The history of Speck’s Bar and Grill in Topeka goes back more than 50 years.
Though the bar — like most small businesses — has experienced its ups and downs, owner Debbie Maichel said right now she is having to “watch every penny.”
“My dad started this (bar) in 1957, and this is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Maichel said, referring to the turmoil wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Maichel said Speck’s has experienced multiple closures this year.
She was shut down from mid-March to June 8 — the latter being when Shawnee County moved into Phase 3 of reopening, which allowed bars and nightclubs to open their doors after about two-and-a-half months of carryout-only business.
Speck’s was open for about two weeks after that and then had to shut down again for 10 days after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19.
Lately, the bar has been operating according to capacity and operating-hour guidelines handed down by the Shawnee County Health Department. Updated guidelines released Thursday allow bars to operate from 6 a.m. to midnight daily. According to the guidelines, parties sitting at the same table can’t exceed the latest gathering limit of 10 people, and bars with a maximum capacity greater than 100 may only operate at 50% of that capacity.
Restricted hours, Maichel said, have been a burden on profit. Still, she understands the reasoning behind them.
“I personally, being 61, kind of appreciate it, especially if I get calls late at night,” she said. “But we’ve dealt with it.”
Like other local small-business owners, Maichel has seen a significant decline in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic in March.
“We’re not turning a profit,” she said. “Just trying to break even.”
Business at Speck’s is down about 40% from this time last year, she added, and seeing things slow that much has been tough.
“A lot of the older people don’t come out because they’re scared, and it’s cut down because we can’t stay open until 2 (a.m.). A lot of younger kids would come out from 10 (p.m.) to 2 (a.m.), so that hurts a lot,” Maichel said.
She has had to cut two bartenders because she didn’t have the traffic to justify keeping them on. She also had to cut the cook’s hours. And after being off for six weeks following a surgery, Maichel is working 10 to 12 hours, seven days a week in a boot to make ends meet.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking, because you work hard to build it up,” Maichel said. “Then, you say, ‘Oh, are we gonna make it?’ I mean that’s the thing — how much longer is this going to go on.”
What really worries her is the possibility of another shutdown or stay-at-home order.
And she isn’t alone. About a half-dozen small business owners in Shawnee County have told The Topeka Capital-Journal over the past couple weeks that a second shutdown would be hard to bounce back from.
Cases on the rise
At the local, state and national level, COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in recent days.
On Tuesday, the Shawnee County Health Department announced it had surpassed during the first 10 days of November the total number of positive COVID-19 cases reported to the department during the entire month of October. And the department’s latest “community transmission scorecard,” which was released Thursday, indicates transmission of the virus is “uncontrolled” locally.
On Friday, SCHD’s online COVID-19 dashboard indicated 93 people in Shawnee County were hospitalized with the virus. According to a separate scorecard released Friday by Stormont Vail Health, 71 of those individuals were being cared for at Stormont Vail Hospital.
Each day of this past week, Stormont has set a new record for patients hospitalized there with COVID-19, and that scorecard it released Friday indicated 96% of the hospital’s medical beds were in use.
“The only solution, the only way out of this crisis, is to reduce community transmission,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, Shawnee County’s health officer, during a news conference Thursday. “There is no other way.”
Pezzino told The Topeka Capital-Journal Friday that people letting their guard down as they become fatigued by the pandemic may be one factor in the growing number of cases. Another factor, he said, is people holding indoor social gatherings.
Experts, including Pezzino, continue to tout the use of face masks to help control the spread of the virus.
According to information published on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, the most effective masks consist of two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric; should completely cover a person’s nose and mouth; and should fit snugly against the sides of a person’s face.
Mark Schonlaw, owner of Skinny’s Sports Bar & Grill, said it has been difficult to regulate mask use inside his establishment.
“By habit, you get up and go to the restroom and you forget your mask,” Schonlaw said, “and by the time you find (the customer) and tell them, ‘Hey put your mask on,’ they’re in the restroom so it’s no sense in waiting there for them to come out.”
Still, he wishes more people would adhere to the rules so that bars and restaurants don’t end up “back in the same boat here in a month or so — or less if all the cases keep piling up,” referring to the mandated closures earlier this year.
George Kearse, owner of G’s Cheesecakes and More, said those refusing to wear face masks are hurting small-business owners.
“They’re killing us because they’re running around reckless,” Kearse said. “My lobby is closed. All we do is drive-thru and carryout. And I won’t even go in a restaurant because of the recklessness of people. We should have this thing under control.”
Kearse said if more people followed the science and wore their face masks to protect others, he might consider reopening his lobby. But with the upward trend lately in COVID-19 cases, he doesn’t expect to be able to fully open until sometime next year.
He is erring on the side of caution because of the unprecedented nature of the current situation.
“This is like a movie,” Kearse said. “It’s like somebody wrote a movie, and we’re in the script. … This is a once-in-a-generation thing.”
‘Keep our head above water’
Schonlaw, owner of Skinny’s, saw his first net profit in August after five months of negative cash flow.
“It wasn’t much, but it was still in the plus,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, Skinny’s was having one of its best 12- to 15-month runs ever, Schonlaw said.
“So I was able to withstand some of the long droughts of not being open for a while and carryout only,” he added.
But that nest egg he had built up was “cut in half” as the pandemic took its toll on the hospitality industry.
Luckily, Schonlaw said, his bank cut him a break, allowing him for four months to just pay property taxes and insurance and to delay his principle loan payments.
Schonlaw owns the strip mall in which his bar is located, and as other businesses in that shopping center struggled to pay rent due to similar drops in sales, Schonlaw passed some relief down the line.
