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When Maxine Turner first started her business in 1985, Cuisine Unlimited opened as a small deli and catering operation in Salt Lake City, Utah. With a reputation for providing personal care and attention to every event, Cuisine Unlimited grew quickly over the next 10 years, developing into a full-family operation with three additional locations and a 10,000-square-foot facility to meet demand.
At the beginning of 2020, Cuisine Unlimited had just closed its second largest December to date and had already booked $1 million in business, including contracts for the Sundance Film Festival and the vice-presidential debates.
Then the cancelations started rolling in. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in February, Maxine’s business came to a halt in what was poised to be one of the company’s most successful years.
The U.S. Chamber sat down with Maxine to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her business and what Congress can do now to help businesses like hers:
What follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Take us back to February of this year when the pandemic first hit the US. What happened to your sales?
A: When the pandemic hit, we had come off our second biggest December, which is the biggest month of the year for us. Going into the pandemic, we had over $1 million in pre-booked business. By March 15, every event had totally canceled – through July. And slowly over the course of weeks, more and more events canceled. A summer contract we had to cater concerts, an amazing project we have done for 12 years, was canceled. We had the vice-presidential debates in October scheduled. Two weeks ago, they canceled. So, all these major events were now off our books.
Q: How did you pivot your business model amid COVID-19?
A: When we were all sheltered in place, we looked at how we could generate new kinds of business. We immediately answered an RFP to help feed Utah firefighters. We did dinners to go – an avenue we had never considered in the past. We worked with one of our vendors to prepare boxed lunches for first responders. We even started working concessions for drive-in movies. We haven’t made a lot of money, or in some cases any, but it gave our staff a real sense of purpose, and that is important, because it allowed them to create and work on their craft.
Q: Were you able to secure aid from EIDL or PPP?
A: We did. We used the EIDL funding for everything from our rent and utilities to basic operations. We used the PPP to keep staff on payroll for as long as possible. What we didn’t expect was for this pandemic to last this long and be this devastating. We’ve offered the dinners to go. We’ve catered small wedding gatherings. But these events don’t give us the ability to bring back our, now twice, furloughed employees. We’ve had the difficult conversations with our employees, our vendors, our financial institutions – ones that make us worry about our very survival.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted your business on a personal level?
A: We’ve been in this business for 40 years and our chef has been with us for 25 years. We have several people in our management staff who have been with us for decades. These are family. These are people that have, through thick and thin, been there for us, and we have been there for them. Small business is personal. And that’s what makes me so disappointed in Congress – that they haven’t addressed the needs of small businesses. The hospitality industry is a $1.2 trillion industry and so many of us are in jeopardy. We employ over 8 million people in this country – from restaurants to hotels to tourism to catering companies to AV and special event planners. It is a huge industry. We have been hit hard, so we were hoping the HEALS Act would have been addressed a month ago. But without it, the writing is on the wall.
Q: What is the state of your business now?
A: It’s on life support. We have 10 of our 40 employees. At one point in our career, we had 150 employees. That is how dramatically we have been affected. Where we are now is pretty much the grassroots of where our company started 40 years ago.
Q: If Congress doesn’t pass more aid, and small businesses close, what impact do you think that will have on our communities?
A: We all believe in community. And we believe that when we gather around the table there’s room for meaningful conversation where friendships are made, barriers are broken, and differences become understandings. Without our industry, universally none of this will happen. That’s why I love this industry – because it has meaning in our lives. It’s a form of diplomacy, and I grieve for the industry. I grieve for the impact the pandemic has had on people, and I grieve for our country that is going through this – in many ways needlessly.
Q: What do you need right now from our elected officials?
A: What is needed is a second PPP that is double the amount of our first – and available immediately. It will be at least nine months before our industry even starts to recover. If we want to save the 8 million industry jobs and shore up our $1.2 trillion dollar industry, we need action now, not tomorrow.
For many of us, our first PPP is all but gone and any other personal savings we have is dwindling – if we were lucky enough to have a savings. We don’t need loans. We need grants. Loans only hurt our future and too many of us are reluctant to make commitments to loans we fear we cannot pay back. Give me a grant to see my business and employees through, let me get back on my feet, and then tell me what taxes I have to pay to reimburse the government for what I have received – but give me the opportunity to build my business back.