What It's Like To Be a Business Owner During COVID-19

Cheese shop owner Jill Erber on why she's keeping her store open to take care of her customers and her community


"So many businesses have taken it upon themselves to make lemonade out of lemons, in almost the truest sense, and really turn around and care for their communities for no reason than because they have kitchens and people to cook," says Cheesetique proprietor Jill Erber. "I know it's something that's debated out there. Business has no heart. Business is just about profits. And if the government didn't give people handouts, nobody would help them. I just don't think that's true."

Erber, better known to her neighbors as The Cheese Lady, is the founder of a small chain of "cheese-centric" restaurants and retail cheese and wine shops. With three locations in Northern Virginia, she had a pre-COVID peak of 110 employees. As of late May, she had two locations open with 40–50 employees mostly working retail. Alongside the usual cheese and wine for takeout, she added toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and other necessities to her inventory.

Erber is a longtime friend and fellow traveler of Reason. At an event just days before the coronavirus brought normal life in the D.C. metro area to a screeching halt, Erber came by our offices to share some cheese and describe how the trade war being waged by the Trump administration—especially retaliatory tariffs on signature goods from Europe—was harming her business. In a phone conversation 10 weeks later, Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward checked back in with Erber to hear what it's like to be an independent entrepreneur during a pandemic and a trade war and whether the current crisis has changed her outlook.

Reason: Let's start at the beginning. Can you describe when you first heard about coronavirus and realized it was going to be something that impacted your business?

Erber: I'm a believer that if people don't feel comfortable and don't want to shop, they won't, and you could certainly see that happening.

Early on…we were watching very closely how other businesses were responding, to learn from our peers. And one of the very first things that people started doing was crafting their own COVID response statements. We saw those really beginning to explode maybe the first week in March, so we quickly sat down and collected our thoughts and crafted our own. It was a way of not only getting our heads on straight with regard to how we wanted to operate in the stores and make our staff feel safe and protected but also [a way to] let our guests know that they could be safe when they were coming in to shop with us and dine with us.

I think it was March 24 when our dining service was cut off completely by the government mandate. I'll be honest, I could have pictured a model where we had our bar still open and we just put things a little bit further apart and let people come out and have a little bit of a sense of experience again, and a little bit of a sense of escape. We cook for them anyway!

You think you could have served your customers in-person in a way that didn't endanger them?

Yes. People are still operating in ways that don't jive with not being able to dine in a restaurant. There are strange loopholes. Why is this OK and this is not OK?

We're still letting people into our retail store to shop. Some places were like, "Eh, we're just going to close and we'll only allow people to purchase online." To me, that's a disservice to anyone who is not computer savvy, who doesn't have the luxury of having a computer. What we decided we were going to do very early on was provide a safe environment for people to do as much of their shopping as they could—but in a very small environment, so they weren't going to these huge grocery stores. They could come and get everything. That's why we expanded our pipeline instead of shutting down. We grew because we wanted to give people a place that was safe for them to come and shop. It's small enough that we have hourly sanitizing procedures. We limit the number of people coming in. We moved the store all around so people could really not get near one another. But it was all for the purpose of providing more to our guests and not less.

Did you consider keeping your restaurants open and seeing what would happen?

I did only briefly. The most rebellious side of me thought, "Damn them all, they can't!" But at the point where they finally closed us down, we started to see a public response happening to the virus that was very much a mass response. People were so concerned—and still are—about one another and having a safe place for people to work. I think it would have been a public perception mistake to have pushed back on that.

Was there any point where someone in government said: "Hey, you're a business owner. Maybe you know more than regulators know. What do you think?" 

I personally did not have feedback sessions with local representatives, but I know that there must have been some of those conversations happening, because very quickly, at least locally in Alexandria, they tried to be responsive to how businesses were hurting. So some examples of that were closing off parking on the streets in front of businesses to make curbside pickup really easy for customers.

There were things like postponing sales tax payments, so that instead of having to pay your sales tax on schedule, they said, "OK, how about we not make you do that? It's not forgiven, but it's a delay where you can pay later." There did appear to be some sensitivities to the business struggles. But I never got the sense that it was an open forum: "Hey businesses, how do you think? How can we get your voice in here?"

Were there other changes that you had a say in at the community level?

One thing I would say, in this time where so many have been hurt and so many jobs have been lost and people are really struggling, is how much independent businesses have done to help their communities.

That has been something so beautiful that has come out of COVID, if you could call it that. Many people did things like this, so this is not just to talk about what we have done. Right when people started cutting back—it was in the middle of March—we started something called Family Meal Alexandria. We partnered with our vendors, because they had so much food they couldn't use; they weren't selling it anymore. And so we got them to donate all of the food to us instead of giving it to food banks or throwing it away, which is what most of them were doing. We paid our cooks and our chef to cook all the food. And then we hand out free meals every day out of our Del Ray location. And we've been doing that since the end of March.

We've served over 3,300 people. Just Cheesetique, just out of one location, handing out meals every single day by partnering with other businesses like our vendors. We started a GoFundMe page, and our community donated money to help us pay some of our people who were just 100 percent focused on that effort, who weren't working in the restaurant at all. So they were able to work independently, safely, and then also make these meals for people. And we're just one of tons of businesses that have done that.

There's often this thought that if the government doesn't take care of people that nobody will, and that businesses are inherently selfish, and they would not take care of other people if they weren't required to do so.

