Every person has a unique story of how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted them, for some, like Amy Sutherland, circumstances brought on by the pandemic meant the close of a chapter.
“My name is Amy Sutherland. I no longer own a bar,” said the former owner of Social, which was in Tamuning. “Well, I saw no end in sight of the vast amount of money we were hemorrhaging.”
This was the sad reality of her experience trying to keep a business reliant on tourism and local spending open during the pandemic.
Sutherland opened Social in 2019, roughly a year before the first restrictions were put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Guam.
“Part of the problem, I think, for us is, we weren’t even open a full year. We had bought the business in April 2019 and we were shut down the beginning of March 2020, so we weren’t even open a full year,” Sutherland said.
Despite being located right along Marine Corps Drive in Tamuning, her business was unable to thrive amid pandemic-related closures and restrictions.
Sutherland saw sales come to a halt, and expenses continue to rack up.
“Because, of course, we still had to pay our landlord rent and we were closed for almost two years. I feel lucky enough because I was just going to close it but somebody asked through friends, somebody that wanted to buy it,” she said. “We certainly didn’t make money but we are in a lot better position than a lot of other people who lost their homes. I mean it’s horrible what’s happened, it's just horrible.”
Sutherland lost the money she used to purchase the bar and took out an Economic Injury Disaster Loan before she realized that the return on her investment wouldn’t be seen.
The EIDL is a low-interest federal loan issued by the Small Business Administration to alleviate economic injury small businesses or private nonprofits are experiencing and, in this case, injury caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We ended up taking out the EIDL loan. Granted there was (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funding) and that was good for the employees and everything. I ended up going to work before that was even finished up. I think I went to work in November of 2020,” she said.
Like her employees, Sutherland found herself without an income. To make ends meet, she took up a job as an accountant.
“Well, because we weren’t open,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, I can’t make any money. I have never been on unemployment in my life. I grew up in California, lived in Hawaii for a very long time and I’ve never been on unemployment. I think Guam’s lucky enough to have qualified and got it. I could imagine the state it would be in if it hadn’t,” she said.
She also applied for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and although she is sure the bar would qualify, the funding did not materialize.
“We were not one of the lucky ones that were randomly selected to get it on Guam. Had we gotten that, I could have stayed open, I could have paid my rent. We would’ve been OK. But ... come January of 2021, I was like, 'There was no way we could operate even if we could open. People aren’t going to have money. The residents aren’t going to come out in flocks,'” she recalled.
Owning a bar was not her first endeavor as an entrepreneur. Sutherland previously owned a boat sailing tour company in Hawaii. Her education and experience as an accountant working with publicly traded companies also made her very familiar with the stakes in owning a business.
“There was no way. I had to cut my losses. There’s no way I could make back what I’ve put in and if someone was going to buy for X amount of money and I could get that loan paid off I was happy walking away,” she said.
There was nothing she could do to open and make revenue and, at the same time, she watched bills for the bar add up.
“Basically owing my landlord rent for 18 months and I can’t even be open. There were bank merchant fees. They were charging me for my credit card (machine) each month. … GPA was good enough that we could put it on hold and that $150 stopped,” she said. “But, like, if I broke the contract for the merchant machine it was $500, so, not even knowing when we were going to open and then not having a credit card machine didn’t make sense so you pay the $35, just waiting by the time November came around we were closed for six months, I was like, 'We were never going to recoup.' It was better to try to figure a way to get out of it.”
It was about weighing the pros and cons, instead of basing a decision on hope alone.
“There’s no way. I better cut it off now before I take out more debt personally. … I couldn’t sell the business without paying off the EIDL loan. So I have to pay off a $53,000 loan that’s still incurring interest — fun! That on top of 14 months prior had paid cash for a business — no thanks. And, of course, all along it's an emotional roller coaster. You’re so stressed out, you’re disappointed, you’re angry,” she said.
Sutherland weighed her options, questioning whether it was worth the effort of keeping the business afloat knowing that she didn't have the resources to hire employees should the bar stay open.
Before Sutherland decided to sell and cut her losses, all her employees moved on to find other work.
“They had all moved on. … It's not that we were closed already, the bars had not even opened yet when I decided to sell it,” she said. “Unemployment had stopped and some of the girls had to go to work. One works at a law firm now and, actually, one of my bartenders is no longer with us,” she said with a sad tone in her voice.
Today, Sutherland works as an accountant for a construction company.
"At least that’s a guaranteed income … and I don’t have to worry about relying on tourism or the local economy to make ends meet,” she said. “I will never own my own business again, ever. And I get it, there’s risks in opening your own business, obviously. You’re assuming all the risk and, again, I feel lucky coming out of it not owing anyone anything.”