Second Peek Boutique in Wausau sends a message to customers while they are closed. Photo credit: Wausau River District

Second Peek Boutique in Wausau sends a message to customers while they are closed.
Photo credit: Wausau River District

Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and the current pandemic is no exception. While the past few weeks have been difficult for everyone, the demonstration of support at the local level for small businesses and those in need has been inspirational. Wisconsinites around the state have been demonstrating compassion and empathy for friends and neighbors and doing what they can (at a distance) to make each day a little brighter. Some of these innovative and creative approaches are included in this month’s blog series.

Supporting small business

With businesses unable to operate normally, the support of the local community will quite literally determine how many of our retail and service businesses are able to survive this period. Many restaurants have been able to operate scaled-back operations based around takeout and delivery supplemented by demand from households tired of cooking every day. Other restaurants are ramping up innovative take-and-bake options, family meal kits or other make-ahead options that minimize labor and packaging. However, communities are working to supplement evening meal traffic with initiatives like Takeout Tuesday or by coordinating sponsor funds to provide catered meals to health care workers or first responders.

Viroqua’s Chamber Main Street created a single online shopping site for business gift card purchases.

Retail businesses are even more limited in operations, currently able to only offer delivery and online sales. While some businesses already had an existing online marketplace, others are having to improvise, doing live shopping events on social media or leveraging existing online sales platforms like Etsy, or in some cases offering centralized gift card purchasing for local businesses via a central Main Street or chamber of commerce website. Communities are also getting creative to boost sales, hosting virtual shopping events such as “Shop Small Saturday: Gift Card Edition” or offering double dollars for those that purchase downtown gift cards and redeem them before the end of June. Shared use of delivery drivers with restaurants, out-of-work ride share operators or community taxi services can also enhance retail sales options while keeping other local residents employed.

There are numerous ways to support small businesses during this time to help them reopen successfully.
Photo credit: National Main Street Center


The Downtown Racine Corporation offered bonus funds with every downtown gift card purchased.

Entertainment venues are also starting to step up after a retooling period, offering virtual performances or demonstrations (artist demos, beermaking, cocktail crafting, concerts) with a virtual tip jar available using electronic pay systems. Making back catalogs of recorded performances available for viewing can also be effective, and many venues are offering at-home experience packages that allow customers to order a package of amenities for viewing the show—popcorn and soda, a wine and cheese platter or craft cocktail ingredients—prior to the event.

Personal service businesses are perhaps the most impacted at this time. While some may offer products for purchase that can be delivered or sold online, for others, such as hairstyling and spa services, it’s not possible to serve clients remotely. Gift cards are also an option to support these businesses, but many are trying to maintain client connections with short video clips for performing touch-up improvements at home or to demo new products that can be ordered online. Other instructors and trainers of various types are offering virtual consultations to replace in-person or group sessions for the time being to avoid losing monthly membership customers.

Supporting individuals

There are many in our communities in need of support, whether financial or emotional. Not only are the current situation and the uncertainty it creates stressful in general, but many are also impacted by illness and/or loss of income or are logging long hours working on the front lines. There are many ways that communities are showing support for one another.

For restaurant, retail, service and creative space workers, there are numerous funds being raised to help replace lost wages and cover living expenses. These range from large-scale, such as the Bartender Emergency Relief fund sponsored by large brewers, to the neighborhood scale, such as Milwaukee’s Save Our Spots campaign to raise funds for employees from contributors’ favorite neighborhood hangout spots. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, a local brewpub has repurposed its dining area into an additional food pantry specifically to serve laid-off retail and restaurant workers from the community. In many cases, local businesses such as grocery stores experiencing higher customer volumes are reaching out to displaced workers from other local businesses to provide employment during the crisis.

Pale Fire Brewing’s dining area is now a food bank for local laid-off workers.

Other communities are supporting both local businesses and front-line emergency and health care workers. Fond du Lac has implemented a Pay it Forward Campaign that is using contributions from area residents to purchase gift cards and meals from local businesses that will be donated to essential service workers. Similar projects in other communities allow community members to buy assembled baskets of local products (spa kits, local foods, household goods) that will be donated to these front-line workers. Many community foundations have also created funds to support nonprofits and individuals that are meeting the needs of individuals and organizations impacted by the crisis.

On the creative side, there are also numerous funds being set up to support artists and performers whose performances or contracts may have been canceled in the short term. These include funds from larger platforms such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which has also received federal relief funding, as well as regional arts relief funds in various parts of the state. Others are using their creative energies to help raise funds, such as the Footlights Performing Arts Fund, which is selling T-shirts to raise funds. A similar program is available in Racine, where a local T-shirt company is offering to create custom shirts for any business with an online storefront, with 100% of profits going to the business. Community-wide versions are also available to support community foundations.

Showing the love

With empty streets and playgrounds an ever-present reminder of the departure from normal, there are numerous ways that residents and businesses are adding some positive vibes into the streetscape to demonstrate their love for the community. Across the state, storefront, street and window art have served as visual signs of support. Chalk messages to the community or individual business owners are all around, while residents and business owners have been decorating storefronts and windows with hearts and supportive messages. These signs of cheer are a constant reminder that we are all in this together.

Downtown Kenosha business owners arrived to work to find a
customized message from their Main Street program.
Photo credit: Franks Diner

Businesses are also thanking their customers in unique ways, such as including love notes in curbside or delivered orders, awarding prizes or giveaways from other local businesses, or redirecting tips to charitable organizations. Many have also chosen to source more products locally both to improve their supply chain and make it easier to make smaller, more frequent orders based on demand, but also to keep spending in the local community as much as possible. This might include restaurants sourcing from farmers that have lost their market outlets, retailers featuring more locally made products, or businesses partnering to reach out jointly to customers with complementary goods and services that are relevant to them at this time.

Theaters are using their marquees as an extra-large postcard of support for the community.
Photo credit: Downtown Dublin

Supporting local families to maintain community connections even with distancing requirements is also a priority for many. Several downtown districts have created new driving and/or audio versions of their historic or mural tours to allow individuals to engage with downtown from their cars. Many libraries or civic organizations are hosting community-wide window scavenger hunts for images focused around a weekly theme. Osseo’s first responders also took engagement a step further, holding a community-wide parade complete with sirens and flashing lights for the benefit of kids celebrating birthdays alone in their homes.