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  • Caitlin DeLuca

Small Business Heroes: Christian Cuff discusses restructuring business to protect public health

Maine’s small businesses are the cornerstone of our communities and crucial to our economy. Even so, many have been provided with limited resources to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public health and economic crises the pandemic has caused here in Maine and around the country.

Despite this, many small business owners have become leaders in protecting public health, restructuring their businesses and taking innovative approaches to protect their staff and communities. Mainers for Working Families reached out to some of those local small business owners who have been working to protect our communities even as they face their own financial hardships to hear how they’re managing during this crisis, and what they’ve done to keep their doors open and our communities safe.

Christian Cuff (front row, middle), Jacob Cuff (front row, right) and Nicole Cuff (front row, far right) with staff of Sweet Pea's Cafe

Christian Cuff is the co-owner of Sweet Pea’s Cafe and the Cup Coffee Shop in Bar Harbor, and Vivo Italian Kitchen in Bridgton. The restaurant business is a family affair for Cuff; he owns these three businesses with his wife and brother, and his mother owns the Broadway Deli in Brunswick. When the pandemic began to hit Maine in early March, the Cuffs immediately prioritized the health and safety of their staff.

It was an easy decision to make; Jacob Cuff was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, and was neutropenic through his two years of treatment. Jacob has recovered, but the lessons the Cuffs learned during that time guided their decision-making process, and the policies they instituted during this crisis.

“We set [safety] precautions for everyone as if they were my brother, because he is immunocompromised.”

The Cuffs also took into account their community’s susceptibility to COVID-19. With Bar Harbor having less than thirty hospital beds available, they knew that an outbreak could devastate their community.

The Cuffs and their team came together to form a plan, and set a goal to not lose a single employee, who have become like family to them.

They decided to put all of their eligible employees on a workshare program, consisting of abbreviated schedules combined with unemployment benefits. After extensive research, the Cuffs also decided to apply for a PPP loan to cover the staff’s expenses. This allowed them to pay their staff $18 an hour to offset the potential of fewer tips and fewer hours, in case the busy season in Bar Harbor was affected. The Cuffs wanted to be sure that everyone could make at least what they made last year.

The PPP loan was a real help for the Cuffs, allowing them to retain their staff, increase their wages, and restructure their business model. But, with federal assistance no longer forthcoming, having to close operations during the winter months is a real possibility.

While more aid is necessary for small businesses, the Cuffs decided to continue helping their employees where they could, setting up IRA accounts for all of their year-round employees.

“We just prioritized the staff and asked, ‘What do we have to do to keep the staff safe?’ When you start to focus on your staff, guests are happy,” said Christian.

The Cuffs also decided to restructure their business with the health and safety of their staff and community in mind.

The Cuffs and their team made the call that Sweet Pea’s Cafe wouldn’t be opening for lunch the entire season. Instead, they would use that time to prepare for the dinner rush, allowing their employees who were severely at risk to be able to keep their jobs while limiting contact with patrons.

They also decided to have no indoor restaurant seating for the entire season. Because Sweet Pea’s Cafe is located on the farm, they had ample space for outdoor seating.

“We were fortunate to have that much space to work with. We had a great hand to step into,” said Christian.

Sweet Pea's Cafe in Bar Harbor

Dining tables are set 20 feet apart, using firewood to create a low wall as a way to guide patrons to their tables. Masks are also required from the moment guests step out of their cars.

The Cuffs also worked hard to build out their take-out service, learning how to bring the restaurant's attention to detail and hospitality to the experience even if the customer was not dining in.

“Takeout had to be the priority to reward people for being responsible in the pandemic,” said Christian.

These decisions were easy to make. From Christian’s time growing up in his mother’s restaurant, he learned that business ownership wasn’t just about profit; it was about providing job opportunities for community members and serving the community.

“In my opinion, if we lose a year, but we pay our bills, that’s fine.”

The Cuffs have been really impressed with Governor Janet Mills’ leadership amidst this crisis, and how it set Maine on the path to recovery quickly and efficiently.

“She took the pandemic seriously, she shut down the state quickly as well,” said Cuff. “Maine has been pretty great and I have been impressed, especially by the CDC Guidelines and Hotline.”

The Cuffs believe that consistency in protocol and maintaining thorough guidance for small businesses is crucial to Maine’s continued success. They hope that as more information becomes available, Maine will provide county-specific guidelines for small business owners.

While Maine continues to rebuild from this pandemic, Christian stressed how important it is for small businesses to remain flexible and find the silver lining.

“The fear of having to change something and losing something is not what you got into the business for,” said Christian. “This is an opportunity for a business to rethink their model… the businesses who have fared best in this situation were pivotable.”

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