For Small Businesses, It’s a Virus Chain Reaction
When Table 20 closed its dining room in Cartersville, Ga., this week, the pain radiated out to a hydroponic farmer, a tablecloth supplier and countless others
By Ruth Simon Photographs by Dustin Chambers for The Wall Street Journal
March 21, 2020 12:00 am ET
Allie and Chris Lyons, the owners of a popular farm-to-table restaurant called Table 20 in Cartersville, Ga., have done the math. In two weeks, they expect to have just $6,000 in cash, after covering payroll, insurance and rent.
The first coronavirus infections in the Cartersville area were confirmed on March 11. Amid calls for social distancing and with sales plummeting, the couple on Monday laid off all but two of their dozen employees. They have asked their landlord and lenders for relief. They have canceled orders on everything from linens to liquor.
Each of those decisions may be felt far beyond Cartersville, a working-class community of 21,000 an hour outside Atlanta, and helps show how the troubles of one small business can ripple through the U.S. economy as the virus brings commerce and capital to a halt.
Laid-off waitress Casey Brazell is putting off her dream to buy a new house. A family farm where Table 20 buys most of its greens is left without orders. The restaurant’s bank is losing revenue as it gives breaks to dozens of businesses. Its credit-card processor in Arizona has frozen its hiring. A tech company in San Francisco is waiving fees for Table 20 and scores of other clients.
Confirmed infections in the U.S. surged past 15,000 this week, bringing alarm to both Wall Street and Main Street. As hospitals scramble to handle patients, most everything else is shutting down. Airlines have canceled thousands of flights. Schools are closed. Malls and auto factories are dark. Professional sports are suspended.
The crisis from the economic slowdown is most acute for the smallest businesses, which tend to operate on thinner profit margins and with smaller cash reserves. They employ about 60 million Americans, or nearly half the private workforce.
With fewer dollars coming in, small businesses have hard decisions to make about whether to pay rent, workers or bills from their supply chain, said William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Somebody is going to get the short end of it,” he said. “That will work its way back through the economy.”
Unlike some states, Georgia hasn’t ordered restaurants closed but Gov. Brian Kemp has encouraged residents to order takeout or use the drive-through option to get food and limit public gatherings to no more than 10 people.
When the Lyonses opened Table 20 in Cartersville’s historic downtown in 2016, they spent about $225,000 to turn what had been a Quiznos sandwich shop into an upscale restaurant. The couple built tables in their garage, with the help of Ms. Lyons’s father and wood from his old tobacco barn. Chris, 35 years old, is the chef. Allie, 26, is the manager.
Before the pandemic, the 70-seat restaurant pulled in about $17,500 in revenue in a typical week, sometimes more, serving lunch, dinner and craft cocktails, such as a Limoncello Basil Martini with organic vodka and locally grown basil.
On a typical weekend, there was an hour to hour-and-a-half wait for a table. The restaurant was turning a profit, not including depreciation, before the virus hit.
On Tuesday, as calls for self-isolation grew, just eight people were seated. The following day, the couple closed the dining room. Now, they are trying to survive by selling family-style takeout meals.
“Our industry is collapsing,” said Ms. Lyons. “We are trying to find the sweet spot.”
The Lyonses have reached out to their landlord, a retiree who has moved out of town, about their $2,500 a month rent payment. Ms. Lyons isn’t optimistic, noting that their relationship with the landlord, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, had already deteriorated because of a dispute over repairs.
As of noon Friday, there were 40 confirmed coronavirus cases in Bartow County, where the restaurant is located, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
As the economic impact of the pandemic became more apparent last week, Table 20’s lenders, a local bank and a local credit union, both began looking through their portfolios to identify the borrowers most at risk.
Cartersville-based Century Bank of Georgia, which has $210 million in assets, is modifying the couple’s $113,000 Small Business Administration loan to allow for interest-only payments, a move that should cut monthly loan payments to about $500 from roughly $1,800.
Jay Slaughter, vice president of commercial lending, says he is reaching out to the 25 hotels and restaurants that have loans with the community bank. It has a total loan portfolio of $116 million. Most borrowers are small businesses with revenue well below $5 million; Table 20’s loan is one of 31 made through the SBA.
During its regular Tuesday meeting, the bank’s seven-member board reviewed the bank’s loan portfolio and its loan-loss reserves. As of Friday, the bank was keeping its three branches open to foot traffic. The bank said it would continue to pay its 35-person staff their full wages even if it decides to reduce hours or limit access. The bank is helping customers affected by the pandemic by deferring principal payments and waiving late fees and charges for insufficient funds.
“We are taking steps proactively so that we don’t allow a temporary problem for our clients to turn into a permanent one,” said Century Bank’s Chief Executive Richard Drews, noting that regulators have urged banks to work with customers. “There are going to be ripple effects across the board.”
Century Bank is well positioned to assist its customers, with roughly $50 million in cash, short-term investments and other liquidity, said Mr. Drews. “If this thing were to go on for two years, the answer might be different.” The Federal Reserve’s decision to lower interest rates near zero will squeeze the small bank’s profits since its assets reprice at lower rates but deposit rates have little room to fall, he said.
Coosa Valley Credit Union, which holds a $15,600 loan on a food truck the Lyonses purchased last year, called the restaurant last week. It offered to defer the $314 loan payment for a month, maybe more.
Saunders Jones, the credit union’s chief lending officer, said it is working on a hardship-assistance plan that will be presented to board members next week. It includes the ability to offer a 50% reduction in loan payments for up to six months in addition to standard options, such as payment deferral. The credit union has $355 million in assets, nearly 44,000 members, 103 employees and 257 business loans totaling nearly $26 million.
