COVID-19 grants help pretzel factory, small businesses in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana

Minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses assisted by Duke Energy and local chambers

Even a pretzel factory in Northern Kentucky couldn’t escape the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 regulations shut down a majority of Marilyn Baker’s Yankee Doodle Deli customer base, she lost almost all her wholesale accounts. “I posted on social media that I thought I would be closing,” Baker said. “Financially, I was looking at a bleak situation.”

Marilyn Baker of Yankee Doodle Deli is using her grant to shift her marketing plan. Photo: Janet Lubbers

Then Baker learned about a Small Business Recovery Grant for Minority-, Women- and Veteran-Owned Businesses, a collaboration between Duke Energy and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Close to 85 percent of the chamber members are small businesses, said Leisa Mulcahy, managing director of GROW NKY and vice president of Workforce for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Yankee Doodle Deli applied for the $5,000 grant and received one of the 17 awards. Recipients received a monetary award and a one-year membership to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Baker used the grant to hire a consultant to improve her marketing. She upgraded her website, added professional images and created an animated video.

“Minority-, female- and veteran-owned small businesses have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, facing a 45 percent failure rate," said Amy Spiller, president of Duke Energy Ohio and Kentucky. “The recovery grants allowed us to demonstrate our commitment to these small businesses that are the backbone of the communities we serve.” 

Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas have donated more than $6 million to help those struggling with the effects of COVID-19. The grants include businesses and nonprofits in all the states the companies serve, and they continue to look for ways to support their customers and employees during the pandemic.

Baker, who calls herself “The Chief Pretzel Lady,” started baking pretzels for co-workers after her sheltie, Yankee Doodle, died in 2005. Later that year, she founded Yankee Doodle Deli in Covington, Ky. She developed ZELS (pretZELS) in six flavors: bourbon, cinnamon, citrus, fiery, honey and spicy. ZELS are available in bars, boutique grocery stores, breweries, coffee shops, hospital gift shops, restaurants and wineries, as well as online.

She staffs her commercial kitchen with individuals from the Life Learning Center, a rehabilitation program for people at risk, and The Point Arc, an agency supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Baker is a former speech language pathologist and holds a degree in special education. “I can be a mentor to them,” Baker said.

“I’m not going to close,” she said. “Receiving this grant was actually a game changer for me and I am grateful. With it, I was able to pivot my marketing from wholesalers, who were closed initially, to general consumers, who have been supportive.”

Grants also helped these companies

Heist + Co.

Gerilyn Jobe

Last December, Gerilyn Jobe opened Heist + Co. in Harrison, Ohio. It’s a space for social exchange, encouraging laughter and kindness, Jobe said. “Our definition is a relaxed gathering place with an atmosphere that fosters connection, conversation and community,” she explained.

Because Heist + Co. couldn’t provide prior year financial information, it wasn’t eligible for many grant programs. But Jobe qualified for the Duke Energy Relief Fund Financial Assistance, a partnership between Duke Energy and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Jobe applied and received the grant, along with 13 other companies in the region. She’ll pay employees and past-due bills with the $5,000 grant, and she looks forward to using the free membership to the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber for guidance and direction. “It will be great to have additional resources through the chamber,” Jobe said.

Tousled Tresses

Jill Tooley was one of five business owners in Orange County, Indiana, to receive part of a $200,000 Duke Energy COVID-relief fund for small businesses in the state. Tooley closed her salon for eight weeks when the pandemic hit. The Duke Energy grant is the only one she has received, and she said she was grateful for the money to pay rent and utilities.

Tooley has been a hair stylist for 21 years, and opened Tousled Tresses, her first business, six years ago. She said the pandemic has been a reminder to not take anything for granted. In her first month of reopening, she worked 12-hour days to accommodate her clients who needed to rebook appointments. She was happy to welcome them back. 

“When you’re used to having a regular clientele that you see every four to six weeks, you miss them as an individual,” she said. “It’s definitely more than just doing hair.”

D.A.D.S. Bobcat Service

April Mains Webster

D.A.D.S. Bobcat Service provides concrete and light excavation work in the Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati areas. The family business launched in 1999 with Scott Mains at the helm. The letters in D.A.D.S. stand for Derek, April, Dylan and Scott, members of the family. When Mains died in 2005, his wife, April Mains Webster, continued running the company.

D.A.D.S. employs two women and six men for residential and commercial work. The pandemic canceled or paused the jobs Webster had scheduled for the spring and summer.

Webster applied for the Small Business Recovery Grant for Minority-, Women- or Veteran-Owned Businesses through the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. She received $7,500 to cover equipment payments, insurance and payroll.

“I’m doing everything I can to keep my employees working,” Webster said. “I have quality employees I don’t want to lose. Our team is strong, and I want to make sure I keep it that way.”