By Cathy Diekmann
The Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce continues to offer creative ways for members and guests to decompress, lean on each other and learn from each other during Virtual Happy Hour. The theme for the May 28, 2020 gathering was “Let Them Eat Cake” a jovial nod to featured guest, Susan Patt, owner of Cake Art in Salisbury, Maryland, and Marie Antoinette, whose revolutionary idea to enjoy some sweets during troubled times wasn’t all bad.
At the start of the event, SACC President/CEO Bill Chambers provided a weekly update regarding SACC advocacy efforts on behalf of local businesses. Governor Hogan eased some of the restrictions in stage one of the Roadmap to Recovery by permitting restaurants to offer outdoor dining with social distancing beginning at 5:00 PM on May 29, 2020. This is helpful for restaurants that can offer outdoor dining, but many don’t have the space for this option.
Chambers received countless calls from restaurant owners urging the SACC to continue its push to encourage Governor Hogan to allow indoor dining at 25% capacity. For this reason, on June 1, 2020, the SACC will host its third webinar with local restaurant owners, the President of the Maryland Restaurant Association and Andrew Cassilly, Governor Hogan’s Chief Legislative Officer, to devise a game plan.
“Restaurateurs are wondering if we can open swimming pools at 25% capacity, why not indoor dining at 25%?” Chambers noted. “All of the restauranteurs that I have spoken to are confident they have the control mechanisms to put patrons in seats, explain mask usage and sanitize thoroughly to make this happen.”
Chambers is hopeful that the federal relief package in the Senate now will be sent to President Trump for signature early next week. In a recent conference call with U. S. Senator Cardin, Chambers learned that Democrats and Republicans have agreed to modify the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) by extending coverage to 24 weeks and drop the requirement of hiring 75% of staff down to 50% of staff.
Other issues on the SACC advocacy list include encouraging Governor Hogan to tap into the $500 million Rainy Day Fund, addressing issues with the State’s unemployment claims process and fine-tuning the State Commerce loan program to operate as intended.
Entertainment for the evening involved a cupcake decorating competition among Molly Hilligoss, Executive Director of the Habitat for Humanity of Wicomico County; Erica Joseph, President of the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore; and Chambers. After instructions from Patt, each competitor tried to re-create Patt’s cupcake that included perfectly piped butter cream, artfully drizzled chocolate ganache and a delicate sprinkling of chocolate chips. Patt judged Joseph’s effort as the winner, a close call ahead of Hilligoss. Chambers seemed to through the competition as he employed chopsticks to drizzle the ganache and a hardware-store variety paintbrush to finish his plating.
Each Virtual Happy Hour includes a conversation with the featured guest which provides an opportunity to learn from a local business leader. Patt shared that, even as a child, she dreamed of being a professional baker. She started baking at home with her mom, then attended culinary school for baking and pastry and trained under a Master Pastry Chef. She has worked in every aspect of baking
and pastry at hotels, grocery stores, and in catering. Patt mused, “Eventually I went back to my roots, back to what I love – cake decorating – when I opened Cake Art in 2011.”
Patt has experienced her share of challenges in business, including an extended street closure right in front of her shop in downtown Salisbury. Her ability to nimbly adapt to circumstances beyond her control and offer new products that customers want evolved out of necessity. “The day the street was open and my front steps were finished was the same day Hogan announced the stay-at-home order,” Patt said. “I thought, what am I going to do? But I had already been offering curb-side service during construction. Now I needed to think of new ideas that would interest our customers.”
Patt began offering decorate-at-home cupcake kits for parents with stay-at-home kids. “It blew up. It was insane, in a good way,” Patt chuckled. She also offered her specialty cupcakes, macarons, and a homemade banana pudding that tends to sell out. Patt aims to add something new every few weeks. “Mother’s Day boxes were well received, and I’ve already had requests for Father’s Day boxes, so I’ll probably do those.”
Patt has not closed her doors during the COVID-19 crisis. “I was pretty nervous. I didn’t know what this would mean for my business or my employees,” Patt said. “Then, that first morning that I came into work, a local company placed an order for 1,300 cupcakes. I had never done that many at once before, but I knew we had to make it happen so we could stay open. And then, they placed that order again the next month. They really helped us stay open for the first two months.”
Large, “essential” businesses have helped a number of small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis and small businesses are partnering where they can. Patt noted, “We’ve all been trying to stick together and help one another.”
Virtual Happy Hour includes time for resource and idea sharing. At this event, participants shared ideas about identifying Spanish and Haitian Creole translators to update the SACC website, the importance of being inclusive for the sake of the common good and current grant opportunities at the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore (CFES).
Joseph explained that despite the COVID-19 crisis, the CFES has been inspired by the generosity of individual, businesses and corporate donations. In the past ten weeks, the CFES has raised almost $350,000 for an Emergency Response Fund and distributed just over $90,000 to non-profit organizations. “We’re doing all we can to make these funds responsive to what the needs are,” Joseph said. “We’ve increased the grant award to $5,000 and modified the criteria so organizations can address their needs as they return to work and adapt programs to their new reality.”
In closing the event, Chambers noted, “The future is fluid. We don’t know that is going to happen next month, two months from now, or what the business climate and educating our kids will be like. It’s really important that we continue to hear from our members, community leaders, educators and elected officials so we know what the real obstacles are,” Chambers insisted. “We may not have all the answers, but we’ll find a way to hurdle those obstacles together.