaurants halt table service to customers, he had already closed half the restaurant and laid off almost all the staff. He also took the extra precaution of emptying the bar area of all beer, wine, and spirits.
“It was pretty obvious the direction that everything was going,” he said.
To conserve electricity, Lively consolidated the restaurant's inventory into as few refrigeration units as possible. He turned off one walk-in cooler and several of the business's “reach in” refrigerators. He and Fairman also prepared any remaining fresh produce for freezing.
Once the “takeout only” mandate came down, Duo was a two-person operation.
Now, Lively updates the online menu daily for customers who place their orders and pay over the phone. They phone to announce their arrival, and Lively leaves their food on a table - replete with hand sanitizer - outside the door.
The takeout menu is now a mix of what Duo would normally serve, with the addition of sandwiches.
And the pricing is different.
“When you go to a restaurant, part of what you pay for is the experience,” he said. “That [experience] has been eliminated so the prices had to go down as well to reflect that.”
People want as much comfort as possible and people often find that comfort in food, Lively said. The pandemic menu is filled with comfort food items like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken has remained popular, he said.
At the mention of fried chicken, Lively launches into a story that illustrates his own resilience and ability to find humor where others might pull out their hair.
Shortly after he took over Duo, someone who had left a negative restaurant review online approximately two years ago that went something like: Fried chicken on the menu? What is this? A KFC?
The comment has turned into a running joke at Duo.
During Saturday's takeout service, Lively laughed as he looked at the line of takeout containers filled with orders of fish tacos and fried chicken.
“And we were joking that we've become a KFC/Taco Bell,” Lively said. “The local farm-to-table version.”
To Lively's knowledge, the unhappy reviewer has not returned to Duo since he took it over in February.
Is Lively still glad to be a business owner?
“I think for the most part,” he said. “I think the only part that I'm envious of employees or non-business owners is the safety net they were able to land in.”
“At the same time, it kind of depends on the day,” Lively added. “Emotionally, it's like a roller-coaster.”
Some days, he is filled with confidence and enthusiasm and hope. The next day, he feels overwhelmed and worried and a little bitter.
Still, Lively has found a couple silver linings in the middle of the pandemic.
Personally, he said, he is grateful that his family is healthy, fed, and sheltered. His partner is still working. Not everyone is so fortunate, he said.
The second bright spot is a new sense that if Duo survives this pandemic, it can survive anything.
“There's no bigger trial by fire than this,” Lively said. “So in a month from now, hopefully, [when] we will be able to open our doors and just become a restaurant again, I think everything else will feel easy.”
Keeping an eye on August
Bratton and Schwartzkoph expanded their catering business this year to include a restaurant and bar in the Midtown Mall at 22-26 High St.
The partners moved into the space in 2018, operating their catering company out of the kitchen while they slowly renovated the restaurant area. They opened for brunch and lunch on Feb. 12.
When the governor's orders came down, Bratton and Schwartzkoph opted to close the restaurant.
Instead, Bratton said he has reverted to the catering model, where A Vermont Table is inactive for several months before the busy wedding and party season starts.
“In previous years, in general and in terms of week-to-week, the impact [of closing] would have been minimal,” he said. “But the reality is, it's not about what's happening right now; for me, it's about what's going to happen in the next few months.”
Catering is “particularly seasonal,” Bratton said, and the company does most of its business from June to October, which he described as “critical months.”
“Right now, it's just so unclear what's going to happen next week, let alone next month,” he said. “We are particularly vulnerable in that our core business relies on large gatherings of people.”
Bratton said the businesses has lost “quite a number” of bookings as people have cancelled their spring and early summer events.
“I know for sure I've lost the first part of our catering season,” he said. “It looks like a lot of those people will reschedule, which is great.”
At the same time, Bratton feels stuck in limbo because clients aren't ready to commit to decisions until they have to.
Many May and June weddings have turned into August and September weddings or have been pushed to next year. He hopes for an incredibly busy August.
“At this point, our best-case scenario is that our busiest time of the year [will be] twice as busy as normal,” he said - a good problem to have.
