Georgia small businesses plead need for speed on U.S. stimulus dollars

Billy Brown, owner of There “gastropub” in Brookhaven, a city where officials have banned in-restaurant dining. (AJC photo: Matt Kempner)

Billy Brown, owner of There “gastropub” in Brookhaven, a city where officials have banned in-restaurant dining. (AJC photo: Matt Kempner)

Cash-strapped small business owners in Georgia are looking with desperation to Washington D.C.

A $2-trillion federal disaster relief package still being negotiated in the Senate on Wednesday night included $350 billion for small business relief, including loans that would be forgiven if owners keep workers on their payrolls through the coronavirus crisis.

“The country needs the liquidity now,” said Eric Teusink, whose 11-person Williams Teusink law firm in Decatur is a small business that serves many other small businesses.

Businesses from restaurants to hair salons are hanging by a thread as the economy sinks because of the coronavirus outbreak. Many have furloughed workers or temporarily closed.

Half of U.S. small businesses have less than 15 days of a cash buffer if their revenue ceased but expenses continued, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute. Many companies have been slashing expenses where they can, including asking landlords for rent breaks.

There are about 900,000 small businesses in Georgia, employing about 1.9 million Georgians, according to the Small Business Administration.

While the SBA defines small businesses as those with fewer than 500 employees and less than $5 million a year in revenue, most average just three employees. About $1.1 billion in small business loans are written each year in Georgia, putting it in the top five in the nation.

Bill Brown, owner of There gastro pub in Brookhaven, has weathered steep declines in customer traffic and then a city-imposed ban on in-restaurant dining that limits him to take out and delivery. He now can only afford to pay four of the 19 workers he had. And even they are getting only limited shifts.

“The stimulus package is fabulous, but how soon can we get the money? Because most of us can’t afford to pay the staff while we are waiting for the money,” Brown said.

About $25,000 from the government would be enough to pay staff and buy more provisions to tide the company over for a while, he said. “Small independent restaurants don’t have deep pockets. We don’t have any kind of safety nets.”

The city is temporarily waiving property taxes, he said, but he’s still paying other expenses, including insurance and some wages. He’s also waiting to hear back from his landlord.

Rodney Harrison, a barber who owns Trinity Barber Shop in Lawrenceville and a small transportation subcontracting firm, said he’ll soon meet with his bookkeeper to discuss how the proposed federal stimulus might help.

Revenues have fallen 95% in both his businesses as customers stay home and officials shuttered facilities on his transportation company’s routes. That’s meant less money for his five drivers and the six barbers who lease space from him.

Forgivable government loans would be better than taking out a loan he’d have to figure out how to pay back, Harrison said.

“I’m in a better position than most because I took necessary steps to secure myself,” he said. Still, “if it doesn’t turn around in a week or so I could lose all my drivers to other jobs and my barbers could suffer real hardship.”

At the state level, Gov. Brian Kemp recently announced that small businesses and nonprofits can apply for up to $2 million in low-interest economic injury disaster loans from the federal SBA to cover fixed debts, payroll and other bills that can’t be paid because of the coronavirus impact.

Peter Thompson, a Georgia Tech professor who specializes in small business and entrepreneurship, was among those waiting to see details of the federal stimulus package still being hammered out Wednesday. But “being able to access cheap loans is going to be lifeline” for many small companies, he said. “I think it is a very big deal.”

Landing regular SBA loans in the past has sometimes involved mountains of red tape that frustrated franchisees of the Maid Brigade, said Bart Puett, president and a founder of the Sandy Springs-based home-cleaning chain.

Sales for the company’s more than 400 franchisees around the nation are off by perhaps 30% as customers worry about having other people in their homes during the pandemic, Puett said.

“Small business is all about cash flow,” he said. For many owners around the nation, the stimulus package “is going to help. But the devil is going to be in the details. It’s all about how quickly business owners can get the money in their hands. How streamlined is the process.”

Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wells Fargo Securities, said even with the proposed relief package it is too late to stave off a fairly steep recession and “probably too late to save a lot of jobs in the hospitality and restaurant industry,” many with small businesses. But the stimulus “should help ensure the interruption of economic growth will be short.”

Federico “Fred” Castellucci, chief executive officer of Castellucci Hospitality Group, with restaurants in Atlanta, Decatur and Johns Creek, also is hoping the package provides quick help.

“Time is not on everyone’s side, and when things are pushed quickly, mistakes are made and there can be loopholes where people profit off of the stimulus. Like with everything with the coronavirus, there’s no good option.”

Robert Phalen, a chef and owner of One Eared Stag in Atlanta, is convinced the money will be insufficient to cover the depth of the needs. “At the moment nothing has been passed so there’s nothing we can do but pray and push.”

— Staff writer Henri Hollis contributed to this article.