Milwaukee-area business owners discuss navigating the pandemic – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Whitney Rios’ dog grooming van is equipped with Velcro-attached accessories, treats and a Hairvac system that snaps onto her clippers and cleans while she cuts.
Rios resurrected her business, Whitney’s Mobile Grooming, in summer 2020. She started the service in Madison in 2014. But a move to Milwaukee in 2017 led her to a job at a shop in Bay View.
“Starting fresh, it was like starting the business over again,” she said.
It took three years of building clients and business closures caused by the pandemic for Rios to return to her full-time mobile service.
Now, Rios’ schedule is booked, serving pet owners in Milwaukee, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Hales Corners, Muskego, Franklin, Greendale and more.
As a mobile business Rios is able to circumnavigate many of the issues that business owners have faced since early 2020, such as employment issues and a loss of clientele.
Her decision to double down on the mobile service is just one example of a local business adapting to the problems caused by the pandemic. Some business owners have collaborated, used business assistance programs and displayed ingenuity as they endured hardships over the past two years.
Here’s how some Milwaukee-area business owners went independent, received assistance and operated during the pandemic.
More: A Germantown woman’s pet treat business that she started when the COVID-19 pandemic hit is now thriving
Establishments like Greendale’s Johnson’s Green 7 operated for over 60 years before the pandemic caused its closure due to staffing woes and patron shortages.
Owner James “Jimmy” Johnson said only three employees had staffed Green 7, making it difficult to maintain.
In Waukesha, Pat’s Rib Place has been closed for four months; owners Alisha and Ty Hayes hope to hire enough staff to reopen by late March.
As of April 2021, 34% of small businesses nationwide were closed compared to January 2020, according to Visual Capitalist. Milwaukee’s small business closure rate increased from 22% in 2020 to 27% in 2021.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was 14.1% in April 2021, up from 3.3% in April 2019, according to a Small Business Association 2020 Small Business Profile.
More: 2022 jobs picture: Businesses will continue to struggle to attract and retain workers as pandemic wears on
As of Feb. 18, total job postings in Wisconsin had increased by 32.6% since January 2020 and peaked at an increase of 106% in June 2021, according to an Opportunity Insights economic tracker.
Rios takes the shop to her clients; it’s another way for her to appeal to people who have grown accustomed to delivery and pickup services.
“I am just going to people’s houses,” Rios said. “I either pull in their driveway or park on the street.”
“People didn’t want to go into shops and have their dog around a bunch of other dogs and people for hours on end,” she added.
When shops were temporarily closed at the onset of the pandemic, Rios created YouTube tutorials on how to groom your dog at home.
“It was a thing in the grooming industry,” she said. “We would take pictures of everyone’s funny home grooms because the dogs obviously didn’t look as good as they did when a professional did them.”
Rios said some of the grooming mishaps weren’t a laughing matter, though, because some pet owners had mistakenly injured their dogs.
“On the flip side of that there were a lot of accidents as well because people don’t know how to safely handle their dogs and scissors around their faces and bodies,” Rios said. “Dogs wiggle a lot, and we have a lot of training to do what we do. So it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
She said pet owners showed more appreciation for groomers after they tried it themselves.
“Once everybody came back and we were opened up again, the tips went through the roof because people really, really understood how hard it actually is to groom a dog.”
Like many other businesses, grooming shops offered curbside services, which led to a decrease in retail sales.
Rios said some groomers even offered delivery services and would take dogs to their owners or drop off food.
“Some people hate the phrase ‘new normal’ but that’s kind of what it is,” said Rios.
“Now there’s just kind of a new way to do things in your daily life, and it makes it easier in a lot of ways to just grocery shop online,” she added. “It makes it a lot easier in these times where everyone has a lot of anxiety about doing things. Just living life is harder right now for the past year and a half.”
Michael Gulock, president of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said the SSCC didn’t charge fees for an entire year during the pandemic while still providing services to businesses. Gulock said staffing is the biggest challenge businesses are facing.
Gulock said many businesses they serve have explored different technologies to become more efficient and work with fewer staff members.
“Not because anyone wants to replace the staff, because that’s not necessarily the answer,” he said. “But we have to adapt and overcome and try to find ways to service the customer in a timely manner, and do it efficiently.”