So many businesses that have taken it upon themselves to make lemonade out of lemons, in almost the truest sense, and really turn around and care for their communities for no reason than because they have kitchens and people to cook. I know it's something that's debated out there. Business has no heart. Business is just about profits. And if the government didn't give people handouts, nobody would help them. I just don't think that's true. There's some beautiful evidence right now to support that.

So while you're helping people, the federal government is also offering you help. There's been a flurry of legislation designed to support business owners, most prominently the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was supposed to incentivize people like you to keep employees on the payroll with government-backed loans that could later be forgiven. Did you participate in those programs?

Being able to understand how to proceed, what to apply for, what we were going to be on the hook for, and how we were supposed to use what we got was so comically unclear. It was almost like someone tried to make it unclear on purpose. It's worse than stereo instructions.

The application is pretty straightforward. It lulls you into this sense that, "Hey, this is here to support small businesses. They get it. Business owners are freaking out right now. They don't know their left from their right. They don't know how to open their doors, whether they can open their doors. They don't know what they're selling anymore. There are people who've worked with them for years, and they're having to let them go. It's been a traumatic thing for business owners."

And then as soon as you got into it, it started to feel like this terrifying IQ test, that if you failed it, you were going to owe the government more money than you even borrowed from them. What if you try your hardest and people just don't want to come back to work for you, because they're getting more on unemployment and emergency unemployment funding from the federal government? What happens then? I don't know how other small businesses are dealing with it, but even with the resources we have between our accountants and our bookkeepers, just trying to figure out how to use these funds has proven to be scary. It became a very non-user-friendly program very quickly.

How is the pandemic influencing the global wine and cheese supply chains that you rely on? Your business was already impacted, even in the pre-coronavirus days, by trade restrictions, right?

Yeah. In the beginning of the year, we were already living in this state of anticipatory fear of what was happening with the tariffs. Would we be able to get things internationally? What would the prices be for these things? We were just starting to see our costs creeping up for tariff-effective items.

It was just starting to become a reality when the virus hit. So in a sense, we were already very heightened to this sense that we might have to rethink what we carry and how we sell it. We were already in a defensive posture because of the tariff situation, so that when COVID came we were not caught off guard. We were prepared to rethink and pivot.

I imagine it's going to be hard to disaggregate what's causing changes in supply and increases in cost at this point: the trade war or the pandemic? 

We will never know, and it will be conveniently disguised as one or the other as suits those who are involved.

We are now in this maximally unpredictable moment, doubly so for business owners. How does that lack of predictability influence your decision-making beyond just the obvious of hunkering down?

This concept of government regulation being unclear, hard to decipher, and hard to maneuver within is nothing new for any business owner anywhere. If you're starting a new business in the perfect economic environment, it's still really hard and confusing and you've got to jump through hoops. This guy tells you one thing and then the other person tells you another. Anytime you're working with regulations, they're inherently confusing and inherently opaque.

Then you add into it a federal level of regulations that typically don't affect the smaller businesses. You're usually much more affected by your local regulations on a daily basis. But all of a sudden, at the end of last year, a lot of smaller businesses were cast into this world of having to understand federal trade regulation. I don't even know that the greatest trade experts fully understand all of the impacts.

Then we went from having to understand that massively opaque operation to having to shift and understand PPP. Rule of law means nothing if the law is unclear and you don't know how to follow it. It feels like we're just figuring things out as we go and, "I hope we didn't do that wrong—"

Meaning you hope you didn't do something illegal?

How many interim final rules have there been as regards to the PPP? I don't even know.

It's probably just made people feel very helpless and unclear on how they should operate. At the same time, local regulations seem to be loosening to a certain extent, which I find very welcome and yet mystifying at the same time. Because if it's OK to reduce [local] regulation now, why do we need so much local regulation in the first place?

The [Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control] regulation, for instance: The pandemic is here and, well, heck, you can deliver hard liquor wherever you want to go and sell it to whoever you want! Suddenly all the regulations are being loosened, which for a business is great. But it does make you wonder: Do we need to put them all back? It will be very interesting to see how everyone responds to being re-regulated, at least at the local level, when this all passes.

I think the confusion about what is coming down the pipeline is really, really damaging. It's not only what does today look like and how hard is today, but it's what's going to happen in two weeks? And is it going to turn out that I did all this for nothing? I worked so hard to do the right thing with my PPP funds, and then it turns out I didn't need to do all that? Or will it turn out that new regulations are going to come down that are going to be even more restrictive?

Has the experience of the pandemic changed your politics at all? Or your thoughts about being an entrepreneur?

I am more fiercely pro-business than I have ever been in my entire life. The miracles that I have seen people accomplish with nothing. People who are just running their own little thing and within weeks have these amazing pivots of being able to sell things that they never sold before to people that they'd never worked with before. The number of people that wanted to volunteer with Family Meal Alexandria—former employees of ours that don't even work for us anymore. Not people who left because of COVID, but people from long ago who came back and said, "This is a chance for me to work again alongside people that I love, and I can help my community."

It heartened me a lot, because I saw very few businesses just give up. They're so scrappy. It's amazing to watch how entrepreneurs, they just don't give up. It's the weirdest thing. They don't quit; they just change what they're doing. And I hope that many, many, many of them are able to persevere.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.