Amid tough sledding, businesses start in Brown County
By John McCracken
BROWN COUNTY – A pandemic might not seem like the best time to launch a new business endeavor, but for some local entrepreneurs, there’s no stopping a great idea.
“We opened in the middle of August,” said local beer connoisseur Nick Calaway with a slight laugh. “The whole project had been underway for several years and there was no stopping it.”
The project was the construction of a new, 16-line taproom and brewery with 18-foot-tall ceilings for Ahnapee Brewery in Suamico, the second location for the Algoma-based brewery.
Calaway is the owner and head brewer for both locations.
“You’ve got your normal construction delays and COVID was a factor on top of that,” he said.
Calaway said Ahnapee opened with knowledge from its almost seven years of experience at the Algoma location, and he decided to keep capacity low with social distancing and masks.
“People in tough economic times will start businesses,” said Ron Franklin, the Startup Hub manager for the Greater Green Bay Area Chamber.
With a pandemic raging, the U.S. saw a boom in startups in the third quarter of 2020, with some of the highest numbers of new business applications since 2004, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Wisconsin, last year’s third quarter saw the same boom with 18,569 seasonally adjusted business applications, the highest in any quarter last year and 7,851 higher compared to the third quarter of 2019.
There were 10,718 fourth-quarter 2020 business applications in Wisconsin.
The third and fourth quarters of 2020 were the only quarters in the past 16 years that had more than 12,000 business applications, with most quarters averaging a little over 9,000 new business applications since 2004.
“That is typically when we see small business growth, when the economy is down,” said Franklin. “When (people) are being laid off, they need to find an income. They’ll make something themselves.”
More dough on the rise
Franklin describes the Startup Hub as an incubator that helps people start businesses through space, resources and consulting, which he helps oversee.
One of those businesses is Voyageurs Sourdough & Bakehouse in the Broadway District in Green Bay.
Celeste Parins, co-owner of Voyageurs, said it had about 10 days of normal business last year before having to shift completely because of COVID-19.
“There wasn’t an option to say we’re not going to do this,” Parins said.
She said its greatest asset was the 16 months it had operating its bread delivery out of a shared church kitchen before deciding to open a physical space.
Within the first month of business, Voyageurs had a huge operational jump, going from delivering one day a week to four, Parins said.
“Our numbers skyrocketed,” she said. “April of 2020 was the biggest month of the year, and it came with a steep learning curve.”
Voyageurs did not qualify for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but did receive a $6,800 grant from the chamber to change its eating area into grab-and-go operations.
Without the boom of outdoor events and farmers markets, Voyageurs saw a drop in revenue during what should have been busy summer months, Parins said.
“We had to lean into holiday sales, and we’ve had a steady growth with delivery, grab-and-go and keeping our operations diverse,” she said.
Kelly Armstrong, vice president of economic development for the chamber, said there were 24 business expansion projects in 2020, mainly in the manufacturing sector, with some new office building expansions.
“That’s a pretty impressive year for a community our size,” Armstrong said.
According to the chamber’s economic dashboard, 710 jobs in the area have been created from November 2019 to October 2020.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Green Bay’s unemployment rate has been on a steady decline from 8.6 percent in June 2020 to 4 percent in November 2020.
“You would think that some people might press the pause button,” Armstrong said. “But, I think it shows a very resilient economy.”
Best foot forward
Calaway said he saw business growth as a necessity.
“There was no second-guessing on whether we were going to open or not,” Calaway said. “It was let’s open and do it as safely as possible for the employees and the customers. Let’s put our best foot forward.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, there were 818 new business registrants in Brown County in 2020.
This is up from 647 new registrants in 2019.
The first quarter held the highest amount at 242, but quarter four came in second at 202.
The average amount of monthly new business registrants was 68.
“Some of the smaller businesses have not survived COVID,” said Franklin. “There have been some closures or they’ve changed their business, because they can’t afford to have an open storefront.”
Parins said she is not holding out to open Voyageurs’ dining area in 2021 as a way to keep staff, customers and community safe.
She said she would like to see life come back to farmers markets and outdoor events, especially those created by the local business district, On Broadway, Inc.
The bakehouse weathered the storm and found words of encouragement from customers online, on handwritten cards and in little gifts from the community.
“We were overwhelmed in such a great way,” Parins said. “It’s a testament to our community.”
Calaway said his biggest hurdle has been keeping hours and labor going in the colder months.
“When it quickly slowed down, most likely due to COVID, we were left in the lurch with a lot of people looking for hours, which is still happening as we speak,” he said.
The most successful innovation Calaway had was an emphasis on outdoor dining.
Now that the weather is colder, he said he is hopeful for a recent proposal that would allow beer delivery for Class B sellers, such as breweries and taverns, that is circulating from Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard) and State Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk).
Steffen’s office said the bill has bipartisan cosponsorship from Reps. Lee Snodgrass (D-Menasha), Francesca Hong (D-Madison), John Macco (R-Ledgeview) and more.
Experts said small businesses will likely continue to start up in 2021, but it won’t equate to pre-COVID-19 unemployment levels.
“You’ll see a significant increase, I believe, in the coming six to 12 months of small business growth,” Franklin said.
In March and April of 2020, net national job loss was 9.4 million.
UW-Green Bay Associate Professor of Economics Thomas Nesslein said it’s going to be a small start.
“There was a historically low unemployment rate pre-pandemic,” Nesslein said. “But labor market problems will make things slower.”
In December of 2020 there was a 6.7 percent national unemployment rate, but Brown County fared better in the previous month of November at 4 percent.
Nesslein predicts 2021 will not close the gap on the amount of jobs lost from the pandemic.
“Adding jobs and lifting restrictions may not increase the total jobs created because there has been such a big closure in smaller businesses and certain industries,” he said.