Small businesses struggle to reopen and survive : The Indicator from Planet Money Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream in Seattle has been on the same economic and political roller coaster ride many small businesses have. Now they're trying to open back up, survive and grow.
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The Small Business Roller Coaster

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The Small Business Roller Coaster

The Small Business Roller Coaster

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The last five months have been extraordinarily rough on small businesses. Many have been forced to close down, making no income at all for months. Others have tried to pivot, find ways to make money in our new world.

Back in April, we talked with Molly Moon Neitzel. She's the owner of Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream in Seattle, Wash. Molly started her business about a decade ago as one little ice-cream shop, and she's grown it into eight shops and an $8-million-a-year business. But when we talked to Molly back in April, things were pretty bleak. She'd just closed her ice-cream shops, and she was scrambling to survive.


MOLLY MOON NEITZEL: I've laid off some of my best friends. My assistant has been with me for five years. She has a 3-year-old daughter. One of my area managers started as a scooper 11 years ago and has worked his way up in the company. And my dad works for our company. He's our facilities maintenance manager, and he's incredible. He was a general contractor for 40 years. And I laid my dad off. He's on unemployment.


VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, we check back in with Molly Moon.


VANEK SMITH: Molly Moon Neitzel - owner of Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream in Seattle, Wash. - thank you so much for joining us. So when we last talked, it was very early days. There were so many unknowns, including how long the shutdown was going to last. That was, like, a very hard time for you.

MOON NEITZEL: It was devastating. It's still devastating. I think now I'm just, like, kind of used to the level of devastation that my business and other small businesses are going through. You know, we've lost millions of dollars. I had to lay everyone off. But on the positive side of things, like, we did some really creative stuff online. We sold these pint club cards. You buy 10 pints' worth on a card; you get 11 pints and a cute little freezer bag. I think we did, like, $60,000 in that pint club card.

VANEK SMITH: So this was, like, basically, selling, like, future pints.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah. People were buying futures in Molly Moon's. We sold sweatshirts that said - stay home, eat ice cream. Those made, like, $20,000. So we kind of scraped through a few months like that, and that's what was able to pay our health insurance bills. And so everybody that we laid off, I have continued to be - have consistently on our health insurance plan. And I just could not bear the thought of any of these people that I care about and feel responsible for not having health insurance through a pandemic.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot of money for you, though, and your business.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah, it is. It's - I mean, I still am not sure how we'll make it through the winter. But this - being able to pay for everybody's health insurance, even if we have to lay people off again, is, like, my floor. That is what we have to do.

VANEK SMITH: At the same time, you got one of the government loans.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah. We got the PPP, the Payroll Protection Program. We got $734,000.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that's a lot.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah. Well, we've used it to bring back, like, more than 90% of our employees, and then we also used it to pay rent and utilities. And that has just been so helpful.

VANEK SMITH: But you also pivoted a little bit from the majority of your income coming from scoops in stores and things like that to supermarket sales.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah. So I really need to ramp that up. And a majority of our income is still going to come from the scoop shops. They're just - they're doing terribly in relative terms. I'm doing, like, 50% of normal sales right now. So that's not really sustainable. We also have - like, one of our largest shops was on the very edge of CHOP, the Capital Hill Occupied Protest zone.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, right, right.

MOON NEITZEL: And it got very violent. Police were attacking protesters and tear gassing them every night. Our ice-cream shop was full of tear gas. I mean, this was really scary.

VANEK SMITH: And so what's happening with that now?

MOON NEITZEL: CHOP was cleared out by a mayor's decree. It feels like our neighborhood has been sanitized. It's very sad. There's no one around except police officers. It feels like a ghost town. Then a businessman visiting from California came into our shop and put his credit card down and said, I want to buy all these police ice cream, and he bought hundreds of police officers ice cream.

And then there was all this social media from Black Lives Matter activists who were like, Molly Moon's is giving free ice cream to the cops; this is messed up. They also had taped off the neighborhood, where you couldn't get into the neighborhood unless you, like, walked through a police line and caution tape. So, of course, when I was going to work, officers were, like, waving me in, lifting the tape for me, like they're chivalrous. But my Black and brown employees were having a really hard time getting to work.


MOON NEITZEL: And one employee in particular was, like, kind of given 20 questions, to the point where she felt harassed and scared to walk through their police line and under their tape and get to work. And my employees were like, this feels really hard to walk through our doors through, like, a sea of police officers. And I tried to have graceful conversations with police officers for a few days, and it - I was being met with some grace but a lot of aggression and a lot of defensiveness.

So we've always had these signs in our windows that say we're a gun - Molly Moon's is a gun-free zone. So we put up a sign that just said, like, police officers, basically, this applies to you, too. We're a gun-free zone. Like, we just don't want guns in our shops. And that has just created a lot of backlash. I've gotten, like, threats, lots and lots and lots of threats...


MOON NEITZEL: ...That people are going to come rob - or worse - our store because the police won't come now.

VANEK SMITH: So you've basically gotten it from both sides - from people who thought you were buying ice cream for the police and now from the police, who feel like you're telling them they can't come into your shop.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, and this is in addition, of course, to trying to run your company and navigate it through an extremely difficult time.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah. I've spent most of the last two days making sure, first and foremost, that my employees feel safe and, second, to, you know, try to sell ice cream. If we can just get to, like, 60% to 65% of last year's sales, we'll be OK. I think it's possible for us to meet our goals and get through the winter. But at the same time, it's also possible that we won't make it, and that is just so different than my business experience in the last 12 years.

VANEK SMITH: You mentioned that you're worried about the company making it. Is it, like, a small chance that it won't work out? Does it feel like 50-50? Like, how does - like, I don't know. How does it feel right now?

MOON NEITZEL: I'm usually such an optimist that it's definitely more than 50-50. I mean, what I say to myself every day is, like, how am I going to make it through the winter, you know? How are we going to do this? We have to do this. And I don't even think I could really, though, guess what the percentage is because everything is so uncertain about the pandemic. All of us out here in small-business land are struggling.

VANEK SMITH: Well, Molly, thank you so much for talking with me.

MOON NEITZEL: Yeah, thank you.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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