When the pandemic hit, leading to closures of restaurants and then reopenings with tight restrictions, it was hard enough for established restaurants who built up loyal customers over years.
Imagine being a newer operation, like Sonson’s Pasty Company, which Julie Mercer opened at 6060 E. Brown Road about a year-and-a-half before Gov. Doug Ducey ordered all restaurants to close last March.
Nearly a year later, Mercer is baking heart-shaped treats for Valentine’s Day, while sharing her heartfelt appreciation for the assistance that helped her business survive 2020.
“We were very lucky we had a lot of support from our community to keep us going,” Mercer said. “And the city of Mesa has been fantastic. They offered up so much help to local businesses.”
A visit from Sally Harrison, president/CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, helped Mercer and Sonson’s get connected.
“We reached out to all the local businesses,” Harrison said. “I went into Sonson’s for the first time, met Julie and said to her, ‘Have you signed up for the Mesa CARES program?’ She said, ‘The what?’
“She signed up that evening.”
It quickly turned out to be beneficial, Mercer said.
“Through the Mesa CARES program, I had computer classes, they gave me a laptop at the end of classes. I got help with personal protection equipment, supplies, hospital sprays so we could clean the whole place,” she said.
The program also coached her through an application for federal Paycheck Protection Program funding. Technically, the program offers loans, but most do not have to be paid back if guidelines are followed.
Compared to the millions larger employers received, the $6,000 in PPP funding Mercer received was miniscule — but, she said, crucial at a time when the catering portion of Sonson’s cratered.
“PPP helped us through (the pandemic) …. That helped immensely,” she said. “The year before the pandemic, we used to do $3,000-5,000 (monthly) in events. They almost stopped when the pandemic started. It was hard for us to keep people employed,” Mercer said. “Without the Paycheck Protection, it would have been hard to keep them.”
After receiving the funding, she was able to keep her five employees on staff.
The Sonson’s Pasty Company website describes the unique eatery and Mercer’s back story: “We are a Cornish cafe serving authentic Cornish pasties with vegan options … I was born and raised in beautiful Cornwall, England where I lived for the first 32 years of my life. Mum and I worked together for many years in a bakery in Helston, Cornwall making the best pasties in the county.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest person alive to be given the opportunity to start my own business.”
When the pandemic hit, Mercer said her business model quickly shifted to “take and bake” orders.
The city of Mesa continues to come through, Mercer said:
“We got a $7,000 grant to help us put (a patio) out front,” she said.
Permits for the project went through “super fast,” she added.
After taking a break to serve a customer chicken and green chilli pasties, Mercer explained the grant will enable her to expand a tiny outdoor seating area for a patio for 16 people.
The city approved the plan for turning four parking spaces in front of Sonson’s into a patio.
“It should be done by the middle of February, maybe the third week,” she said.
Harrison noted several other downtown businesses have utilized the patio grant, as the city encourages pandemic-friendly outdoor dining and shopping.
“I’m glad we had a patio grant available,” Harrison said. “A handful of businesses downtown took advantage of that.
“I’m grateful we’re in Mesa where we were able to get CARES money to help businesses,” she added.
Now that the business portion of Mesa CARES funding has ended, “I’m praying there is more CARES money going to be available for small businesses. We haven’t been told what that’s going to look like.
“The program ended in December, but people are still struggling and there’s still a need.”
She said the chamber has helped businesses in a variety of non-monetary ways.
“We were grateful we could step up … Different chamber members provided everything from legal help to web development, personal protective equipment, signage,” Harrison said.
“Our staff worked at home and started making phone calls — every single member got called. We would say, ‘What can we do to help?’ We learned a lot,” Harrison said.
“People were struggling and scared.”
The chamber of commerce continues to reach out to businesses and continues to hear a mixed bag. Some businesses are doing well, Harrison said, while others continue to struggle.
While she was happy to hear a new program will help residents with rent and utility assistance, Harrison said more funding assistance is needed for the business community.
“I get that rental assistance is important,” Harrison said. “But if there’s no businesses that means there’s no paychecks and you can’t pay your rent.” ′