President Donald Trump invited the owners and some staff members of a family-owned coffee chain that employs adults with disabilities to the White House in April to be announced as the best face of the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal bailout aimed at helping small businesses survive the dire economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the East Room, in his cafeteria apron, employee Michael Heup said to the president, “At Bitty and Beau’s, we like to use the phrase called ‘Not broken.’ That means that I and all my amazing coworkers don’t we are broken and we have a lot to offer. I know that the great country of the United States is not broken either. “
Eight weeks of federal loans allowed Bitty & Beau’s to keep Heup and his fellow employees, even when stores were closed. But now federal support has stopped. And like many companies that benefited from the $ 669 billion federal program aimed at closing the gap as the nation ducked, Bitty and Beau’s Coffee were forced to shrink after a cautious reopening.
“At this point, financially, it doesn’t make sense to have everyone back at full steam when we still don’t have customers in store,” said Amy Wright, who co-founded Bitty and Beau’s with her husband Ben after two of their four children were diagnosed with Down syndrome.
“There is a small part of me that I was hoping would prove everyone wrong, and this would be the only place where people would just come back,” Wright told ABC News. “But the reality is that it is still a terrifying time.”
The nation’s top financial experts have made it clear that it is too early to know when and how the country will recover financially. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in late April that he was still hoping that government loans and grants would help.
“This direct support can make a critical difference not only to help families and businesses in a time of need, but also to limit lasting damage to our economy,” said Powell.
But as the pandemic has dragged on, moving across the country at critical points, economic uncertainty remains.
Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from California, told ABC News that the federal bailout was intended to allow companies to make payrolls at a time when they were receiving no income, and it did, at least so far.
“I think for many companies … it was a lifesaver,” said Porter. “One of the challenges we face is that we did not know and do not yet know how long this pandemic will last.”
More federal aid could come. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Tuesday that talks are underway about possible additional funds for small businesses. But for now, Bitty and Beau’s, like many other businesses, are preparing to weather the storm on their own.
Bitty and Beau’s, which opened its first store in 2016 and now has five locations in the South and Mid-Atlantic, emerged as an early applicant for support.
The coffee chain employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and advocates for greater social inclusion of people with such disabilities. During the long closing of the coronavirus, Wright made the early decision to close the doors.
“When we first learned about the pandemic, of course, our minds and hearts went directly to our employees and worried about their health,” he said. “Many of them have pre-existing conditions. So we were very careful and gentle in dealing with that. ”
At the same time, Wright said that many of the 120 employees were working on their first jobs, and that they had begun to experience the joy of taking home a salary. The task of sharing the news that they would have to close for their safety was overwhelming.
“The uncertainty of what was to come next was, I mean, a lot of emotions were going on,” Wright said.
As the payroll support program took shape, the company’s local bank began helping them guide them through the process. To comply with the rules, Bitty and Beau had to keep their payroll, even when the cafeterias were closed.
By devoting his energy to his online business, selling ground coffee, T-shirts, and other products, Wright assigned staff to work from home writing handwritten thank you notes for every order shipped.
The loan would last eight weeks. The hope, he said, was that the nation would reopen before federal support ran out.
“When everything goes dark at first and you are struggling to find a piece of hope for your business to survive and you see that light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “even if it’s only for two months, it was a risk worth taking. for us “.
Last month, as the end of that period approached, and the spread of the virus seemed to be slowing, Bitty and Beau slowly began reopening stores. They opened the flagship store, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the store in Annapolis, Maryland, where Heup paces the counter greeting the guests, making coffees, and exchanging cash at the cash register.
Even when all five stores opened, it didn’t follow the steady stream of customers that once animated the stores.
“It has been extremely slow,” Wright said in early June. It has been especially hard on employees. While some, like Heup, are back behind the coffee counter, others have been asked to feel good.
“Basically we just said, please wait,” said Wright. “We will bring him back as soon as the business backs him up. And that is difficult. I mean, everyone is excited and ready to go back to work. ”
Like many companies now eagerly waiting for the nation to reopen completely, Wright remains optimistic about the potential of his coffee business to one day return. She and her husband, she said, “are in this for the long haul.”
“And we’ll make this work,” said Wright. “We will take advantage personally to keep things going. Because we care so much. ”
ABC News reporters Ben Siegel and Kate Holland contributed to this report.