Businesses that were cooperative, flexible and agile weathered the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and state shutdown.

Monte Dybvig, owner of Doctor Monte’s Auto for 21 years, located in downtown Cambridge, said he grew through the COVID-19 pandemic. His shop offers general repair services for a variety of vehicles.

“We did better last year than we did the year before,” Dybvig said. “It was a little bit more up and down. So we had a low month, we had a record month, that type of thing going on.”

He believes that due to the state shutdown and people not driving as much, they had more time to service their vehicles at his shop, he said.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic

Dybvig approached his mechanics during the beginning of the pandemic and said: “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We have made preparations to make sure that you’re employed.”

“That was how we started into this and relieved them of any stress in the back. We don’t want to have that there,” he said.

Dybvig used COVID-19 relief money such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and others to pay his mechanics during times when business was slow, he said.

“We kept everybody employed,” he added. “If we didn’t have something to do, we found something of mine to work on. Meantime, internally, (we) cleaned up, or straightened up and fixed up.”

When customers brought their vehicles for service, Dybvig implemented different strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he said.

“We went through a cleaning process on the cars before we got out and after we were done,” he said. “Anything we touched got cleaned. We isolated the shop from our customers.”

The new strategies ensured his shop continued operating and did not shut down, he said.

Overall, Dybvig expressed the pandemic didn’t hurt his business.

“It was just a good year last year — literally our lowest month would have been March, but not by much,” he said. “And then April picked up quite significantly. (It) dipped a little in May. June came on strong. July was the biggest month we ever had.”

Tomo Hibachi & Sushi restaurant

Tomo Hibachi & Sushi restaurant in North Branch experienced an impact by the COVID-19 state-mandated closures of last year.

Kongling Tang, who has been operating the family-owned restaurant for nearly five years, decided to close Tomo in March 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19, he said.

“We closed for around one and a half months,” he said. “So then we decided to reopen because we can do nothing just staying at home.”

When Tang opened his restaurant again, they only offered a pick-up option, he said.

“Our restaurants had to stop and pivot and figure out how to care for people to take and bring the food home,” North Branch Community Development Director Carla Vita said, adding it’s an option that may not go away after the pandemic.

The mom-and-pop restaurants have had to pivot many times since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Some of them weren’t geared for takeout,” said Mary Stanko, executive director of North Branch Area Chamber of Commerce. “So they had to kind of pivot and learn how to do that and do it well.”

Many businesses were hit financially during the state-mandated shutdown, Stanko said.

“So they’re recovering from financially that whole (period) where they were trying to keep afloat,” she said, “still pay their bills, you know, rent, electricity, etc. But also, several of them were trying to hold on to key employees, yet had no customers, or had minimal customers as far as takeout.”

Shift Physical Therapy and Wellness

Renee Hancock and Jackie Giese weighed in on how their outpatient physical therapy practice, Shift Physical Therapy and Wellness, located in Cambridge, has been going after opening in October 2020.

“Overall, things have just continued to grow for us here at Shift,” Hancock said. “And I think one of the things that Jackie and I have been most grateful of over the last year is people’s willingness to still, like, meet with us in person despite COVID.”

Collaboration between community partners and local businesses has been a big part of their continued growth as a new business, she said.

“For us, there’s been a lot of great growth, and lots of word of mouth coming in, which has been awesome to see,” Giese said. “And a lot of it is coming, there are a lot more people willing to get out right now, too. So despite COVID, you know, we’re now seeing a lot more people wanting to get out and take control of their health. So for us, that’s a really great benefit in our client population.”

AmericInn Lodge & Suites

The AmericInn Lodge & Suites, located in North Branch, was closed most of April 2020, said Paul DeVoe, co-owner of the hotel.

“Logistically there’s a lot of steps to having a large building like that be closed up, so that was what we scrambled with right away,” he said.

During that time, the hotel wasn’t making revenue. So DeVoe applied for PPP money, he said.

“And as soon as we got PPP money, we brought our staff back so they had income,” he explained. “And the idea was that, you know, that we brought our staff back so that they had work, even though we weren’t busy as a business.”

DeVoe said that being in communication with members of the community, the city, and economic development was important for assessing the reality of the business industry and the community.

“We just tried to keep track of how things are going for people,” he said. “We tried to look for ways that communicate with people, like in our Facebook page and stuff, we increased our presence.”

When business was slow, the housekeepers did a thorough cleaning and organizing, as well as painting the hotel, DeVoe said.

“Everybody kept busy trying to make, you know, make the hotel ready for when people came back from COVID,” he said.

During the Valentine’s Day week of 2021, DeVoe decided to offer around 25 rooms free of charge, he said, “to people who just said that they needed a break during COVID.” The free-room opportunity was made possible through the hotel’s Facebook page, he added.

“It was just sort of like, ‘Hey this has been hard on everybody, tell us your story,’” was the nature of the Facebook conversation, he said. “They told us, like everybody else has heard, you know, it was hard on people.”

The current reality of different businesses

On May 14, Gov. Tim Walz ended Minnesota’s mask mandate for everyone. Shortly after that, North Branch restaurants experienced an “explosion” of customers returning inside, Stanko said.

“But they’re facing a whole new problem,” she added. “They don’t have staff to now handle, because they had to release so many other employees also, now they don’t have enough staff and can’t get people to hire on to handle the demand of those coming back into those restaurants again.”

