Generations-old family businesses work to uphold their family's livelihood, legacy during pandemic

johns cleaners
Posted at 4:41 PM, Jan 12, 2021

Small businesses continue to struggle amid the pandemic, including family businesses that have had generations of success.

With the most recent round of stimulus money on the way, and 10 months into this pandemic, we wanted to ask them one simple question: how are you doing?

“Terrible,” said John Ellwood, who owns a dry-cleaning business near Boulder, Colorado with his wife of nearly 30 years, Wendy. “It’s funny, we haven’t paid ourselves since June, and I never thought I’d collect unemployment, [but] we’re collecting unemployment.”

Ellwood's family moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1919 and started Dugout Cleaners, a dry cleaning business that was passed to his father during World War II and then to John in 1993; nearly 100 years of running a successful business that has now tumbled into uncertainty.

Last year, Ellwood business did $1.4 million in revenue. This year, he and his wife have not taken home a check in seven months. They have been digging into more than $250,000 in savings to keep their business and staff afloat.

“I’m angry,” said Ellwood. “[I have] a lot of despair just because I don’t know if [our level of business] will ever come back. I’ve really tried to keep all my employees. I’ve had to cut back on hours, and I’ve borrowed my own money so that I’ve been able to keep most everyone.”

At Bonnie Brae Tavern in neighboring Denver, the story is different, yet similar.

A staple in the city for more than 86 years, the Tavern’s owner, Mike Dire, worries how much longer he can hold on.

“It’s been a struggle. We went from 30 employees to 14. Every day, when we barely make $800, we think ‘oh God is this it?”

The familiar faces that have graced Bonnie Brae Tavern’s tables for decades are far less frequent. Only recently was indoor dining allowed again in Colorado, but at 25 percent capacity. Because of it, Dire says most days he does not make a profit.

He says food orders have been far smaller, and he cannot remember the last time he ordered alcohol for the bar.

“[This place] has always been a part of us, you know, a part of me, and the thought of not being here is not something I really want to think of,” he said.

For family business owners like Ellwood and Dire, they are not just trying to buoy their livelihood, but the livelihoods of their employees, as well as a legacy that has been the common thread through generations of family.

“I won’t let it fail,” said Wendy Ellwood. “That’s the bottom line. I will do everything I can to not fail.”