Last July, Salvatore’s owner Patrick DePula celebrated the first anniversary of the 2018 downtown Sun Prairie gas explosion that shut down his business for weeks.
This summer he’s facing an even greater challenge to his restaurants with the COVID-19 pandemic. DePula said it has been trying times.
“We’ve been through a flood, an explosion and fire and now we are in a midst of a global pandemic, so we have a little bit of macabre humor — we kid that everyone who has been through this deserves a medal,” DePula said.
DePula, and a handful of other business owners in the 100 block of Main Street, have faced the “Double Whammy”--dealing with one disaster and then a year and a half later being thrust into another. For some, the experiences have fine-tuned their skills to adapt.
“After surviving and getting through the Sun Prairie explosion,” DePula said, “I honestly think it prepared us for dealing with COVID-19.”
Months before the alerts went up in the U.S., DePula got a heads-up about the punch the pandemic packed from his cousin living in one of Europe’s virus hotspots.
“She was telling me how terrible it was in Italy and that they couldn’t leave their house except to get groceries,” DePula remembers. “We knew it was just a matter of months before it hit us, so we drew up plans to prepare us to react to the situation.”
DePula, who had just opened a new restaurant in Madison—DarkHorse—and was set to open a pizzeria in Monona, now had four businesses to keep afloat. He looked at every opportunity, supplying food for the Army National Guard, hospital workers, and first responders. At the Sun Prairie restaurant, he shifted his takeout menu to be more affordable.
“We had a $12 crisis pizza because we wanted to nourish the community and we didn’t know what was happening with them economically,” he said of the strategy.
Throughout the COVID-19 shutdown crisis, DePula said he was able to keep most of his staff, as he shifted to carryout and delivery, and since May 26, dine-in service. Now in Phase 2 of the Forward Dane plan, restaurants can operate at 50 percent of indoor capacity.
“The primary concern throughout this has been the safety of our employees and our customers,” DePula said. “There have been many nights of lost sleep in wondering how to proceed.”
Even though Dane County COVID-19 plan was stricter than other counties, DePula praised Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s order.
“Dane County was at the forefront of leading the way in this crisis,” DePula said. “It is a fine line because no one wants to go through this a second time. I would rather be cautious than jump right back into things again.”
When Phase 3 kicks in, public health officials still don’t know what restrictions will be in place. On June 24, Dane County had “high” COVID-19 activity levels. Dane County has 1,350 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 195 people hospitalized with the virus, and 32 deaths, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County June 24 data.
The Double Whammy
Meant To Bead owner Shannon Jambard let customers back into her downtown Sun Prairie shop on May 12. Customers are asked to wear masks and put on gloves, and only touch items they intend to buy — all to help stop the spread of the virus.
During the Safer at Home order, Jambard did her best to adapt. But putting her inventory— thousands of small beads— online wasn’t realistic, so she partnered with her online vendors and connected with her customers by sending out free project designs. She also applied for — and received — Paycheck Protection Program loans to help keep her staff employed.
Jambard said despite the pandemic’s challenge to her business, it’s not as bad as the explosion aftermath.
“That was way worse,” Jambard said. “My business was in the hot zone, and I couldn’t even get in to it for over seven months.”
The day the news came that Dane County non-essential businesses could open up during the COVID-19 crisis, Jambard was alerted to it by a flurry of her customer’s text messages asking when she was reopening.
“We opened the next day with a good response,” Jambard recalled, “not a flood of people—just five people in the store at a time—it was a nice steady flow of people.”
But Jambard said a large chunk of her pre-COVID-19 business included workshops where people gathered in the store’s backroom to learn new skills.
“People call me and ask me when we are going to start up classes,” Jambard said. “They want normalcy, but we can’t give them that with the current safety perimeters. It’s all up to statistics, when I can do that.”
One positive during the crisis, Jambard has noticed, is that downtown Sun Prairie business owners are cooperating, just like after the 2018 explosion. An insurance company offered to board up Meant to Bead windows on June 3 when protesters went through downtown. Jambard said she supported the protesters but she had to protect her business because she knew how long it took to get windows ordered after the July 10 blast.
