For a pair of area coffee- and food-oriented small businesses, Paycheck Protection Program funds — or lack of — have offered a modicum of relief when delivered and a myriad of challenges when not.
Small-business owner Michael Ervin has seen his livelihood buffeted brutally by the COVID-19 crisis.
But, with some faith, grit, entrepreneurial improvisation and community support, he foresees bouncing back to full speed, hopefully sooner than later, particularly as commercial limitations are being lifted.
Ervin and his wife, Rachel, own and operate the Coal River Coffee Company in St. Albans. When state health guidelines prohibited walk-in business at their 64 Olde Main Plaza storefront shop in March, their coffee grinding and selling business was forced to grind to an abrupt halt.
The Ervins adapted by offering drive-thru service in the Coal River Coffee Company’s rear parking lot, available from 8 until 11 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. (Plans are to reopen next week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday for pick-up orders only, with no more than three customers inside at a time.)
“We’re also still offering pastries, our cold brew coffees and bulk bagged coffee that can be ordered online at our website, www.coalrivercoffee.com,” Ervin said.
Online and phone orders can be picked up at the Coal River Coffee Company back door or shipped directly to the customer’s home.
Ervin said the pandemic, thus far, has cost the coffee company about 75% of its normal revenue and all of his employees have been laid off, leaving him and Rachel to handle the daily operations by themselves.
“We’ve been hit hard. My wife and I have been working here in the mornings and, the rest of the time, we’re baking or roasting coffee.
“We’ve received no small business funding,” Ervin said on April 30. “The only thing I’ve been told is, ‘Your application is under review. We’ve got thousands of applications. Be patient.’ I check every day and that’s what I get.”
On a somewhat more upbeat note, he said the company’s e-commerce shipping orders have increased 5,000% during the COVID-19 crisis. “That’s been a blessing for us,” he said.
The pandemic prompted the Ervins to start a community-oriented “pay-it-forward” effort on their website as well.
“It lets people buy our items for hospitals, police departments, fire departments or just for random people in the community,” he said.
Gift cards and vouchers can be purchased at the Coal River Coffee Company website in $10, $20, $25, $50 and customized increments.
The community response to the gift cards has also helped cushion the economic jolt of the onsite shutdown.
“We’ve had a good number of people in the community being helpful. Some are buying $100 and $150 gift cards. Someone bought $400 worth from us when [the shutdown] first started, and, just today, an anonymous business person donated $1,000 to us,” Ervin said.
The Ervins have also worked with Mayor Scott James and other St. Albans officials to launch a website highlighting the community’s small businesses and scenic, historical and other visitor attractions.
“Michael and Rachel Ervin are great community partners. Not only do they run a great — and one of the fastest growing — businesses in town, but they’re very involved in the community and promoting the community,” James said in a June 2019 Daily Mail WV article.
“Our passion is to roast coffee and grow community,” Ervin said, “and we’ve seen the community rise up and support us through this.”
Charleston cafe struggles, gets PPP help
Cathie Tuinei, owner and manager of the Melange Cafe in downtown Charleston, has also been the proverbial chief cook and bottlewasher during the pandemic, rolling up her sleeves and rolling with the economic punches as best she can.
“We’ve been doing a little bit of everything through this,” Tuinei said. “We never shut down completely — there may have been four days we weren’t working, mainly because our suppliers needed to restock. I’ve been pretty much running it by myself. My son and daughter-in-law have been doing social media, which has been a big help. We’ve been opening at 11 a.m. and doing online orders instead of just the lunch rush. That’s helping us get through. They place orders online and pull up and pick them up here.
“We literally, finally got our PPP on the first of May,” approximately $7,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds, she said.
“We were struggling and didn’t know when [the funds] were going out. We couldn’t afford to pay our workers, and I let them stay at home — I didn’t want them exposed, as much as possible,” she said.
Tuinei added two workers to the staff this week and hopes to add at least two more in the next few days as health and safety policies are eased.
Along with customer support, merchant cooperation has superseded competition during the crisis as well.
“All of the restaurants around here have been supportive. It’s been a good experience for me.”
Tuinei hopes Melange Cafe will resume its regular operating hours next week.
“We’re hoping that here soon, before summer hits, everything will be back to some sort of normalcy.”