It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but for small businesses in Ferguson, Missouri, it's pandemonium.
After Thursday's revelation that a St. Louis grand jury failed to press criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, demonstrators took to the streets. And just as it happened three months ago, violence erupted.
Despite pleas from small business owners last Friday that potential rioters leave them alone, a number of Ferguson stores were looted and even set on fire, from independent mom-and-pop shops to outposts of national chains like O'Reilly Auto Parts and Little Caesars Pizza. As with the protests after the shooting in August, the majority of damage took place along West Florissant Avenue.
Martin and Kelly Braun, the husband-and-wife team who co-own Marley's Bar and Grill in Ferguson, kept their restaurant open until 1 a.m. last night. They sent all the other employees home, and made pizzas for the approximately 15 customers "watching the action." The bar and grill is located on South Florissant Road, a few blocks east of the main protests. Martin Braun says his restaurant was untouched, largely thanks to its proximity to a nearby police precinct--though a couple stores right next to the station did have bricks thrown through their windows.
Like his fellow business owners across the country, the Brauns are attempting to keep their chin up as the nation heads into the busy holiday season. In particular, the night before Thanksgiving is the biggest night of the year for bars, Martin says. So they plan to keep Marley's open for the foreseeable future, regardless of what shakes out in the days and nights to come.
And while the restaurant has yet to experience direct contact with rioters, the Brauns do fear that business will miss a beat. Among other concerns, they may exhaust their supplies; liquor deliveries have already been delayed. "They don't want to come to Ferguson today," Martin says. "Hopefully, they can come in and we can get stuff delivered tomorrow."
Aside from the fear of physical damage, the uncertainty over how long the riots will continue is the biggest problem faced by small business owners in Ferguson. Unlike bigger businesses that have national chains behind them, small shops can't necessarily wait it out. "I think this is going to be a couple-year thing to try and bring it back to the way it was. I don't know how that's going to work," Braun says.
The story across town has been far worse. The exterior of Sam's Meat Market on West Florissant Avenue still stands, but MSNBC reported that it was looted last night before being set on fire. Co-owner Ibrahim Rammaha spoke to Inc. after the initial wave of protests months ago; he talked about being worried by having to get "back on the horse" after witnessing more than $20,000 in damages and stolen property. This time around, Rammaha could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.
Other small business owners expressed similar concerns. Natalie DuBose, owner of Natalie's Cakes and More, told CNN before the riots, "If I can't open my doors every morning, I can't feed my kids in the evening. Just don't burn my shop down, don't destroy it." Last night, a photographer on Twitter caught DuBose in tears after she realized her store had been attacked.
Businesses outside Ferguson in the broader St. Louis area are also being affected. Gary Jaffe, CEO of St. Louis-based educational literature company GL Group, a recent Inc. 5000 honoree, says a number of employees are temporarily staying home from work. Some who live in Ferguson are scared to leave their houses, while others in St. Louis are scared to use the roads. Parents with children at closed schools are in a childcare bind.
As Jaffe watched one large group of rioters pass half a mile away from one of GL Group's four St. Louis locations, he thought about his contingency plan: his business insurance. Other small business CEOs nearby did the same, including Michael Pruett, head of medical lab testing and data management company (and fellow Inc. 5000 honoree) Dynalabs. A number of the damaged businesses, Pruett speculates, might not have the type of insurance his company does--especially smaller mom-and-pop outfits. "I can imagine these guys either not knowing about it or not wanting to pay the expense, because it's not cheap," he says. "The large chains, they'll recover just fine. But the burger shop or liquor store, they're not going to have that kind of insurance."
But Pruett refuses to put himself in the shoes of Ferguson business owners. "I can't imagine having gone through the last 100 days now with that kind of tension. And to have two dozen or more businesses burned to the ground last night, I wouldn't open back up there," he says. "There's no way."
Pruett has been in touch with small business owners in the area, and suggests that the overall vibe is one of shock. "It seems to me that the overwhelming sentiment by the small business owners operating there is that they can't believe the community turned on them," he says. "I think there's a tremendous amount of disappointment and dismay over how a community that was arguably one of the most well-integrated communities in the area basically turned on itself and destroyed people's livelihoods, their hopes and dreams."