“I would say 100%,” she said about the low staffing problem that’s affecting all industries.

Tomo Hibachi & Sushi restaurant now

Tang said he opened dine-in services at his restaurant about a month ago when state restrictions relaxed and his employees were vaccinated. However, his current challenges echo what Stanko has said.

“The big issue is really hard hiring people right now,” he said. “We still need at least two more people.”

Business is going well for Tang currently, but what has changed drastically is the price increase in supplies. He explained, pre-COVID, chicken breast costs were between $1 and $1.20 a pound. But now it’s $2.40 a pound, a 100% increase, he calculated. As for beef, it used to be $6 a pound, but now it’s $9 a pound, he explained.

“Yeah, that’s a huge jump,” Tang said. “So yes, the two most big issues right now, the hiring and the price.”

Tang said his restaurant is only preparing to-go containers for everyone, but customers can dine in if they wanted to.

Doctor Monte’s Auto Repair now

Dybvig said the beginning of 2021 has been “amazing” for his business.

“We are just going way up,” he explained. “We’re starting to see more oil changes. And that tells me that people are driving more.”

The positive relationships with customers and having skilled mechanics have helped his business remain strong, he said.

“We can get things done quickly,” he said. “It’s one of the comments I get, is that we get a car in and get it fixed and get it done. And there’s no waiting depending on the size of the job. You don’t have to wait a week or whatever. We just have the staffing to get it done promptly.”

Shift Physical Therapy and Wellness now

Hancock and Giese hope to do more outreach activities with the youth sports groups and others.

“That was something, again, when youth sports were shut down, it wasn’t possible to meet with these groups and tell them about what it is that we offer,” Hancock said.

They also want to connect with the local mothers of preschool students, Hancocks said.

“That’s kind of our audience. That’s women with kids,” she said. “And so we had that plan, and then COVID said no, we can’t do that. So now we are having those opportunities to get in front of people and educate women about what we offer here at Shift.”

For students who are about to transition to college or a university, Hancock and Giese are thinking about offering educational opportunities to share their expertise to students who plan to study physical therapy or a similar subject, they said.

“Even to be able to work with the schools to offer, you know, education on what is it like to be a physical therapist, you know, what schooling do you need to have,” Giese said. “We can get in front of them and provide some of those educational pieces for them as well.”

Since the COVID-19 safety restrictions are more relaxed — such as wearing a mask is no longer necessary if the person is vaccinated — the clients coming into Shift are less anxious, Giese said.

“It’s no longer the topic of conversation, whereas before they’d walk through the doors, and they’re worried about, ‘Should we wear a mask?’” she said. “People are more comfortable.”

AmericInn Lodge & Suites now

Business has been improving for the hotel since about the middle of April 2021, DeVoe said.

When asked about what types of people reserve a room at his hotel, he said it’s usually three big groups.

“There are people who travel because of work; there are people who travel for leisure; and then there’s what we would call the group reservations (weddings, events, etc.),” he explained.

DeVoe is happy now that business is picking back up more.

“If six months ago, we could’ve looked forward to the way that it’s going today, I would have been very grateful for where we’re at,” he said. “I’m grateful that people are traveling again and using our hotel.”

What recent studies have shown

Vita and Stanko participated in a webinar, “Minnesota: 2030 - A framework for economic growth,” organized by the University of Minnesota Extension for Community Vitality. The webinar talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s economy and future.

“The stats are showing holistically in Minnesota that businesses are hurting for people,” Vita said, explaining what she learned from the webinar.

Why businesses are short on staff and can’t find workers is unclear, Stanko said.

“We have a large enough segment of the population who isn’t motivated to go out and get a job right now,” she added. “There’s a lot of implications to that.

“This is what we are seeing, people are filling out applications, but not showing up to interviews,” she continued. “They’re filling out the applications so they can demonstrate, ‘Oh, I filled out ... six applications this week.’ They’re not intending to go out and interview and apply for the job.”

How employers are looking to hire

Vita has personally heard from North Branch businesses that they can’t satisfy job positions that typically high schoolers would fill, she said. The webinar also demonstrated that nationwide, there has been a reduction in the number of youngsters entering the workforce, she said.

“But we know that we’re hearing this from our professors at the University of Minnesota, they’re noticing that throughout Minnesota and the United States, there’s a systemic change,” Vita said.

At a graduation party, Vita saw her 16-year-old son interact with an individual from a local business who offered him a job there, she said.

“And it was amazing because people are like, ‘Oh, if the kid could work, we want this kid to work,’” she said. “So businesses are hungry and are recruiting at graduation ceremonies.”

Businesses have had to change the way they acquire staff, Stanko said, complementing Vita’s ideas.

“So it used to be they post a job and they’d (have) a long list of people that would apply, then they would interview and they would pick,” Stanko said. “Now they’re having to recruit one-on-one.”

Employers have started to approach people in the community who are responsible and have integrity, she said, “that they believe would be a strong employee and ... make them an offer on the spot.”

The nature of relationships established

“I think COVID really cemented in some of psychologically, some of the impacts of business owners of ‘we’re going to have to pull together to make it, to ride the storm,’” Stanko said. “Or together we will falter, we will fail.”

The local businesses in North Branch chose the former and refused the latter, which has made Stanko proud, she said.

“They decided that we’re going to, we’re going to in, we’re going to financially, emotionally connect to one another, relate to one another, through it all,” she added.

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