In the meantime, Bratton felt that closing the restaurant during the state of emergency was the only choice.
Bratton said that he and Schwartzkoph decided not to offer takeout because the restaurant was so new that it lacked some of the operating funds to take a risk on a new business model.
Expenses would have included purchasing takeout containers, ordering more food, paying for utilities to power equipment, and marketing the effort. As a new restaurant, A Vermont Table had yet to build a loyal customer base.
Bratton hasn't received the equivalent of a full paycheck for “a very long time” because he was betting that the enterprise would pay off in the long run.
“Now I'm left holding the bag,” he said. “I have this beautiful bar and all this stuff, and I can't like do anything with it.”
Bratton praises the recent federal funding and expansion of unemployment benefits, but for him, the disaster-relief programs don't recognize the new restaurant or the money he and Schwartzkoph invested in renovating it.
Self-employed unemployment insurance will likely be a tiny amount - if he receives anything at all. Bratton said he opted to not pay himself in order to further expand his business, so the Department of Labor will have little on which to base a claim.
“I've reverted to what I used to do [catering] just because it's more safe,” he said. “I don't even know about the restaurant at this point.”
Bratton has reduced some of the company's monthly expenses, and some vendors, such as the company that operates the payroll software A Vermont Table uses, have suspended monthly subscription fees.
“It's not like we've been totally abandoned,” he said, “but it's tough.”
Bratton is waiting for more information about emergency relief funding, which, he acknowledged, won't reach everyone equitably. He knows that they qualify for some benefits; he doesn't think they'll be locked out 100 percent.
“I'm still hopeful I can access some of this emergency federal financing stuff, but it's a total unknown,” he said.
It seems to Bratton that most of the emergency money - in the restaurant world, at least - has bypassed small sole proprietors and gone to the large corporate chains, which can already generally access more resources than small businesses can.
“Sometimes it just feels like we're just getting passed over in a lot of ways,” he said.
The SBA should have prioritized the smaller loans first, said Bratton, calling it a mistake to give multi-million-dollar loans to big companies. He understands that keeping the biggest employers afloat also saves the most jobs. But in his mind, the flip side is that the smaller loans would have reached more individual businesses.
“It's just a reflection of wealth inequality on a corporate level,” he said.
Maneuvering the new programs is daunting. “I don't know how to navigate these kinds of bureaucracies,” he said. Bigger companies, on the other hand, “have dozens of people and lawyers” whose job is to navigate these systems.
“I know how to cook food,” he said.
Even in optimal economic climates, restaurants are traditionally risky, low-margin businesses.
Bratton said he keeps thinking about what will happen when the economy reopens. “It's not like you flip a switch and everything's back to normal,” he said.
Just because people will be allowed to go out to eat does not mean they'll have the money to do so, he added.
“The fallout of this is just going to be more Taco Bells and big-chain restaurants than places where the owner works there,” Bratton continued. “We're going to come out of this with more Applebee's and fewer A Vermont Tables.”
Bratton is concerned about the process of loosening the COVID-19 restrictions, urging some form of slow ramp up and support for businesses - especially if there's a resurgence of the coronavirus, as many epidemiologists warn.
It feels to him that if the government reopens the economy all at once, “the onus is on the business owners to succeed,” Bratton said. “If they don't, then it's the business owner's fault.”
Bratton asks: What happens if the economy reopens but nobody shows up? Or what if no one has money to eat at restaurants? Will the government just leave businesses to sink?
For now, he is trying to move forward the best he can and foresees a clearer picture over the upcoming weeks. “Once we get into June, I think we'll have a better idea of what the long-term picture is,” he said.
In the meantime, Bratton is trying to configure a plan B if the pandemic causes A Vermont Table to lose an entire year's worth of business.
So, yes, he's still looking at offering takeout or other options.
Bratton laughed when he said he had to close the business with “a hundred” eggs left in the refrigerator. He's been using the surplus ingredients to perfect his “custard and French omelet technique.”
And in lieu of cooking, he has also enjoyed walking in his neighborhood and, from a safe distance, seeing families working together in their yards.
“I have a lot of sympathy for people who are alone right now,” he said.