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‘We’ve Done Everything We Can’: Small-Business Owners Struggle With Decision To Close

Bob Koplar closed his indoor cycling business Steel Wheels late spring. He said the coronavirus pandemic and new restrictions from the city made it impossible to run the business safely.
Bob Koplar closed his indoor cycling business Steel Wheels late spring. He said the coronavirus pandemic and new restrictions from the city made it impossible to run the business safely.

Tens of thousands of small businesses across the country have closed their doors permanently as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

Some owners weathered shutdowns in the spring, a host of new restrictions and a drop in customers over the last 6½ months — and there’s still no end in sight.

Many businesses are calling for more economic relief to get through the winter, but negotiations in Congress for additional federal funding have stalled out.

That leaves many local small-business owners in a tight spot — weighing whether to cut their losses now or risk an uncertain future. St. Louis Public Radio spoke with several owners about how they made that difficult decision.

In early 2018, Bob Koplar set out to transport indoor cyclers in St. Louis around the world.

He launched an indoor immersive cycling studio, Steel Wheels, in the Central West End neighborhood. The workouts showcased videos of road biking across Italy, Norway and South Africa, among other places.

The studio was a passion project for Koplar, an avid cycler, and he hoped to expand it.

But when the pandemic hit, customers started calling to ask if it was safe to come in, and he didn’t have a good answer. He tried renting out bikes for customers to use at home for a while, but by late spring he decided to close permanently.

“Studio cycling is all about butts in seats; you just have to fill the bikes,” Koplar said, adding that the city’s new restrictions made it impossible to operate the business safely.

“It's still kind of left a hole in me personally,” he said.

Now, Koplar is turning his attention to launching a restaurant. He’s part of the team behind Edera Italian Eatery, which opened on Tuesday around the corner from his empty studio.

“You have to have something that gets you out of bed in the morning,” he said. “And I think for a long time that was Steel Wheels — and hopefully it will be again in the future, but right now we’re focused on getting this restaurant open.”

Six years ago, Stuart Keating opened the bar he hoped to work at for the rest of his life. But now, the future of Earthbound Beer on Cherokee Street is up in the air.

Keating, a co-owner of the brewery, and the staff voted to close the tap room months ago, and they still don’t feel it’s safe to reopen. They’ve been serving beer on the patio, but Keating said it’s not enough to cover expenses.

“The first two months were OK. The third month we lost like $15,000, and we're still losing money at a pretty alarming rate,” he said.

Keating’s wife, Kristina Goodwin, recently left the brewery, taking a higher-paying job to cover the family’s bills. Meanwhile, Stuart is juggling his brewery work with being a stay-at-home dad to their 6-month-old, Merlin.

He thought things were turning around when he received a $50,000 grant from the state. But after using some of the anticipated money to upgrade failing equipment, he found out the grant was rescinded. The state said the brewery didn’t meet the criteria, which Keating rebuts.

He hopes to keep operations going through the end of the year, but with so much uncertainty he’s not sure what will happen. He took himself off the payroll last month.

“We've done everything we can to run the brewery, but we're not willing to risk our employees’ safety to stay in business,” he said.

Mike Evans goes back and forth about whether he should close his entertainment business.

For months, he hasn’t been able to get DJ gigs or operate the party bus service he launched in January, all under the name Down To Play Entertainment.

“You wake up every day not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ve cried, just worried myself literally sick sometimes. And I just want people to know, it's not easy. It's extremely hard being a business owner, especially a small-business owner.”

Evans isn’t giving up. He just launched a new venture — Alibi Cookies — that offers warm cookies fresh from a vending machine.

He installed the first one last month on the patio of the Tamm Avenue Bar and Grill in Dogtown. Evans hopes to expand to a brick-and-mortar store next year.

“Even though I've considered closing, but I think about it, and I'm just like, ‘This is mine. I own this.’ And I really think it can be a great thing. You just gotta keep pushing.”

In 1993, Sue and Marty Luepker took over the historic Dutchdown-based Anheuser-Busch Inn.

Beer baron Adolphus Busch built the Bavarian-style building in the early 1900s, just before Prohibition, as a family restaurant. Sue and Marty agreed to fix up the building and operate the Feasting Fox restaurant for five years — but that turned into 25 years.

The Luepkers said they grew to love working in the restaurant with their kids and grandchildren, bringing St. Louis residents a taste of German sauerbraten and apple strudel. It was the kind of place people went to celebrate holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving, Sue said.

That made it hard for them to pivot when the pandemic hit.

Marty, 80, said they considered retiring for years but had trouble finding someone to take over the historic building. Recently, a deal fell through with an interested buyer, and the couple still worries what will happen to the building.

“Most of the things have been auctioned off, or are going to be, so it’s time to retire and just see what the next chapter brings,” Sue said.

The couple is hopeful someone will come along to “take the torch and run with it," so they can visit the place they say feels like home.

Bob Koplar stands in his empty indoor cycling studio, Steel Wheels, which he shuttered late spring.
Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
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Bob Koplar stands in his empty indoor cycling studio, Steel Wheels, which he shuttered late spring.
Stuart Keating sits with his son Merlin on Earthbound Beer’s patio. He’s hoping to keep the brewery going through the end of the year, but he’s unsure how much longer it will last without financial relief.
Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
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Stuart Keating sits with his son Merlin on Earthbound Beer’s patio. He’s hoping to keep the brewery going through the end of the year, but he’s unsure how much longer it will last without financial relief.
Mike Evans is struggling to keep his entertainment business going amid the city’s restrictions on social gatherings. But he's hoping a new vending machine cookie venture will take off.
Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
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Mike Evans is struggling to keep his entertainment business going amid the city’s restrictions on social gatherings. But he's hoping a new vending machine cookie venture will take off.
Sue and Marty Luepker lean up against the bar of their bavarian-style restaurant in Dutchtown. The couple is retiring after 25 years operating the Feasting Fox, and they hope someone else will take it over.
Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
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Sue and Marty Luepker lean up against the bar of their bavarian-style restaurant in Dutchtown. The couple is retiring after 25 years operating the Feasting Fox, and they hope someone else will take it over.
The Feasting Fox restaurant sits in a historic building in Dutchdown, built by Adolphus Busch in the early 1900s.
Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
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The Feasting Fox restaurant sits in a historic building in Dutchdown, built by Adolphus Busch in the early 1900s.

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