With little relief in sight, small business owners wait in limbo

empty tables at Big B's Texas BBQ
Big B's Texas BBQ has been operating at as loss since concerns of the novel coronavirus spread. (Photo courtesy of Big B's Texas BBQ)

The employees at Big B’s Texas BBQ had been wiping down every hard surface in the restaurant every 30 minutes. After every customer, they were cleaning and re-cleaning. Their cashier was wearing and changing gloves regularly. The picnic tables that make up the seating in their dining area were already spaced out, but they considered spacing them out even further apart. All in the name of public health.

Despite their efforts, business at the locally owned barbecue joint slowed to a crawl as concerns over the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes worsened in Southern Nevada. People simply didn’t want to dine out. Instead, they have been flooding to grocery stores and wiping the shelves clean. Those that have been coming into Big B’s — which operates two locations, in Henderson and Rhodes Ranch — mostly just want to grab their food and go.

Big B’s is trying to adapt. They are now offering curbside pickup. They are offering free delivery to anyone within five miles. They have speciality kids meals since schools are now closed.

It’s something, but not enough to sustain a payroll of almost 50 employees. The business is hemorrhaging money. And owner Nicole Badzo has her own family to feed.

“We are losing money every day. We are in the negative,” Badzo said on Tuesday afternoon. “We are trying to stay open for our employees because they depend on us. They have no other source of income. They depend on us to put food on their table.”

She adds, “They are begging us not to close.”

‘We all need to pray’

Hours after Badzo talked to the Current, Gov. Steve Sisolak would hold a press conference to announce the mandatory closure of all “non-essential” businesses across the entire state. Bars, salons, casinos and gyms are expected to shut their doors by noon Wednesday. Restaurants like Badzo’s cannot let customers dine-in, but are allowed to stay open if they can offer delivery or curbside pickup.

Big B’s will have to lay off a significant portion of its staff to stay afloat. Badzo will have tough decisions to make on who stays and who goes. Only a few of her almost 50 employees are teenagers whose money is disposable. The majority are supporting themselves and their families.

Most small businesses aren’t able to offer much in terms of severance packages, says Penny Chutima, owner of Lotus of Siam, a locally owned Thai restaurant that has thus far survived two decades and a collapsed roof. Small businesses simply don’t have the resources.

Several major employers within Nevada have announced they would pay and continue providing health coverage for their employees during their temporary shutdowns. That’s what they are calling what’s happening now: “a temporary closure.”

Small business owners aren’t sure they will ever be able to reopen.

“Even one week closed, you’d be behind on your rent, you’d be behind on payroll,” says Chutima. “You could be permanently closed.”

Lotus of Siam could be described as beloved, it has a notable following that could help it survive economic uncertainty better than lesser-known restaurants. Still, Chutima says she is worried.

“I feel like this is way scarier than 2008,” she said, referring to the Great Recession. “I don’t want to bring religion into this, but I think we all need to pray.”

‘Every red cent out the door’

While restaurants grapple with how to adapt to new restrictions, some small businesses have almost no way to adapt to the new economic reality that has befallen us for at least the next 30 days.

Matthew Gucu owns New Moon Entertainment, a special events company. The event industry was one of the first industries affected by the coronavirus crisis, and it was hit hard. Gucu says his anticipated monthly gross revenue went from $100,000 to $0 over the course of a few days.

“As soon as the bigger conventions started cancelling — the Adobes — we knew there was a shitstorm coming,” he said, referring to the digital design company, which canceled its annual conference two weeks ago. “Then, they dropped like flies. ‘We’re canceling. We’re canceling. We’re canceling.’”

He adds, “It was almost comical.”

Gucu is also an entertainer. His cover band — 80’s Station — has a regular gig on Fremont Street Experience. When that venue announced there would be no live performances for at least eight weeks, it felt a bit like a nail in a coffin.

“That was my last source of income,” said Gucu. “That’s when it really started to sink in. Every red cent out the door for an undetermined amount of time.”

