HOLYOKE — Like many businesses, Holyoke Craft Beer has had to improvise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many.
“It was a wild ride, like a roller coaster,” owner Mike Pratt said with a laugh Friday.
When the coronavirus first arrived in the spring of 2020, the brewery had to shut down its little tavern — “our main thing,” Pratt said. So they started canning beer for the first time, selling it curbside. They teamed up with their neighbors at Cubit Coworks to set up a beer garden last summer, then pivoted again when the weather turned cold, asking their loyal customers to pitch in and sign up for the advance for regular beer orders – a campaign they called “Operation Hunker Down”.
Now Holyoke Craft Beer has changed its plans again, signing with a distributor to start selling beer in the coming weeks in local stores. But this would not have been possible without the help of the town hall.
Holyoke Craft Beer is one of more than 20 companies that have received funding through the city, which last fall committed $800,000 in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for grants to small businesses, primarily in the struggling hospitality industry. This week, the city announced that it had distributed about half of those funds, providing a lifeline to businesses like Pratt’s and 21 other businesses in the city.
“It’s pretty tough out there,” said Kate Preissler, special programs manager at the city’s Office of Community Development.
Preissler said the city has been accepting grant applications on an ongoing basis from businesses since mid-October. This money was given in priority to companies in the hospitality sector, but it also went to companies with a high level of interaction with the public, such as salons and hairdressers. These businesses have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, she said.
The $800,000 in business grants were part of nearly $15 million in federal funds that then-acting mayor Terence Murphy distributed in September. The city will still have nearly $15 million to distribute in a second round this year. The US Department of the Treasury has placed limits on the use of this money, such as public health initiatives, combating the negative economic impacts of the pandemic or infrastructure projects that involve improving supply systems. water or broadband access.
Preissler said the city saw a surge in applications soon after the program was announced, but now expects the remaining roughly $400,000 to last longer. These early projects were in many cases funding projects to help companies pivot their operations as they seek to recover from the effects of the pandemic. With the latest surge in coronavirus cases, however, she said more businesses are now looking for relief funds “just to help people get through the winter”.
“I hear from everyone that we really feel like we’ve backed off again,” Preissler said. “What I also see is just a ton of resilience – people who are just going to pull through and do the best they can.”
For some, the relief money has been used to retain staff or cover operating costs such as paying rent.
“That way they can breathe a little easier so they don’t lose their spaces or catch up on their bills,” Preissler said.
That’s especially true for new businesses, which can’t rely on a loyal, long-time customer base like more established businesses, Preissler said.
Chelsea Falcetti and Tiffany Duchesne own The Plan beauty salon at 420B Dwight St, which has also received funding from the city. They had only opened nine months before the closures that accompanied the early days of the pandemic – just as the business was building a customer base. The abrupt shutdown has essentially forced them to come up with a new business plan, especially given the uncertainty the pandemic has brought, such as increased appointment cancellations.
“I think the most comforting thing to know was that we had the security of paying our rent to provide our salon as a workplace for our staff,” Duchesne said. The Plan is now looking to expand into new territories, renting some space to other companies, for example, and organizing events.
For others, the city’s federal stimulus money went to the equipment needed to transition their business to better survive in a new normal. Some, for example, used the money to create a website to facilitate take-out orders or to schedule appointments, Preissler said. Others used the money to upgrade their POS systems.
Holyoke Craft Beer, meanwhile, used its grant to purchase a beer canning machine. The brewery previously used a manual canning machine, which was taxing and less efficient to operate.
“It would allow us to really get our beer out and distribute it in Western Mass stores,” Pratt said.
The brewery has still not been able to open its tavern – they are currently looking for a new space for it in the city – so being able to sell cans in stores is a big problem for Pratt and his family.
“Without all of this, we wouldn’t be here today,” Pratt said of funding ARPA and other federal aid during the pandemic.
Other businesses that have received funding include restaurants like Fernandez Family Restaurant, Khi & Eli’s Food For The Soul, Lechonera El Paseo, Mel’s Restaurant and Pic’s Pub. Other companies include everything from Julio’s Auto Repair to glassblowers at Battat Glass. The International Volleyball Hall of Fame and the Wistariahurst Museum have also received support.
For Pratt, the fact that Holyoke Craft Beer was chosen as the recipient of city funds means the future is bright for the company, he said. Things may still be difficult, but the company now knows how to adapt.
“It’s a different path than we imagined, but we’re fighting,” Pratt said.
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at email@example.com.