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Monday, March 8, 2021

‘I Never Want to Boil Water Again’

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Small Businesses Dealt Another Blow

When most of the region was shut down because of too much ice and not enough water, Bozz Baucum, the owner of Marilynn’s Place and Ralph’s Place in Shreveport, wasn’t. He was at work boiling water in his commercial crawfish rig to cook meals for teenagers at the Rutherford House.

The boys in the group home had gone for nearly a week with no hot shower and no hot meal, and Bozz knew at the very least he could provide hot sandwiches and steaming bowls of soup. During the icy days that followed, Baucum cooked food for several divisions of Shreveport Police, for widows in a Catholic church program and for elderly residents who were alone and without food, water and support at area senior living facilities.

Bozz would be the last to call his small business heroic, but he would call it a neighbor and his kind of neighborliness was alive and well here. Small businesses and restaurants, the same small businesses and restaurants just barely hanging on after a year of Covid losses, saw what was needed during the winter storm and jumped in to provide it.

Covid was brutal on small businesses, the people who own them and those who depend on them for a living. Local businesses of all types suffered terribly during the wild and wooly months of online shopping and restaurant restrictions during Covid stay-athome orders.

Locally, businesses have failed, and others are teetering on the brink. Across the U.S., one out of every five restaurants closed during Covid, and many will never reopen. It is estimated that one million small businesses of all types will close for good. This is a staggering number that is hard to even imagine.

“The hits keep on coming,” says Bozz Baucum of the winter weather shutdown. Grant Nuckolls, owner of Twisted Root, Jacquelyn’s and Cuban Liquor, agrees. “When the Covid lockdown started,” says Nuckolls, “we went from paying our bills to closed. We were finally able to start takeout and delivery, but during the recent weather event, we couldn’t even do that.”

Imagine for a moment that you are hard at work at your restaurant. The work you are doing today will help pay your bills from 30 days ago -- your rent, the power, the food delivery -- but while you’re working to pay those older bills, you’re also incurring this month’s bills. “The system is not built for you to be able to shut down,” says Nuckolls.

“The logistics of the equipment and the water was just the hardest thing (during the snow week). I am exhausted; we are all exhausted.

I never want to have to boil so much water again,” says Baucum. Meanwhile, insurance policies were denying claims for ruined food. “Insurance policies will pay for spoiled food if a tree falls on your restaurant but not because you can’t get city water to your building,” Nuckolls explains. Restaurant owners had to spend money they didn’t have on water and to-go containers. The 10% profit margin that local restaurants are lucky to see was wiped out day one.

So, where were Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk during our winter weather? Who got the checks they donated? We all know the answers. When things like a winter storm happen to our community, we reach out to the people we know and call the phone numbers we have, and often, our pleas are heard by our small and local businessowning neighbors.

These are also the businesses that are the first ones we ask when we need a gift card for a silent auction, a gift basket for a church function or a shirt sponsorship or program ad for our child’s T-ball team. These businesses support us in ways in which we are not even aware. They provide 44% of all the economic activity in the country. They recirculate money in a big way. On average, 48% of every purchase at local independent businesses is recirculated locally, compared to less than 14% spent at chain stores. When it comes to local restaurants, more than 60% goes back into the community. Small businesses make our community better, stronger, more diverse, more interesting.

With Covid losses and the recent winter weather, they now need our help, and we should feel absolutely compelled to give it. Shop and eat at them. Share their posts on social media. Consider giving them a good review.

“We’re all in this together,” says Baucum.

Support for our local businesses helps drive an “incredible food, drink and music culture,” says Nuckolls. “I get that the big chains were built to offer convenience -- but the fabric of the local community matters, and when we’re in a pinch, small businesses are the ones we turn to first.”

It would also hurt us the most if these businesses went away. In a world where we can shop anywhere, it’s important for us to support ourselves by shopping locally.

Liz Swaine is the executive director of the Shreveport Downtown Development Authority and the 2021 chairman of the State Fair of Louisiana.

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