Jambard said there’s also talk about coordinating a sidewalk sale, and working with downtown Business Improvement District (BID) manager Colleen Burke to brainstorm some other promotional ideas.
Jambard is also improving her Meant to Bead website and online ordering offerings “in case the second wave of COVID-19” shuts businesses down again.
Like many business owners, Jambard doesn’t know how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact her business in the future. She said several area bead stores have shut down and her store might be the “the last unicorn standing.”
“If we lose stores like mine and others downtown, it will take a lot to bring other businesses in to fill the space,” Jambard said. “So we don’t want to lose the businesses here now.”
One step forward,
one step back
The downtown natural gas explosion happened on July 10, 2018, after a contractor punctured a four-inch natural gas line. The explosion destroyed buildings in the 100 block of Main Street, killed Sun Prairie firefighter Cory Barr, caused millions of dollars worth of damage and left residents displaced.
While most of the businesses around the blast’s ground zero—Barr House—are gone, one is still standing: Guimo’s Mexican restaurant.
Owners Gustavo Martinez, Guillermo Martinez and Alejandro Avalos pretty much had a front view of the damage for months. Just shy of the one-month anniversary of the blast, Guimo’s finally opened up its dining room to customers with plywood still on its window.
Memories of that were in Martinez’s mind when the economic reality of COVID-19 hit.
“When they started talking about closing the restaurants, my whole family was sad,” Martinez said. “We had recovered from the explosion, and we were doing really well and then this happens and we go backward again.”
When the family-owned restaurant could only do carryout under COVID-19 restrictions, regulars came in to get tacos, tamales, and tortas. Guimo’s also contracted with EatStreet and Grub Hub for food delivery.
“After the explosion, customers supported us and now customers are supporting us again,” Gustavo Martinez said.
But Martinez said the COVID-19 restrictions were unfair to businesses like his.
“I was angry because the government shut down most of the small family-owned businesses and let the massive stores stay open,” Martinez said. “It wasn’t fair all the way around. Small businesses are struggling right now because we don’t have the same income as the big stores that had even more business now.”
Now that the dining room is open again at 50 percent, customers are coming in, but business is still slower than before.
Martinez said one part of the family-owned business that hasn’t recovered yet is catering. Summer would have been a busy time for weddings, graduations, and parties but COVID-19 has restricted those gatherings.
Martinez has successfully applied for a grant to help out with expenses but he steered clear of a loan because he doesn’t want more debt.
Even if he doesn’t know what will happen next, there is one positive from surviving the gas explosion and the new COVID-19 restrictions—that his family will support him.
“That is an advantage when something like this happens, family members care about the business,” Martinez said.
In the barber seat again
The services of Mark Rudd were in demand when he opened up his downtown Sun Prairie barbershop on May 26 after being shut down by Wisconsin’s safer at home order. Customers needing the most help were those who tried DIY haircuts.
“We had some people who needed some serious repair,” Rudd said with a laugh. “They had some bare spots on their head. But the beautiful part was customers stayed with us, they came back and we are so happy to be back.”
Mr. Rudd’s Barbershop at 110 Columbus St. was shut down for a week after the July 2018 explosion, a short time when compared with the recent two months COVID-19 closure.
“I just tried to pay the rent,” Rudd said of the closure of the shop that has five barbers and one hairstylist.
Rudd, like all barbershops and salons, has to now follow Public Health Madison & Dane County restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. There’s no beard trims and razor shaves. Customers have to wait in their car, or outside, until their appointment and capacity is limited in the shop. Employees also must wear face masks. Rudd admits that some of the vibe of the barbershop is gone because customers can’t hang out anymore.
“We are trying to be upbeat,” Rudd said. “When people were sitting here waiting for haircuts, there was a lot more laughter, a lot more fishing stories, a lot more hunting stories and we really miss that.”
After the downtown gas explosion, Rudd said the community rallied to help people and businesses impacted by the blast. Two years later, he said the community can use that same “Sun Prairie Strong” motivation to help those struggling during the pandemic.
“It’s important to shop local,” Rudd said. “We need people to go through this with us, and be with us, and for the most part we will get through this together.”