After a decade of running his own catering business, Stephen Tanner said the start of 2020 was “going gangbusters” for him.
His company, Elevated Catering, began providing meals for the Denver Nuggets at the start of the year. “That just shot the revenue through the roof.”
Then the coronavirus outbreak was declared a worldwide pandemic March 11. That same day, the NBA abruptly ended its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive.
“The beginning of 2020 was too good to be true, shall we say,” Tanner said.
He is among thousands of Coloradans whose businesses have faltered or disappeared or whose jobs have been cut since COVID-19 first swept across the country. With a new surge in cases and restrictions on activities being retightened, Tanner and many others are trying to stay afloat until there’s a break from the economic storm.
But the likelihood of that happening soon is slim. A government report released Thursday showed that the economy soared in the last quarter, but hiring has since slowed and analysts are predicting much weaker activity going forward, The Associated Press reported.
That echoes a recent report by Gusto, an online payroll and benefits platform. Job recovery has slacked off since August, and the cold weather is expected to hurt restaurants and other businesses that have used outdoor spaces for social distancing, said the report’s author, Gusto economist Luke Pardue,
Without government intervention, Pardue said the leisure and hospitality industry could lose more than 1.4 million jobs nationally. In the Denver area, job losses could total more than 33,000 and more than 300 small businesses could close, the report said.
Adding to the grim outlook is a survey by Alignable, a small-business referral network. The survey found that in October, 34% of small-business owners couldn’t pay their full rent on time. The 7,726 businesses polled included restaurants, hair salons, gyms, retail outlets, marketing, entertainment and legal firms.
More than 760,000 initial unemployment claims have been filed in Colorado since mid-March, according to state labor officials.
The numbers provide an outline for the story about the economic hardships of the pandemic. The individual struggles and successes go to the heart of the drama as the pandemic enters its ninth month.
Here’s a look at three Coloradans living and working in the time of COVID-19.
The cratering of catering
After college, Tanner began a career in the tech industry. “But it just wasn’t right for me, being in an office.”
He quit his job to travel around the world. When he ran out of money, he returned to Colorado and started waiting tables, something he had done while in high school.
“Then somebody introduced me to catering and it is amazing how people treat you differently when they invite you into their home to celebrate, versus sitting in a restaurant,” Tanner said.
He excelled at the business end of the job and human resources. He figured when he got “a real job” again, he could work in human resources for a tech company.
But that never happened. He became the general manager of a catering company. Ten years ago, he and a partner started their own company. Tanner eventually bought out his partner.
“It has been a dream come true,” Tanner said. “I’m not going to get rich, but I won’t go hungry.”
Last year was the first time Tanner matched his income from 2000, when he was working in technology.This year was looking even better when he landed the Nuggets contract.
Then the coronavirus broke out.
“There’s President Trump on the TV. And at the same time, there was a Nuggets game that night and they said, ‘We’re not going to play,’” Tanner recalled. “All at once it cratered.”
All the weddings he had lined up were canceled. Corporate lunches, summer parties and other social events were canceled. There is none of the work that a normal election year generates.
Out of the six full-time and about 30 part-time employees, only the chef remained after the money from a federal loan ran out. Tanner, who isn’t taking a salary, said he has enough money to pay her until next spring. Investments and money he planned to use for a new car and house are keeping the business going.
Tanner is optimistic about his company’s long-term future. His landlord said he can pay the rent on his work space when business picks up. Elevated Catering is booking some small jobs. He expects the NBA to eventually resume regular games. And Tanner has invested in a venue for weddings, which he said will help fuel the catering business.
“I was all in favor of shutting down my business for six weeks, for three months, whatever it took to whip this,” Tanner said. “I was thinking by August or September that we’d be back in business.”
Cultivating new ventures in a pandemic
Roberto Meza and Dave Demerling, friends since high school in North Canton, Ohio, built a greenhouse on 35 acres near Bennett for their business, Emerald Gardens Microgreens. By the start of 2020, the two had established relationships with area grocers and restaurants and were working on a variety of projects to grow opportunities for small farms and expand access to food for local communities.
When the coronavirus crisis erupted, restaurants shut down. Emerald Gardens was already dealing with a drop in business after natural-food grocery chain Lucky’s Market filed for bankruptcy in January.
“It’s definitely been challenging,” Meza said. “We were hit pretty hard.”
But Meza said he and Demerling were determined not to give in to anxiety. The two said in an interview in January that one of their goals was to help build a sustainable local food system.
It still is, said Meza. “We really turned to each other, to innovate in a time when opportunities were scarce.”
The two have worked with LiveWell Colorado, a statewide nonprofit focused on increasing access to healthy food and lifestyles for communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Emerald Greens has teamed up with the organization and other farmers to put together boxes for the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program.
Emerald Gardens received a grant from Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, which has allowed Meza and Demerling to buy products from other local farmers to supply food pantries.
They also used the money to buy a refrigerated truck to distribute fresh food. The business owners helped start the East Denver Food Hub in Denver’s Globeville Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
“We’re working with food cooperatives and farmers who are trying to leverage their community as customers to remain viable,” Meza said.
From 40 to 60 farmers and cooperatives have been involved. The operation is moving about 1,500 pounds of food per week, Meza said.
Emerald Gardens is still selling its microgreens to the Lucky’s stores the original owners bought back and to a distributor who supplies restaurants.
Microgreens are tiny, edible greens, which are harvested from 10 to 14 days after germination. The plants can contain several times the level of vitamins and carotenoids, which act as antioxidants, of the fully grown versions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“What COVID allowed us to do is essentially kick ourselves in the butt to be like, ‘You better do something about this or you’re not gonna be here much longer,’” Meza said.
Starting a business during COVID
After sending out more than 30 applications and going through seven interviews, Jessica Nelson began to lose track of how many people she had talked to about work.
In June, Nelson was laid off from her job as a public relations director in the entertainment and film industry. While looking for a new position, she decided to do some pro bono work through the Taproot Foundation, a national nonprofit that connects organizations with volunteers who share their expertise.
“I just thought I’d keep working even though I didn’t have a job,” Nelson said.
Taproot connected her with the nonprofit Harlem Film House in New York. She reached out to her media contacts, who wrote about the organization’s film festival and founder.
“That whole experience has gone really well. I’m still working with them,” Nelson said. “Through that process, I met a lot of people, had a lot of great conversations with a lot of filmmakers and people in the industry.”
She started getting inquiries from people about projects. “After several conversations like that, I decided to make it more official and to work toward launching my own business.”
In October, Nelson formally unveiled Persist Publicity. She’s excited about being her own boss and taking on the clients and projects she wants to take on.
The challenges include not having a regular salary or benefits such as health insurance. Like a lot of people, she and her husband, who has two part-time jobs, are juggling working from home with child care.
“On the other hand, I realize I’m privileged enough to be able to take this risk. Not everybody can do that,” Nelson said.
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