In 2018, Octane Coffee owner Adrian Deasy thought to bring an automated drive-thru coffee business to Pewaukee.
The business would have customers download an app to order coffee and use the customer’s GPS to have the coffee ready for them at the window.
“We thought we were going to have to drag people kicking and screaming into our version of the future,” Deasy said. “But then, welcome to COVID, everything shut down, changed over to a curbside, grab-and-go, drive-thru, no bathroom, no contact kind of experience.”
Deasy’s automated operation seems suited for the technology-driven services that Gulock said businesses are focusing on. However, the pandemic still delayed Octane Coffee’s grand opening.
“It just didn’t make any sense,” Deasy said in a March 2021 Journal Sentinel report. “The consumer, they’re not going to the office, they’re not going to school, they’re not running errands like they typically do.”
Deasy hopes to break ground in spring near Point Burger Bar, W229 N1400 Westwood Drive, and open this summer.
“It’s a big opportunity to jump in and ride this reopening and normalization wave as people do get back to work, back to school, back to errands, back to living normal life where they’re driving and need drive-thru coffee,” he said.
Deasy said he received a $10,000 Bounceback grant that gave him “a lot more freedom” to prepare for the opening and cover warehouse expenses. 
“That basically paid our rent for one year,” he said.
Ted O’Leske and his wife, Jill, opened the Early Childhood Education Center in 2005 in Oak Creek. When a longtime employee retired and others opted to stay home as the virus spread, O’Leske hoped the center would stay open.
O’Leske said the center operated day-by-day, unsure whether local mandates would require them to close.
“We didn’t know if the state was going to shut it down tomorrow,” he said. “We didn’t know what the Oak Creek Health Department was going to do.”
“When things started to shut down there were a lot of families that said they’re not coming, and there were families saying they absolutely needed care,” he added.
O’Leske said he didn’t charge the families that decided not to bring in their kids. The center received a $5,000 grant through the Payroll Protection Program and used it to offset lost revenue.
Kathleen Schilling, executive director at Ozaukee Economic Development, said the various grant and loan programs offered have kept businesses in operation and even helped new businesses open.
“Small businesses are challenged in the first place, many of them opening and operating on pretty slim margins,” said Schilling. “We saw more businesses considering opening (in) spring and summer of 2021, and we’re seeing more continuing to open now.”
Schilling said due in part to the hardships that business owners have faced, some people are just unsure of where to look for help.
“I think sometimes with business assistance, people don’t know who always to go to,” she said. “So I think one of the things that’s challenging for businesses is sometimes people run into situations and just decide that it’s too overwhelming.”
“I always recommend people either talk to their local chamber, their local economic development group, even their local banker because a lot of times they’ll know about different programs that are out there and available.”
Before the Spa of Brookfield opened in November 2021, several business owners collaborated with the goal of creating a convenient space for their clients.
“My vision was a one-stop shop,” said Briana Twet, Spa of Brookfield owner.
Twet also owns The Lash Spa inside the Brookfield spa. The eight businesses that occupy a space at the spa include Journey Chiropractic, Kam Med Spa, Extended Hands, Skin Care by Nova Z, Skin Care by Aimee Kristen, Belle Jeune MediSpa and REVIV Lounge.
Twet said she has seen a lot of people in the industry start their own businesses since the pandemic started for several reasons: not having to follow guidelines, creating their own schedule and making higher wages.
“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I don’t think I would have done it this fast,” she said of opening the spa.
In 2020, Twet worked at a Pilates studio while operating The Lash Spa. Twet decided to focus full time on The Lash Spa when the Pilates studio temporarily closed and gym-goers started buying home equipment.
“I definitely had all my lash clients saying ‘will you do my lashes in your home?’” she said. “That was really a huge eye-opener for me that fitness was definitely the first thing that people gave up, and beauty was the first thing they wanted back.”
Twet said she expedited her five- to 10-year business plan because of the vacant spaces left by closed businesses.
“I was pretty sure that I would not get that price or that opportunity that I did if I would’ve waited because of the pandemic, because all of these spaces are so empty right now with businesses going under.”
Eddie Morales can be reached at 414-223-5366 or Follow him on Twitter at @emoralesnews.
More: Tom Saler: Economic scars from the pandemic might be long-lasting. A return to 2% inflation might be impossible.
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