If you’re from Milwaukee’s South Side, there’s a great chance you’ve eaten a concha, sipped on a champurrado or tried another popular treat from Lopez Bakery and Restaurant, 1100 W. Historic Mitchell St.
The beloved bakery, which also sells tamales, enchiladas and other Mexican foods, has been in business at various locations in Milwaukee since the 1970s. But it’s now in danger of closing, reeling like other small businesses from the economic fallout tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I really want to make it to 50 years, but whatever happens, happens," said Cindy Lopez, who took over the business with her husband, Jorge, from her in-laws in 2012. "We don’t have much of a choice other than to keep fighting to save our business and believe that God will take care of us."
As Lopez and other small-business owners in the city look for ways to supplant drastically reduced sales at their brick-and-mortar locations, restaurants, bars and other businesses in 18 Milwaukee suburbs prepared to reopen Friday.
Suburban business reopened with guidelines such as operating at 25 percent capacity and were asked to take other steps to ensure safety.
No timeline has been given for when the majority of Milwaukee businesses will reopen.
"Doing whatever I can"
Lopez said she’s nearly emptied her personal savings account to buy increasingly costly meat supplies and to help employees ineligible for stimulus or unemployment payments. Her employees even agreed to a pay cut and a drop in hours to help the business stay afloat and keep their jobs.
"I’m doing whatever I can to help them out," said Lopez, as she fought back tears.
Her main source of optimism these days is the potential for increased sales at farmers markets as the weather improves.
"If it wasn’t for the markets, we would be closed already," said Lopez, who sells goods at the Brookfield Farmers Market and at the West Allis Farmers Market. "I’m literally using my last cents to stay in business."
On May 15, the Milwaukee Health Department issued a public health and safety order, "Moving Milwaukee Forward," which replaces the previous statewide "Safer at Home" and the local "Safe at Home" orders.
Bars, which include breweries, brewpubs, wineries, distilleries and alcohol beverage retailers, are allowed to stay open if they comply with several mandates. Customers can only enter if they are ordering, picking up or paying for food and drinks.
Retail shops, barbers and beauty salons, among other businesses, also were allowed to reopen under strict guidelines in Milwaukee this week.
Lopez says she understands the reason for the current safety protocols in Milwaukee and is prepared to reopen with increased precautions.
"I already have signs up, and we’re going to take out and block some of our tables so that people sit six feet apart," Lopez said. "My employees are going to wear masks and gloves, and we can offer customers a mask."
Recognizing the plight of Lopez and other small-business owners, Jonathan Dye, owner of Mr. Dye’s Pies, 8103 W. Tower Ave., has organized two "Cash Mobs" — basically a call for all his supporters to flood a local business — on the past two Sundays.
"These businesses that have been on the corner for more than three decades are beyond essential to the community, not just because they provide jobs but also because they provide culture," Dye said.
Additional help could be on the way for Lopez and others. Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday $75 million in support through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for small businesses with fewer than 20 employees. Each business that receives the grant will get $2,500 to help cover rent, wages and other costs.
"These grants will help businesses in the short term, and we need Wisconsinites to join our long-term economic recovery by supporting those small businesses as patrons and customers," Evers said in a news release.
Lopez, who said she never received any support through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, just hopes she can survive that long.
"I miss my customers, and I’m worried about how things will turn out," she said. "It’s so real and just so sad what’s happened to our employees and businesses."