By Annie Prafcke
Fargo, ND – Younis Younis, Co-Owner of Café Aladdin, closed his downtown restaurant after 23 years. He said the closure occurred because of the decline in business brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to find employees to work during this time.
“. . . we were just delaying the decision but things just keep going on and on,” he says.
Younis Younis and his brother Ahmad Younis temporarily closed their downtown restaurant for April and half of May at the onset of the pandemic. They were hoping the situation would improve, but it only got worse. Younis Younis says they continued to lose business from summer to October when they closed.
He laments, “. . . we thought things would be better by the summer but they’re not . . . If [in] the summer months it doesn’t do very good, [when it] gets the most business downtown, then we know it’s gonna be a really hard winter on us.”
The Younis brothers still run their 1609 32nd Ave. S. location for takeout, delivery and dine-in at 25% capacity.
Café Aladdin is not alone.
This year, 30 Fargo restaurants, breweries, hotels, and childcare centers closed their doors. Others are struggling to stay open. As the virus continues to rage and grant opportunities become fewer and farther between, it has become increasingly difficult for local businesses to survive.
While it is not one of the 30 establishments that went out of business, Teddy’s Eatery & Parlor is temporarily closed. Matthew Bengston, General Manager at Teddy’s, affirms this decision was based both on cutting expenses and maintaining public health.
“It was a combination of the two,” he says. “The state guidelines were putting us in a place where it wasn’t really profitable to stay open and we were putting our own staff and our community at risk . . .”
On Nov. 13th, Gov. Doug Burgum enacted an executive order mandating bars and restaurants maintain 50% seating occupancy or less, keep six feet between tables, and limit in-person dining to take place between 4:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
Bengston says even before they decided to shut down, Teddy’s was barely making enough to get by with their dine-in service and takeout.
While Teddy’s is closed for now, Bengston says they plan to reopen.
“We don’t have any plans for closing the actual business permanently, but we will be hunkering down for the next couple months . . . and trying to make the smartest decision that we can to better the community . . .”
In the spring, many businesses were able to remain open with assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). PPP was created to help small businesses keep their employees. Establishments that received the loan could use it to cover payroll and operating costs.
Fargo’s spike in business closures is recent. In April, only 4 establishments licensed by Fargo-Cass Public Health closed. Contrastingly, between August 20th and November 20th, 21 restaurants, bars, food service establishments, childcare centers, and hotels closed.
The pandemic may not be the sole reason for all closures. However, Jim Gilmour, Fargo’s Director of Strategic Planning & Research, says this number is exceptionally high. In an average year, fewer than 5 of these closures occur.
Fargo Commissioner John Strand says that there are currently few available North Dakota grants for small businesses, especially after December. North Dakota offered the Economic Resiliency Grant (ERG) to help businesses cover COVID-related safety improvements. The state also offered the Hospitality Economic Resiliency Grant (HERG) to cover operational costs for establishments such as bars, restaurants, and movie theaters. Yet, applications for both are now closed. The state offers the Hospitality ERG Plus for lodging businesses, such as hotels. However, applications close December 18th. Strand affirms that the City of Fargo is currently looking into ways it can better support businesses.
With public health concerns, and few available grants, Strand says he worries about business owners struggling to pay rent and employees. He fears how downtown, as Fargo’s local business hub, will fare long-term. “I’m worried about our culture downtown,” he says. “That’s kind of been the art and entertainment and food and culture of our state . . .”
Strand suggests people ask the owners of their favorite eateries and shops how to best support them. He also encourages Fargonians to shop locally whenever possible, if they can do so safely such as by ordering products online or having food delivered.
He says, “. . . if you’re going to spend [your dollars] anyway and you have choices of spending them with big box national companies or local homegrown businesses, do it. Make your shift.”
Yet, it is unclear whether grant assistance will be sufficient to keep brick and mortar establishments open across the state. Jon Beyer owns Jonny B's Brickhouse in Jamestown, ND. Jonny B’s received the ERG grant, the HERG grant, and PPP, which Beyer says helped keep his business afloat. However, the process was arduous.
“It wasn’t just enough to turn in your payroll. They wanted to see that the checks actually came back and cleared the bank . . . you’re turning in massive amounts of paperwork. With the HERG grant . . . you have to go through every single invoice, turn that in, and then you have to find the cancelled checks as well.”
Thankfully, Beyer has a full-time bookkeeper, who also happens to be his mother. He says without her, it would have been nearly impossible to turn in everything on time for these grant applications and run his business.
“Unless you have somebody working full time as bookkeeper for your business, I don’t see how anybody could have possibly applied for it,” he says. “So the small, small businesses that are probably the ones suffering the absolute most are the ones that they made it really really difficult for them to get this money.”
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