“If they can’t pay their rent during that time, you’ve got to give them a break,” Schonlaw said. “The bank gave me a break, so I’m trying to help them out as much as possible.”
Though business at Skinny’s is still down about 50% — it was down 80% to 90% during the early months of the pandemic when they were doing carryout only, Schonlaw said — things do appear to be looking up.
“I think customers are starting to feel a little bit more comfortable,” he said.
Steve Butland, owner of the Paisano’s Ristorante locations in Topeka and Lawrence, is experiencing something similar — at least in one of his restaurants.
“It’s kind of like the Charles Dickens book ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ” Butland said. “Lawrence is going one direction, and Topeka is going in the other.”
Butland said Paisano’s Topeka location is holding up better than the Lawrence one. The Topeka restaurant is in a more mature area of town and has a loyal customer base helping to sustain it. On the other hand, Paisano’s in Lawrence is competing with a greater number of restaurants and is situated in a college town, he said.
Both locations, though, have experienced the shift many restaurant owners are seeing in how they generate revenue, especially as bars and restaurants locally are forced to limit dine-in traffic to 50% of normal capacity to allow for social distancing between tables.
“We’ve relied heavily on to-go traffic, and we’ve relied heavily on our partners that deliver for us, which in this case is EatStreet and DoorDash,” Butland said. “That part of our business has probably quadrupled versus where it was last year.”
But that side of the business, he added, isn’t as profitable as bringing customers into the restaurant.
“We have to pay them a premium to deliver the food. Secondly, we have to make sure the food is packaged properly, and that packaging is expensive,” Butland said. “I don’t pass those costs onto our guests. At this point in time, our prices for EatStreet and DoorDash, if you were to order off them, are the same as they are on our menu. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to sustain that.”
Unlike some restaurants, Butland said he has been able to maintain a “smidgen of a profit” between the two Paisano’s locations throughout the pandemic.
“I’m thankful for that,” he said. “Compared to 2019, it’s way, way down, but I’m not losing money. At least we’re able to pay our bills, pay our people, keep our head above water.”
Some local small-business owners say the next few months are going to be crucial for them.
Nick Xidis, owner of Hazel Hill Chocolate, said more than half of his business’ yearly sales typically occur around the holidays, during the months of November and December.
“That’s make or break time,” Xidis said. “That’s probably not going to be true for restaurants.”
According to Xidis, those months “are really important” and may help offset some of the gaps in retail traffic Hazel Hill has experienced throughout the year.
“We are not in dire distress, but we are certainly having to manage with less than we would’ve had in our plan,” he said.
Luckily, Xidis added, Hazel Hill is a 16-year-old business that doesn’t have any outstanding loans, so he is confident they will survive the pandemic.
“We don’t owe anything, and that’s not typical,” Xidis said. “So we can kind of hunker down and look at expense cutting and probably make it through. … We’re maybe a little more stable and have a little more working capital than someone who’s two or three years in.”
Xidis did seek some monetary relief earlier this year in the form of a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan, as did other small-business owners like Schonlaw and Butland.
“That was a really big help, one of the few times that I think the little guys like us got something from the federal relief,” Xidis said.
He is thankful for local initiatives like the HOST Relief Program, which he, Maichel, Schonlaw, Kearse, Butland and others all benefited from.
Xidis said he also looked into some of the SPARK grants being administered by the state but said he wasn’t doing bad enough at the time to qualify for them. That could change depending on how the next couple months go, he added.
“It all goes back to that November, December,” Xidis said. “I think there’s a real possibility that early next year, there’s going to be a need for small businesses to get some kind of financial support.”
Butland, owner of Paisano’s, said he would like to see additional economic stimulus for both small businesses and their patrons.
“When they got that $1,200, we saw a little bump in sales,” Butland said. “People were able to enjoy a meal out, or two. … I’m hoping that happens again, not just for people to spend money in restaurants but (because) people need it.”
When it comes to the question of survival, Butland said he thinks his restaurants do have an opportunity to make it through the pandemic, especially with their slight profit margin, but he can’t say with complete confidence that they will.
“I think we’ll be OK, and right now we’re OK,” he said.
He has several friends in the restaurant industry and said they are “all singing from the same songbook.”
Like others, Butland is concerned about the “second wave” of COVID-19 cases hitting Shawnee County and the rest of the U.S.
If his restaurants were forced to close their doors again, they would have to go back to what they did in March, relying primarily on carryout orders to bring in revenue.
“That is not sustainable for us. If we had to do that for a great length of time, it would cause significant financial stress,” Butland said. “But that’s what we would do.”
Shawnee County Commissioner Aaron Mays, who has often served as the deciding vote on public health orders during the pandemic when his fellow commissioners are split, said he hopes a second stay-at-home order isn’t necessary.
“I have no desire to close businesses,” he said. “But if we’re worried about that, the best thing to do is to take the necessary precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Pezzino, the county health officer, said in an email Friday that he is not planning to recommend additional mitigation measures at this point in time but noted that “nothing is off the table.”
“Our hospitals, businesses, schools, just about any segment of our community will suffer severe consequences if we cannot stop this,” Pezzino said. “And we can — social distancing, masks, no gathering, good hygiene.”
According to Mays, it’s important that community members understand the severity of the current situation and that they do their part to slow the virus’ spread.
And as Shawnee County attempts to reverse upward COVID-19 trends, Maichel, the owner of Speck’s, has another message for community members, especially as the winter holidays approach.
“Support your local business,” Maichel said.
“I hope we don’t have to close again,” she added. “But with the flu season and numbers going up, who knows.”