Few of Polk’s businesses closed in 2020, but more could fail in 2021
LAKELAND – Dwayne Williams was at his peak when he had to shut down Dwayne’s Place restaurant.
When local businesses were closed in March in response to the raging coronavirus, Williams said he ran a popular restaurant on South Florida Avenue near Shepherd Road. He said they fed between 3,000 and 4,000 people a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner and brought in about $ 34,000 a week in sales.
But after DeSantis shut down the state, Williams decided he would never be able to reopen his beloved Dwayne’s Place. The prospect of not making enough money capped at 50% of capacity on a 5,500 square foot building and the possibility that the state could lock in was too risky.
“It wasn’t so much of a choice,” Williams said. “I just couldn’t reopen because there were too many unanswered questions, you know, to put money back into something that was totally shut down and needs to get everything started again.”
But surprisingly, Williams’ story is rare. Compared to the rest of the state and many parts of the country, small businesses in Polk County have managed to avoid shutdowns despite the economic devastation of COVID-19.
Sean Malott, president and CEO of the Central Florida Development Council, said he was not aware of any major closures in the county. Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Council, said COVID-19 has not pushed businesses downtown.
However, some point out that just because a business survived 2020 doesn’t mean 2021 won’t bring further devastation. As cases continue to rise, vaccine distribution is delayed, and fear continues to keep some customers in, business owners are living on the edge. And they could still fall.
Gone for good
Although somewhat rare, Polk County has seen a few closures after the start of COVID-19.
Department stores have closed their doors. The Macy’s in Winter Haven, which was the last in Polk County, closed end of December. A spokesperson for Macy’s said the decision to close the store was based on guidelines announced by the department store giant in February, before the coronavirus. However, COVID-19 has been devastating for physical purchases, especially in malls.
In June, JCPenney announced it would close its location at Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales. The store closed in October, adding to the mall’s many vacant storefronts, including its now empty movie theater. In early October, Regal’s parent company, Cineworld announced that the 536 of its theaters would “temporarily suspend operations”, including Regal Cinema 12.
Locally, Polk County’s last dairy farm, HC Dairy Farm, will soon be replaced by 170 single-family homes. And COVID-19 has taken into account the MidFlorida Credit Union’s decision to stop hosting the MidFlorida Auto Show and the Lake Mirror Concours, formerly known as the Lake Mirror Classic Auto Festival, which could be the final highlight in the casket of the event.
And of course the community lost Dwayne’s Place.
Williams said the collapse of the supply chain was a major factor in its shutdown. The inability to obtain constant access to high quality ingredients has jeopardized the survival of his business.
“The food chain has broken,” said Williams. “You get what you get and hope there is something to be had every day.”
The former Williams commercial space is now occupied by another restaurant, The Wooden Spoon. Williams said he was still missed by his customers, who were “very, very upset” when the pandemic shut down Dwayne’s Place forever.
“They were, you know, it was the hangout for a lot of our locals. We had people that traveled 30, 40 miles to eat there on Friday nights,” Williams said. “It was heartbreaking for everyone.”
The takeout business has kept Williams above water. He owns three Cuban Ole Tampa restaurants in Mulberry, Plant City and South Lakeland, among which he serves Cuban Ybor sandwiches and Devil Crabs.
Williams said that since about 70% of the business at these sites is already takeout, they fare better than a full-service sit-down location. Williams also operates a food truck, currently stationed in Plant City.
Malott, with the Central Florida Development Council, said that while 2020 has been a tough year for “everyone everywhere,” the business-friendly nature of Polk County has played down permanent closures like Dwayne’s Place.
Ashley Cheek, vice president of business development at the Lakeland Economic Development Council, highlighted Lakeland’s variety of industries as a possible reason for its continued viability.
“We have such a diverse economy,” Cheek said. “When we have disruptions like this and we say one industry is affected, we won’t see the other devastation like Orlando or heavily tourism driven communities.”
Cheek also said that since businesses in Florida have remained more open than in other states, the economy could recover more quickly.
And some big industries have managed to thrive. Cheek said Lakeland has created 1,800 new jobs and has seen $ 300 million in capital investment.
“Last year we still have, you know, from an economic development standpoint, it was probably one of our best years,” Cheek said.
Still in the woods
Yet some companies barely survive.
Richard DeAngelis, owner of Red Door Lakeland, said sales fell 47% last year. He considered shutting down for good and was able to survive in part thanks to the funding he received from the federal paycheck protection program.
DeAngelis said that just because a small business has made its way into 2020, it is not guaranteed to stay open in 2021.
“The thought of two years from now is as scary as next week,” DeAngelis said. “It is for our consumers to have enough money to return.”
And the survival of his restaurant still depends on securing additional funds through the next round of PPP loans.
“If we don’t get it, you can come back and ask what my next career choice will be,” DeAngelis said. “We have to get it, and we have to get it soon.”
DeAngelis said it would need sales to increase 20% to 30% from last year to operate and grow his business.
For that to happen, DeAngelis said the Lakeland community needs to prioritize small businesses over large chains. He said the high number of corporate restaurants in the area has created a “very, very tight market.”
“COVID just really, just puts the knee on your throat,” DeAngelis said. “I think the independent companies and the small businesses that have kind of tried to make their way and make a mark, we have to decide that this is what we want to see. We have to make an effort.”
DeAngelis said he believes it will take three to five years for businesses like his to return to normal. And it is not guaranteed that all businesses in Lakeland will be able to weather the storm for this long.
According to a report on the small business economy released by Alignable, only 43% of small businesses nationwide are confident they will survive until June.
Malott said that while the future is still uncertain, he believes the worst is behind, not ahead, the business world.
But in December, Jim Farrell, associate professor of finance and economics at Florida Southern College, said restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality industry will continue to be vulnerable throughout the vaccine distribution period.
Like DeAngelis, many business owners continue to depend on government assistance, especially through the PPP program. When this aid expires, if foot traffic does not improve in stores and restaurants, some businesses may still be in difficulty.
DeAngelis said one way to get more people out of their homes and make them comfortable with activities like eating indoors is to reinstate the mask’s mandate and promote social distancing . It is a problem that continues to divide Lakeland officials, although the City of Lakeland Commission largely rejected a return of the mask mandate.
Maya Lora is best accessible at [email protected] or 863-802-7558.