HELENA — On March 16, then Montana Governor Steve Bullock ordered all non-essential businesses to close their doors to the public in an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic. Now just under a year later, all of them are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's not totally doom and gloom.
On May 1, 2020, MTN reported that the second location of popular Helena diner “Shellie’s Country Cafe,’ would be closing, forced to do so as bills mounted. Shortly thereafter, Marc Barragan, saw an opportunity.
Barragan opened Jalisco Mexican Grill in that same spot in August, a restaurant bearing the namesake of his home state in Mexico.
Michelle Talseth, pursued her dream and opened the Candy Shack in Helena’s north valley.
Sandy Schull, owner of downtown Helena staple, Birds & Beasley’s did what she could to ensure her customers' needs were met amidst the pandemic.
While the effects of the pandemic have been drastically different in each case, all agreed trying to run a business in a pandemic is not an easy task.
“It's been challenging because we were expecting like it was gonna be kind of very busy and then slow down, once people get used to the place and stuff like that," said Barragan. "Very challenging on the personnel, staff. We -- right now we have steady personnel now."
“We shut down for six weeks and we did delivery free delivery services, seed and different things for people. We still do free delivery, if people want it,” said Schull.
“A real roller coaster ride. It took us about three months to get open. It's a fairly lengthy process to open up a new business, especially when you're in a food product business with the beginning of COVID,” said Talseth
The Candy Shack
Talseth opened the Candy Shack on August 17, and as of now, Talseth says she's trying to decide whether or not she should sell it, as she fights to pay bills. That dream is becoming a nightmare
"I wanted to open up something that brought joy to everybody and that had a common denominator with everybody. There is no real demographic with candy, you know? Babies love it, to our seniors love it," said Talseth. "It's timeless, an old-fashioned candy store? Yes, that was my dream. And I just, it's like I said, it's very difficult to make this decision. I have been up many, many nights, not wanting to take it away from the community, because I see how happy they are when they come in, or repeat little children that come in.”
Talseth said she's not willing to give up just yet, but if she does, her experience has been mostly positive because of the people she met along the way.
"I'll walk away with a sad heart, but I'm going to walk away with a smile. If I have to walk away, because just getting through the process during these hard times during the pandemic, was an amazing feat. I've also learned a lot about our county workers, they're amazing. You know, you only hear one side of it, you hear the frustration, but you know, they're there, they want to see us succeed. They've done everything they can to try and help," said Talseth. "Another positive is is I've met a lot of wonderful neighbors that I didn't know I had before."
Jalisco Mexican Grill
Though this is Barragan’s first experience as a restauranteur, he’s been in the industry for the better part of a decade, and in his eyes, the last six months were a learning experience as he and his staff navigate client preferences.
“We're learning a lot like we started with our menu, and then we kind of do modifications to it along the way. Sometimes people will require different stuff on the menu or different items,” said Barragan. "We have the machaca, which is shouldn't be with eggs, and people modify it to they want it in a burrito? So basically, we have now both of the plates on the menu, too."
Birds & Beasley's
While at Birds & Beasley’s, Schull noted the COVID-19 has certainly presented its challenges, it also brought with it opportunities.
“When people were brought to their house, they had kids at the house. They're stuck with their offices, they wanted something to do they wanted to look out the window, they wanted to engage with nature. And so I think we increased a lot of new bird enthusiasts,” said Schull. "We hope that they stay with it when they get out of the pandemic and go back to a little bit normal life."
Schull said she made the decision to implement a mask mandate in her store before it was made a Lewis and Clark county mandate, and while it was met with some resistance, Schull said the overwhelming majority of her clientele were thankful for it, and for that, they continued to support.
"Because we were masked, our customers were masked we heard people say, 'We feel safe with you, and so we want to stick with you,' because it seems like a safe place to be," said Schull. "This is what we're doing. I have staff members that are in their 70's. We don't want to get anything and we don't want to give anybody anything."
Though the COVID-19 pandemic is having, and will likely have, immediate and lasting effects on the local economy, all three local business owners agree that Montanans have their best interest at heart.
“Helena is incredibly loyal. I had people come in at the beginning to say, 'Are you going to be okay? What do we need to do? I'll buy a gift certificate? What do you need? We want to give you things. How can we help you?' And you saw that just up and down the Gulch and town. The customers wanted to make sure we were okay. We were fortunate,” said Schull
“Helena people are very nice. We got a lot of good reviews here. People come in to support us and say, Hey, guys, good job, they're glad we're here,” said Barragan.
"That's what I'm going to take away those smiles of those people sitting in the chairs, telling us their story, or the people just coming in saying, 'I didn't know you were here. I'm so glad you're here. This is really neat,'" said Talseth. Lots of positive experiences, and I will do it again. If we can't succeed right now. You will see the Candy Shack again in the future."