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Keeping The Family Restaurant Open In The Pandemic: It's All We Have Ever Known

Keith Elwood signs papers at a table
KARINA ELWOOD/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
Keith Elwood, owner of Wagon Wheel Pizza in Palm Bay, Fla., fills out a worksheet for the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal small-business loan designed to help small-businesses stay open during in the wake of COVID-19.

I grew up always knowing when my dad came from work. Even before I saw him, I heard the sound of his keys clanging on the counter. And I smelled the onions, grease and dough on his clothing.

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It has been that way again since I moved back home after the COVID-19 outbreak forced the University of Florida to conduct classes online. I feel like a kid again, watching my father walk in every night from Wagon Wheel Pizza, the restaurant he owns here in coastal Palm Bay.  

Chairs turned up in the dining room
Credit KARINA ELWOOD/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
Chairs are turned up in the dining room of Wagon Wheel Pizza in Palm Bay, Fla., on Monday, April 6, 2020, after Gov. Ron DeSantis mandated restaurants across Florida move entirely to take-out and delivery services following the COVID-19 outbreak.

But this week, things were a little different. He still has flour blanketing the front of his shirt. He still smells like pizza. But these days, he is coming home every night with something new: the weight of keeping a small business open in the wake of a pandemic.  

My dad’s restaurant is one of more than 40,000 Florida eateries and bars that on March 20 were mandated to move entirely to take-out and delivery service under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order 20-71. The limitations have cut my dad’s sales by 45%; he fears it could get worse.

As one of 30.7 million small business owners in the United States, he’s turning to the federal government for guidance and aid to keep the doors open.   

Wagon Wheel is all my father has ever known.

In 1984, Keith Elwood, then 17, moved from Connecticut to Palm Bay where his parents helped open the pizzeria. Four years later, he became a co-owner and has been running the restaurant ever since.  

Wagon Wheel is also all I’ve ever known.

Exterior of Wagon Wheel Pizza
Credit KARINA ELWOOD/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
Wagon Wheel Pizza in Palm Bay, Fla., remains open for take-out and delivery as seen on Monday, April 6, 2020.

My parents met in the restaurant when my mother was hired as a server. They married, and I was born in 1998, a week after the restaurant opened in its current location and on a Friday that became the busiest day on record for 10 years.

As a child, I’d crawl under the booths, popping my head up to watch in amazement as my dad spun pies into the air. When I was 13, I started bussing tables and seating guests. Eventually, I moved up to waiting tables. I was able to earn some extra cash in high school, but most of all, I learned the value of hard work.  

This past week I’ve taken on a different role. I’ve been helping my father make sense of the Paycheck Protection Program, the $349 billion small-business loan designed to help businesses continue during the mandated coronavirus limitations –– a task that’s shaping up to be much harder than I expected.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 178,000 loans being processed and about “$50 billion in loan commitments,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told POLITICO.  

The program is part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress on March 27 to help ease the record unemployment rates sweeping the country. Small businesses can earn up to $10 million in government-backed loans, which, if used for payroll, rent, mortgage or utilities, will be completely forgiven.

“Our hope here is to help protect the paychecks of millions of Americans during this very difficult and unusual time,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a webinar about the program.  

Server Terri Veta wears a face mask and gloves while preparing a salad
Credit KARINA ELWOOD/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
Terri Veta, a server at Wagon Wheel Pizza in Palm Bay, Fla., wears a face mask and gloves as she prepares a salad for take-out on Monday, April 6, 2020.

Loans were scheduled to roll out on Friday, but as applications flooded in, major banks reported that they weren’t prepared to accommodate the loans, putting the program on hold. My dad called his bank fully prepared to submit his application but hung up frustrated by the process.

“It’s a complete cluster,” he yelled from across the house.  

My dad is not alone in his frustration.

The lack of communication between the Small Business Administration, the banks and the businesses has led to mass confusion over how to implement the program. And the complex language used in the application is leaving many small-business owners lost.  

Jamie Kraft, the director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center at the University of Florida, said there are a lot of obstacles in trying to implement a program like this in a sped-up timeframe. Time is of the essence, Kraft said.  

“Will it help significantly? For sure,” he said. “But the big question is: ‘How quickly can we get it to them? And will eight weeks of coverage be enough?’”

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The Paycheck Protection Program is designed to keep employees on payroll for eight weeks after the loan is distributed, aiming to keep businesses funded until around June. But Kraft worries this first stimulus package won’t be enough.

“I think this is just a drop in the bucket,” Kraft said. “This will help fund resistance through the next month, next couple of weeks. But there has got to be another bill coming behind it.”

On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted that he was asking Congress to expand the program by an additional $250 billion.  

Another one of Kraft’s concerns is how many small businesses will be able to fully recover from the economic hurt of the virus. For, now he said the government needs to focus on getting money out quickly, so businesses like my dad’s can continue to function.  

“After 36 years, this is not the way you want to wrap up. You want to go out on your own terms for sure,” Kraft said. “So, hopefully, all this money will get out the door. Hopefully, there'll be more there if we need it, when we need it. Hopefully, this virus starts to abate more quickly than we anticipate.”

That was a lot of hoping, I thought, as I sat on our back porch with my dad talking about what all this means for Wagon Wheel. He stared at an open laptop, scrolling through information about the loan program. On the television behind him, a cooking show quietly played.  

David Cuevas tosses garlic knots in the kitchen
Credit KARINA ELWOOD/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
David Cuevas tosses garlic knots in the kitchen at Wagon Wheel Pizza in Palm Bay, Fla., while wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 outbreak on Monday, April 6, 2020.

My dad has managed to maintain most of the staff and a supportive customer base. Luckily, pizza was already a popular take-out item. Regardless, he anticipates the model is only sustainable for about six months before he’ll have to close the doors.  

Although nothing is certain, I take solace in knowing that –– just like the smell of onions and pizza dough when my dad comes home –– some things at Wagon Wheel have not changed. The walls are still covered in eclectic keepsakes like an ancient paper towel dispenser and a broken ice scooper. The ceiling is still decorated with the clouds my mom painted. The ovens are still filled with pizza. And the servers still buzz behind the counter on Friday nights.  

I am crossing my fingers that none of it will have to change any time soon. And that the killer virus will not prove deadly for the Wagon Wheel.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at kelwood@freshtakeflorida.com