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How One Business Is Dealing With The Coronavirus: 'We Are Going To Hunker Down A Bit'

Stephan Bisaha
Bill Rowe says the coronavirus outbreak has started to affect his catering business.

While the entire United States economy has taken a hit from the coronavirus, the restaurant industry is particularly vulnerable.

With people sheltering at home and a prohibition against large gatherings, many Wichita restaurants have temporarily shut down, laid off employees and are waiting for the pandemic to run its course.

Bill Rowe has spent more than 30 years in the food industry. He owned the popular Willie C’s Cafe & Bar and later Red Beans Bayou Grill.

He currently operates Blue Moon Catering out of his Villa Luna event space in west Wichita.

He said his company does about 800 catering events a year, from weddings to private parties to fundraising events. Rowe said the coronavirus outbreak is starting to affect his business.

He talked with Tom Shine and The Range about navigating a business through a downturn and shared his advice for young restaurant owners.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

You ever seen anything like this before in your time in the industry?

No. There's been some unusual incidents, of course, through that much time. 9/11 was really a very difficult time. And the Great Recession was an extremely difficult time. This has a different twist to it and hopefully is a temporary thing. But it's going to be very difficult for operators to get through this.

You just had a lengthy meeting with your key people over here (at Villa Luna). What did you … discuss, and what did you tell him?

There were several topics. One of them was what we need to do operationally to keep our staff safe and to avoid being a spreader (of the coronavirus). So there's all the things about hand-washing and disinfecting workstations. Having Kleenex all over the building in case somebody has to sneeze, those kinds of things.

It also was how to deal with clients cause we're an events company, and so there's weddings scheduled and business meetings. Those people are frantic trying to figure out how to deal with that. So … we talked about what our stance is going to be, and it's going to be helpful, friendly, proactive; do whatever it takes to help them reconfigure.

Then we talked about the financial impact of this cause our revenues will be down. Fortunately we're strong financially so that we'll be able to weather this storm, but we are going to hunker down a bit. … We’re going to avoid any unnecessary spending. I mean, people get frugal when these kinds of things happen, and we’re going to do the same.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / KMUW
A wall of empty clipboards where customer orders normally would be is visual evidence of the coronavirus' impact on business.

What's been the immediate impact in terms of cancellations and postponements?

This thing has been progressive disclosure. It's not like everybody knew everything on the first day. Every day it’s a new drip, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And so as it revealed itself to us, then people got more serious about it and the phone started ringing, and we've had a lot of little events cancel and now the big ones are rescheduling.

It’s not uncommon to get a call today for a lunch tomorrow … and there's just a constant bunch of those that come in, and those are gone. Just the phone's not ringing. Nobody's scheduling a sales meeting next Thursday for 20 and having lunch. It's just not happening.

You've been around this industry for a long time. You know it can be up and down. Certain events will impact you. … I'm looking at your staff that was here. Most of them are younger people. Are you trying to tell them, ‘Hey, I've seen this. It'll be OK.’

Well, undoubtedly there's a fear factor running wild throughout America and a lot of people are worried about their personal situation and am I going to have a job? Is my income going to be there? Am I going to get hours if I'm an hourly employee?

And so one of our missions today was how do we position this to our staff? And so we're protecting our full-time people, whether they're salaried or hourly … they will be in good shape. If we don't have catering work, then we're going to do projects. We may paint the building, we're going to detail the trucks, we're going to scrub the walls … repair all the equipment. … So we'll keep them busy doing productive work.

The whole restaurant industry in Wichita, and probably I guess across the country, is struggling. Several restaurants have closed in town or are ready to make that move to close. Do you talk with other folks in your industry … and what are you guys talking about?

Well, not as much as I used to. I was a restaurateur for many, many years, and I’m hurting for those people. So many of the independents are operating on the edge. It's an extraordinarily competitive field out there, which is great for the consumer. You have to be sharp and keep your prices really pared down to be able to compete in this marketplace. … If you're an operator and you have limited resources, it's tough to compete in. A lot of these restaurants are lifestyle careers for these people, and they're living on the edge. They don't have a lot of excess working capital. And if they go two or four weeks without revenue, that may tank them.

So we're going to lose some restaurants?

There's no doubt in my mind.

What would you say to someone who’s a young restaurant owner, just opened a place maybe a year ago and is starting to get a little bit nervous. … What advice would you give them?

You’ve got to get ahead of it. You're going to have to make painful decisions on people immediately. Don't go incremental on this thing.

I coach our young managers: If you have a problem, don't chase the problem with incremental fixes that don't work. ‘So, let's try this. Well, that didn't work.’ We'll do a little more and then a little more and then a little more. And then the problem is out of control. Figure out your worst-case scenario and just go in with it blazing from day one and that's your best chance of success. You've got to get crazy frugal. Strip it down to as few people as you can manage.

Get with your vendors and get whatever relief from them you can get. … If I were a small entrepreneur and I was working on the edge, I would be talking to those people.

It doesn't do anybody any good if you fail. If you tank and go out of business, nobody's got a job. So what I would say to you is protect the people that are most important to you. … If you're going into battle, you want to go in with the people that you can depend on and everybody knows who those are in their organizations. So those are the ones you want to want to protect.

Tom Shine is the director of news and public affairs at KMUW. Follow him on Twitter @thomaspshine.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.