“We are having team huddles and conference calls multiple times a day,” said Mr. Jones, who said he is receiving more than a dozen calls and text messages a day from borrowers hit hard by the pandemic and is also reaching out himself to borrowers.
The Lyonses called their own employees to the restaurant on Monday, normally a day off, to tell all but two to file for unemployment so they were guaranteed some income.
“The thought of coming into work and not seeing them is so hard,” said Ms. Lyons, who cried as she made the announcement. “I told them, if they can find something, take it. If they come back, we will be so happy. If they don’t, we understand.”
The couple, who have a 5-year-old daughter, reduced their pay by 45% for this pay period, leaving enough money to cover their mortgage; they expect to cut it by close to 75% for the next pay period, when bills are smaller.
They plan to put bills they can’t defer “on credit cards and deal with the interest hit,” said Ms. Lyons. The couple recently received another medical bill for their daughter’s tonsillectomy this fall; Ms. Lyons says if they can’t defer payment, she is willing to let it go into collections.
Tiffany Herron, among those laid off, was working as a server earning about $500 a week to supplement her income as a real-estate agent. Now, home sellers don’t want anyone to visit and buyers aren’t looking.
“Everything has stopped,” said Ms. Herron, 37, whose wife has stayed home to take care of their 9-year-old daughter. “I have nothing coming in.” She applied for unemployment insurance on Tuesday.
Ashten McBride, 23, the sole remaining server, receives a base pay of $2.13 an hour, in addition to tips. “I make just enough to get by,” said Ms. McBride. “When something like this happens, it’s very frightening.”
Ms. McBride lives in a ranch house with her aunt, uncle and seven other relatives. Her aunt works in a school cafeteria; two cousins, who work at Walmart, have had their hours cut back. She’s focusing, for now, on paying for food and rent, but hasn’t stocked up on groceries like many other Americans.
“Every dollar counts,” she said. “If there is something I can get away with not paying, I will take the late fee.”
Casey Brazell, 21, another laid-off employee, currently lives with her fiancé and two roommates, one of whom, Christian Farrar, is the last remaining cook at Table 20. If Mr. Farrar loses his job, that leaves just two people with incomes to put toward the $1,400-a-month mortgage payment.
“I need mortgage relief,” said Ms. Brazell, who cut back her phone plan and is re-evaluating the budget for her wedding and putting off plans to buy a nicer home.
Mama J’s had a busy Saturday at a local farmers market last weekend as residents scooped up bags of lettuce, arugula and baby turnips. But the outdoor weekend market is now closed for at least two weeks.
Mr. Jerauld plans, in the next few days, to unveil a new website that will allow for online ordering. On Friday, he was picking greens for orders that came in through the farm’s Facebook page.
“We have a little bit put away,” he said. “But it’s up in the air how long we can last that way.”
Liquor sales, the most profitable part of the restaurant business and 15% of Table 20’s revenue, are another casualty. The Lyonses initially cut the number of wines they offered, then halted liquor purchases altogether this week.
Krista Duncan, a wine and spirits specialist with Eagle Rock Distributing Co., is one of eight sales representatives who work with Table 20. Business is strong at groceries and package stores, but local bars and restaurants are “bleeding out;” most of her customers have closed their doors because they can’t afford to keep the lights on, she said.
“They don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Duncan, who earns commission but no base salary. “It’s all doom and gloom.”
Eagle Rock, based in Norcross, Ga., about 50 miles from Cartersville, has shifted Ms. Duncan to servicing grocery stores, which are seeing a boom in sales. On Friday, she visited four of them, rolling in beer and rearranging displays.
With the new responsibilities, Ms. Duncan said, “I’m not stewing about this situation we’re in.”
Officials at the beer, wine and liquor distributor didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Lyonses have canceled their $500-a-month order with Jackson Mat & Towel Service Inc., a family-run business that provided the tablecloths and napkins.
The linen-supply company nearly 30 miles away in Calhoun, Ga., has about 300 customers, mostly restaurants. About 25% have put orders on hold and another 50% have shifted to drive-through and cut orders by half, said owner Alan Jackson, who is, in turn, putting off ordering new mats and towels.
Mr. Jackson said he would do whatever he can to keep paying his seven employees. One worker is pregnant; another takes online classes at night. “We are treating them as our kids,” he said.
Total U.S. restaurant sales were projected to reach nearly $900 billion this year before the magnitude of the crisis became clear, according to data from the National Restaurant Association. Early economic forecasts suggest the industry’s losses could total at least $225 billion, the group said.
To save about $500 a month, Table 20 has paused its contract with online-reservation service OpenTable Inc. In response to the coronavirus, OpenTable is waiving gift-card listing fees for all participating restaurants and subscription fees for restaurants that temporarily close.
Business is also down at MiCamp Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz., provider of credit-card processing services and software that works with Table 20 and roughly 16,000 other merchants. Table 20 typically spent about $2,000 a month on processing fees.
“A lot of our bars and restaurants are down more than 50%; a lot of that is because they are not able to serve alcohol,” and people aren’t able to dine in, said Micah Kinsler, chief executive of the 60-person company.
MiCamp has temporarily suspended minimum monthly fees of $35 or more for the roughly 3,500 restaurants, bars, casinos and hotels that have told MiCamp they have temporarily closed. It is offering mobile payment devices at no charge to customers that have shifted to takeout.
“Everyone should step in and do their part,” said Mr. Kinsler. With revenue down, MiCamp has stopped hiring and put a hold on several planned acquisitions.
Write to Ruth Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org