Small business tries to survive

Matthew Unzicker, left, hands sweet pastries to a customer outside Big Sky Donuts. His business has taken orders from phone and Facebook messenger, then delivered to customers outside the door.

If Matthew Unzicker learned anything in the last two months, it’s that a global pandemic isn’t going to get between some people and a sweet pastry.

“We’ve got amazing customers,” said the owner of Big Sky Donuts at 3613 Faraon St. “I think some people have been eating more donuts.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy keeping his business afloat. He estimates that the customer count dropped by half during the height of the city’s stay-at-home order. Those who do show up are served at curbside. For a time, he operated without employees.

Big Sky Donuts made it through without leveraging government assistance like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans to cover payroll for eight weeks. “I think we’re small enough that there’s a certain ability to adapt that comes with it,” Unzicker said.

Other businesses found PPP funds to be a lifeline, if not a lifesaver. An SBA report found that Missouri business were approved for more than 78,000 PPP loans for a total of $9.2 billion in aid.

The SBA offered no breakdown for this region, but the director of Northwest Missouri’s Small Business Development Center helped at least 100 to successfully apply.

“It’s been a relief for the time people have the funds,” said Rebecca Lobina, director of the SBDC in St. Joseph. “That prevents layoffs, it keeps money flowing into the economy. On the flip side, it doesn’t bring in income other than to pay payroll, so there’s still additional expenses that they have as a small business owner that aren’t covered by the PPP funds, like insurance and things like that.”

Despite some bad publicity, few businesses experienced trouble applying for and accessing PPP funds, Lobina said. The real problem comes later when small businesses need to comply with a maze of regulations to ensure that the money is being used the right way, with most of the funds directed to payroll and a smaller allotment authorized for rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

The means documenting the number of employees prior to the pandemic and showing that employees were retained and paid at the same rate after the shutdown. The guidelines were late in coming, so there’s been a rush to comply. Otherwise, the loan is not forgivable and Uncle Sam wants the money back.

“It is time consuming,” Lobina said. “You do not want to mess up your forgiveness application.”

Whether the PPP helps businesses survive or delays the inevitable remains to be seen. A national survey from Thryv and America’s SBDC found a higher level of confidence from businesses receiving SBA funds. The survey, conducted in early May, found that 28% of small businesses expect to be fully recovered a year from now and 4% don’t expect to survive.

The stakes are high, Lobina said, because all small businesses are essential, in the sense that they account for about 46% of the workforce in Missouri. Small business is not limited to restaurants and retailers but also includes a large number of health care, manufacturing, construction and professional services firms, according to the SBA.

“It’s one thing to be out of pocket for a week or two, maybe even a month,” she said, “but when it goes on this long, they have no income coming in whatsoever.”

Consider that the SBDC/Thryv survey found that more than 49% of businesses said they could not survive a shutdown that lasted more than four months.

On the front lines of one small business, Unzicker knows all about that uncertainty but believes Big Sky Donuts will be able weather the storm. He said the future won’t look the same, but it will involve donuts.

“It’s definitely kind of changed the model for how we get donuts out to our customers,” he said.

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com.