BELOIT — Local business owners say it was a challenging year, yet one which pushed them to offer services in a new way that will benefit them in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed every business—from banks to ice cream shops—to evolve their business practices swiftly.
“It was a tough and stressful year, but we got through it and are using the lessons we learned,” said Blackhawk Bancorp President and CEO Todd James.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, James said Blackhawk Bank provided necessary funding to keep businesses thriving, offered more digital banking and supported employees and the community.
During the first round of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), Blackhawk Bank originated over 800 loans for a total of $84 million. The bank is currently in the middle of processing PPP loans for the second round. It’s projected the bank will originate 400 loans totaling about $50 million by the end of March.
“During the first round, lenders and all support folks worked seven days a week,” James said. “The second round has gone smoother as we created some automation and online app capabilities where customers can apply online and upload documents to streamline the process.”
The PPP was designed to provide cash-flow assistance through 100% federally guaranteed loans to employers who maintained their payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic. If employers maintained their payrolls, the loans could be forgiven, which would help workers remain employed and businesses stay afloat.
The pandemic also helped the bank accelerate use of digital banking technologies and more opportunities for staff to work at home. James said working from home is an option allowing the bank to broaden its talent pool to people located further away and is also employee-friendly.
Despite challenges, Blackhawk found ways to give back. By obtaining matching funds made available from a federal home loan bank, the bank directed donations totaling $55,000 to 14 nonprofit groups.
The bank also gave all of its employees $100 gift cards to local businesses they selected and provided many free breakfast and lunches. The gift cards given to employees to spend at locally owned businesses of their choice totaled $23,000.
By March of 2021, the bank’s lobby was fully open again.
Dairyhäus owner Brent Murray said COVID-19 spurred a change in the business model while giving him time to more carefully consider his future plans at the shop at 113 E Main St., Rockton.
“While one of the most stressful years of my professional life, it was also one of the most exciting and empowering,” he said.
Murray said it was scary in the beginning, but also fun work to figure out how to pivot an extremely busy ice cream shop with a small bit of wholesale into a very busy wholesaling business. He converted the front of the shop where customers used to wait for treats into a warehouse space.
The ice cream shop then began offering curbside carry outs of quarts of ice cream as Murray continued supplying local retailers with the homemade ice cream.
This summer the business will evolve more, operating with a window walk-up service and drive-through window where the public can get the quarts of ice cream as well as the traditional cones and shakes.
The pandemic also caused a lot of changes at Walnut Creek Apparel and Gifts, 406 E. Grand Ave., Beloit.
“COVID forced us to make a lot of decisions we probably wouldn’t have made. Overall, it’s helped us to grow as a business in branching out and finding different avenues to sell our products,” said owner Nikkie Chadwick.
During the pandemic Chadwick started offering curbside pickup and a web store for the general public as well as business customers.
The year also spawned some new partnerships and fun activities. Thanks to an idea pitched by Pizzazz owner Christine Drake, Chadwick partnered with female-owned businesses Pizzazz, Always & Forever Formal Wear, Chic & Unique Clothing & Furniture Boutique, The Villager Gallery & Frame Shop and Nest Egg for the She Shop Hop event. Participants received a punch card, and after stopping at all businesses, were eligible for a prize. The effort exposed customers to more shops downtown and encouraged everyone to buy local. After introducing customers to new shops, it’s expected to draw more traffic to all the shops for years to come.