Tale of a Small Business Owner During Shutdown

Denise Stickney recalls the events surrounding COVID and their effects on her businesses.


Vinh Huynh

Vertigo Fusion Kitchen is owned by Denise Stickney.

   This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of The Saber.


As many Columbusites quarantined to keep their loved ones safe, small business owners struggled to find ways to sustain themselves and their employees. Denise Stickney, owner of Vertigo, the Black Cow, and Smoke Bourbon and BBQ, recalls that her financial losses started even before the shutdown. People began hearing about the outbreak and avoided crowded areas like restaurants and bars.


   The dip in sales increased when large downtown events, like the concert series, were cancelled. Several businesses closed their office spaces and employees worked remotely. With the decreased traffic on Broadway, Stickney decided to close down Smoke Bourbon and BBQ during the shutdown and only open Vertigo and the Black Cow for to-go options.

Denise Stickney, owner of Vertigo, the Black Cow, and Smoke Bourbon and BBQ. (Vinh Huynh)

   Stickney recalls that although the shutdown was difficult, customers continued their support. “Even though our sales were extremely [low], people were coming just to make sure that we knew they wanted to support us. I think at just about every restaurant that stayed open, the employees were getting tips like they had never seen before, and it was for to-go orders.” Customers promised to keep coming back. Stickney said that “Many days in the beginning I was in tears because I felt that love and support.”


   The small business community downtown also kept in contact with one another. Owners would call to check in and to compare hours and business strategies to stay open during unprecedented times. Stickney recalls that this network was a large source of support for her.


   When the CSU dorms closed, several student employees at Stickney’s businesses had to find places to stay in order to continue working. Some of them were able to find friends to stay with while others had to leave their job to go home.


   The financial fallout during the shutdown also caused Stickney to have to make some difficult decisions. She explained, “It was devastating to our income because that’s when we had to decide who would stay on payroll and who would get laid off.” A couple members of the management team were so invested in their work that they continued working even after Stickney informed them that she would not be able to pay them. All employees that were temporarily laid off were offered their jobs back, but the businesses are far from recovering.


   Since reopening, Stickney’s businesses have implemented several measures in accordance with CDC guidelines so that customers will have a safe dining experience. In addition to the mask mandate, there are several sanitation stations around all businesses. Each one also has a hand washing station outside in case customers are uncomfortable with going inside. Employees wear shirts with messages about staying safe, such as one that says “wash your hands” three times in a row and another that says “standing together 6 feet apart.” Stickney has also ordered numerous sanitation products to place at individual tables.


   Vertigo, the Black Cow, and Smoke Bourbon and BBQ are all open for dining again, but all locations are still down about 30% in sales. Stickney explained that until large events return to downtown and surrounding areas, “we’re going to continue hurting.”