For Andrea Lipomi, the decline of her small business happened a little slower — but not by much.

salon bed
Feetish Spa Parlor (Photo courtesy of Andrea Lipomi)

Her schedule at Feetish Spa Parlor, where she specializes in “weird pedicures,” is usually booked solid one or two weeks in advance. When the stock market began the first descent of its recent rollercoaster ride, Lipomi noticed a drop in bookings. She suspects it was her local clients starting to worry.

“I think a lot of people in Vegas, we have flashbacks to 2008,” said Lipomi. “It’s a gut punch. ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before and it didn’t end well. I’m going to hit the pause button on any sort of spending activity until I know what’s going on.’”

Once the conference cancelations began, scheduling came to a grinding halt. At the same time, the number of reported cases of COVID-19 began to rise in Southern Nevada. That concerned her beyond the balance books. She began seeking advice and insight from other people in the spa and salon world.

On Monday, Lipomi took to Feetish’s Facebook page to announce she was voluntarily shutting down until the end of March. “I have an ethical obligation to my clients to employ best practices,” she wrote.

That day she also researched unemployment insurance and found she doesn’t qualify for benefits. She has been self employed since 2014 and is the sole proprietor of Feetish.

The next day, the governor would require her and all other salons and spas to stay closed for two additional weeks.

Lipomi plans on researching unemployment benefits again.

“Last time I checked, which was yesterday, I don’t qualify,” she said Tuesday night. “But I did see some states are considering or have already loosened those restrictions. I’m hoping that Nevada will do the same.”

Her friends and regular customers have asked how they can help. She’s pointed them to her website, where people can purchase gift certificates. That’s something, but she knows it’s unlikely to be enough.

“I have a mortgage on my home,” she says. “I pay rent to my landlord at New Orleans Square. I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to pay both, and for how long.”

Where she is Tuesday is a stark contrast from where she was three months ago. Back then, she had just moved Feetish into a new, larger space in New Orleans Square after her previous building kicked all its tenants out. She was embracing the challenge of reestablishing the business in its new location.

Now all of that is on hold.

‘I’m having major anxiety’

Hairstylist Angie Bosco doesn’t own her own salon. Instead, she rents a booth inside Mosaic Salon Boutique in Henderson. She is considered an independent contractor, meaning like Lipomi she doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. The setup is typical for the industry.

Over the past two weeks, a significant number of clients have canceled their appointments with Bosco. One was sick. Others were just scared. It’s impossible to practice recommended social distancing guidelines when you’re getting a haircut.

“I understand,” she said Tuesday morning. “I wish I could, for my own safety, just not leave my house but if I don’t go to work I don’t get paid.”

Even having gone to work the last few weeks, she’s barely breaking even after expenses. She’d already started looking for part-time work when the state-mandated shutdown was announced. And now she is doubling down on those efforts with no salon to go to.

“I know (the closures are) necessary to do for the health and safety of everyone,” she said Tuesday night, “but I’m having major anxiety about how I will make ends meet.”

She has money set aside for taxes, but the idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t appealing. She took to her personal social media page to ask friends for any leads on remote or “essential” gigs. In her post, she told her friends she’d be willing to make haircutting house calls for anyone who was healthy and comfortable with the idea.

Her offer isn’t exactly in the spirit of the governor’s direction to “stay home for Nevada.”

But she has bills to pay.

“I hope (Congress) passes some bailout package that sends checks to most Americans,” she Bosco.

Gucu, the entertainer and event company owner, has also seen the headlines and heard banter about widespread economic relief — maybe the government will send every American $1,000 a month until this blows over? — but he isn’t going to count on it.

“I immediately turned to my wife and said we need to get ahead of this. We don’t know how long this is going to last. If we sit in our house and wait, we are going to be in a worse position in three months.”

Tuesday they rented a uHaul and started packing. Their plan is to move in with a family member and rent out their downtown home until their business can bounce back. But even that plan comes with some anxiety.

“Is anyone going to be moving right now?”

Gucu doesn’t know the answer, but he thinks it’s their best bet for now. He knows he is unlikely to find a new job when so many other businesses are temporarily shuttered and so many others are without work.

“All these businesses are already or about to suffer. That’s part of the panic. There’s literally nothing I can do except beg other people who just lost a lot of income to give me money.”

Gucu has started a GoFundMe page.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.