June 17, 2021
Ever so often, we come across a story that reminds us of why we continue to serve Iowa entrepreneurs - especially in turbulent times. This month, our Resource Partners, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) shared a small business success story that speaks volumes to many in restaurant ownership. Together IASourceLink, SBA, and IEDA connect and provide entrepreneurs with education and programs to strengthen their core and propel their business into the next chapter of growth.
In light of PRIDE, the month-long celebration of LGBTQ+ social and self acceptance, achievements, legal rights, and contributions to Iowa's economy and community, Chris Diebel, co-owner of Bubba - Southern Comforts in Des Moines, IA, details the resiliency and struggles the restaurant industry faced during the pandemic and how the SBA’s & IEDA’s recovery programs helped his business. Read the Article by Jayne Armstrong, SBA District Director, below.
Bubba - Southern Comforts Celebrates Economic Recovery with PRIDE
Pride is a common theme these days for Chris Diebel. The co-owner and managing partner of Bubba - Southern Comforts is proud of the restaurant industry’s resiliency and its ongoing support of the LGBTQ community despite a very challenging year.
His positive outlook resonates as the nation celebrates the LGBTQ community during PRIDE Month. Although statistics on LGBTQ-owned businesses are scarce, there is no doubt of their economic impact. A 2015 National LGBT Chamber of Commerce survey of its 900 certified members shows they alone contributed $1.15 billion to the U.S. economy, added 33,000 jobs, and tended to stay in business longer than other small businesses.
The survey results are a drop in the bucket compared to the actual economic clout. “America’s LGBTQ Economy” report by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce estimates there are more than 1.4 million LGBTQ-owned businesses with an economic impact of $1.7 trillion. The LGBTQ business community’s influence continues to grow as America embraces more diversity, equity, and inclusion business policies.
Diebel credits the hospitality industry’s long history as a safe refuge for the LGBTQ community. As a leading LGBTQ business owner and advocate in Iowa, he is proud of the significant representation among Bubba’s own staff and management team.
The Iowa restaurant industry was especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and business shutdowns. Thanks to two forgivable loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program through Earlham Bank and a grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Bubba kept the lights on, covered a lot of expenses and brought back many of it 34 employees. A recent SBA Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant positions Bubba for the next stage of economic recovery.
When the pandemic forced the closures of restaurants last March, Bubba’s management team spent two days developing a game plan. Focusing on the unknown forced the popular restaurant to constantly pivot. They reorganized based on social distancing guidelines and limited their menu to control costs.
Diebel says Governor Kim Reynolds’ actions allowing “to go” cocktail sales likely saved a lot of restaurants that couldn’t make it on takeout and delivery orders alone. It provided a critical revenue stream for the restaurant industry when they needed a lifeline.
Diebel is also grateful for the Iowa Restaurant Association’s advocacy throughout the pandemic. The organization kept its members informed of state and national policies and was a calming influence during a stressful period. Having a peer group as a sounding board was comforting as the industry came together as one. The collaboration brought him closer to other local restaurant owners facing similar challenges.
Bubba -Southern Comforts is open for business, but the long-term challenges remain as the restaurant industry continues to navigate the pandemic’s impact. Restaurants located in downtown Des Moines depend on the local workforce and business travelers for its lunch business. Revenues are down significantly with employees working remotely and not traveling. Bubba also depends on leisure diners attending arts and cultural events at the Des Moines Civic Center, Wells Fargo Arena, and local performing arts venues. The closures also had a domino effect on downtown restaurants.
Much attention is focused on the labor shortage due to wages, but Diebel points to the bigger picture. Many hospitality employees left the industry altogether due to the slow recovery and higher pay in the local IT warehousing and construction markets. With the labor market in flux and food shortages in the supply chain, restaurants are facing increased expenses across the board.
“We don’t just want to provide a livable wage, we want our employees to have good lives, benefits and careers,” said Diebel.
As the restaurant industry continues to recover, Diebel encourages business owners to be proactive for the next pandemic. One of the biggest lessons learned is having the appropriate level of cash reserves to operate during a shutdown. Despite strong sales in early 2020, the bills didn’t hit until March. With limited income during the shutdown, the PPP loans and IEDA restaurant grant kept Bubba in operation.
Bubba -Southern Comforts started in 2013 as a pop-up operation at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines where they sold out every night. It took another three years of planning and refining the southern food concept and identifying the right location that made sense financially. Along the way he worked with industry mentors to revise the business plan and financials multiple times. The extensive planning during Bubba’s start-up phase paid off during the shutdown.
Once again, his pride is showing. Despite the tough year, Diebel relishes the experience.
“I will take these lessons with me for the rest of my life,” said Diebel. “No one person can do it alone. It is all about building the right team, I wouldn’t want another team with me.”
About the U.S. Small Business Administration
The U.S. Small Business Administration makes the American dream of business ownership a reality. As the only go-to resource and voice for small businesses backed by the strength of the federal government, the SBA empowers entrepreneurs and small business owners with the resources and support they need to start, grow or expand their businesses, or recover from a declared disaster. It delivers services through an extensive network of SBA field offices and partnerships with public and private organizations. To learn more, visit www.sba.gov.
Jayne Armstrong is the district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Iowa District Office with offices in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The SBA resource network includes 15 Small Business Development Centers, four SCORE chapters, the Women’s Business Center, and the Veteran’s Business Resource Center servicing Iowa’s small business community.
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