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The Pandemic's Ripple Effect On Northern California Businesses

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated businesses across the country, some temporarily, others for good. And it's easy to forget that when a business falters, its suppliers and employees also take the hit. Stephanie O'Neill has one story about the economic ripple effect of the pandemic in Northern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: It was 13 years ago when Lisa Gottreich decided to turn her twin passions for pet goats...

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

O'NEILL: ...And cheese-making to profit. So the Sonoma County resident leased a nearby creamery and got to work.

LISA GOTTREICH: The way to make it in agriculture in California is you make a value-added product that you yourself could never afford to buy, and you sell it to venues where you yourself could never afford to dine. And then you're making it fine.

O'NEILL: (Laughter).

The handcrafted cheeses Gottreich sells at Bohemian Creamery in Sebastopol, Calif., are to say the least unique, among them - goat milk cheese rolled in toasted, ground seaweed harvested from a nearby beach. And for dessert, a decadent cow cheese stuffed with sweet, caramelized goat milk.

GOTTREICH: I name that one Cowabunga. I invent all my cheeses except for one over there, an old Sicilian recipe that's 1,377 years old. And I change nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF REFRIGERATOR DOOR CLOSING)

O'NEILL: Before long, Gottreich was shipping regularly to renowned Northern California chefs, to high-end hotels and restaurants and even to the Obama White House. It seemed nothing could slow her sales. Then came the pandemic. Here's Gottreich in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOTTREICH: Look at this. I got a cancellation from a standing order I always have down at Cavallo Point, which is a big fancy hotel right on the water's edge. Every week, they've been ordering from me for the last 13 years.

O'NEILL: It was the first morning her orders began to tumble.

GOTTREICH: This email just came in from Four Seasons in San Francisco. He says, well, things are not looking very good at all. We're all struggling, having to deal with major business loss. No cheese needed.

O'NEILL: So how many orders do you have now?

GOTTREICH: One.

O'NEILL: One.

GOTTREICH: I would normally have about 32.

O'NEILL: Among them, a more-than-decadelong standing order from Valette, a restaurant in Sonoma's wine country. It's move to curbside pickups only force chef owner Dustin Valette to furlough many of his three dozen workers and to cut or cancel orders from nearly 30 suppliers, Bohemian Creamery included.

DUSTIN VALETTE: It was really hard. We help support a lot of farmers and a lot of small independent contractors and a lot of very small producers. So it was really hard for us to basically reach out to them to say, you know, we don't have a source for your products anymore.

O'NEILL: And as a result, Bohemian Creamery had to do the same. Gottreich has cut the hours of her three employees and has canceled orders to suppliers, including 27-year-old Mauricio Guiterrez.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BLEATING)

O'NEILL: A ranch hand by day, Guiterrez funds his newly established goat dairy with the sale of 250 gallons of goat milk each week to Bohemian Creamery. His 2020 plan was to grow the herd and his customer base.

MAURICIO GUITERREZ: After that, I figured I was going to make some sort of profit, and I was going to be able to leave my job and be full-time with my own dairy.

O'NEILL: But the collapse of the dining industry has forced him, for now, to dry up his herd, which means no incoming dollars to feed 120 hungry mouths.

GUITERREZ: Now we have to feed the goats out of our own paychecks. So we got to really cut back on whatever we use at home. Just buy our necessities because we still got to make sure the goats eat every day.

O'NEILL: Mauricio Guiterrez says if things don't pick up soon, he'll be forced to sell off his entire herd and give up his dairy. Yet there is a small glimmer of hope. At some restaurants, like Valette, that have opened outdoor dining areas, customers are coming back. And Bohemian Creamery owner Lisa Gottreich says other restaurants are buying small quantities of her cheeses to sell directly to customers, which she says does help while she searches for new retail markets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

GOTTREICH: So in some ways, it almost feels like it did when I was first starting out. How do I create this company? How do I build it? How do I make it a viable business?

O'NEILL: All questions other small business owners throughout the nation are asking themselves as well.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Sebastopol, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX'S "EASEJIMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.