Impact Series

Two small companies rally to assist others with on-line reward card gross sales that act as ‘microloans’

The Tractor Tavern in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood is among many bars, restaurants and music venues that have shuttered temporarily in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo taken March 29, 2020. (Brent Roraback Photo)

While efforts to limit movement and interaction in Washington state appear to be slowing the novel coronavirus outbreak in the region, the mandate is hammering local businesses whose sales have plummeted.

Now two Seattle-based initiatives are trying to give restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, salons and countless other small enterprises a shot of cash through the sale of gift cards and certificates.

“You’re buying this for yourself and the establishment. It’s like a microloan to the business that needs cash right now,” said Richard Hurring.

Richard Hurring (left) and Ian Dinsmore launched the Pay Forward Project to help restaurants and bars in Seattle sell gift cards. (Big Man and the Little Guy Photo)

Hurring and Ian Dinsmore a week ago launched the Pay Forward Project, which has links to gift cards being sold by roughly 250 Seattle restaurants, bars and breweries and is organized by neighborhood. The platform is free to participants. The duo also run a marketing firm called Big Man and the Little Guy.

The Intentionalist’s Gift Certificate Marketplace launched this week. It promotes a wide range of small businesses eager to sell gift cards, and is acting as an intermediary for the sales of certificates from businesses that don’t have an online site for making those transactions.

“There is just not equal access to technology and resources and know-how when it comes to getting online,” said Laura Clise, founder of Intentionalist, a Seattle startup that promotes locally owned businesses in numerous cities nationally. “If you don’t have an online presence, you have a significant disadvantage.”

The Intentionalist marketplace is also free for users. Clise is accepting donations from shoppers to support the platform.

Pay Forward Project this week will start emailing a weekly newsletter sharing information on how to buy gift cards from establishments that lack online sales, and will include other special offers.

At midnight on March 16, restaurants, bars and cafes were required by Gov. Jay Inslee to immediately stop serving customers onsite, while they can still sell food and drinks for pick or delivery. A week later, Inslee announced his “stay home, stay healthy” order that requires people to stay home and closed all but essential businesses. The order took effect March 25. Some brick-and-mortar retail stores have moved their sales online.

Washington state has reported 219 deaths caused by COVID-19 and 5,187 confirmed cases as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. King County, which includes Seattle, remains hardest hit with 2,330 cases and 150 deaths.

Laura Clise, founder of Intentionalist. (Intentionalist Photo)

In another effort to support local businesses, the city of Seattle Monday launched a platform called SupportSeattleSmallBiz for locating venues still serving customers through these alternate means.

Intentionalist also has a delivery/take-out directory with a broader geographic reach, and it has tried to evaluate delivery services according to ethical standards. Other delivery platforms include Catch22Delivery, Minnow, and Peach (read GeekWire’s coverage of these resources).

“The crisis is pushing all businesses to rapidly figure out how to evolve and adjust,” said Clise.

Seattle’s Stoup Brewing is on the Pay Forward Project platform to promote its gift cards. The company recently built an online sales system and is selling beer to-go — an important transition as wholesale customers vanished and the brewery needed to move beer they’d already produced.

“Everyone that comes by expresses how much they are pulling for us to make it through this,” said Stoup co-owner Lara Zahaba.

Stoup Brewing is getting innovative with sales during the coronavirus, offering online ordering for beer to-go and gift cards. (GeekWire / Kurt Schlosser)

The Downtown Seattle Association is compiling data to get a sense of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the region’s economy:

  • In downtown Seattle alone, some 46,700 jobs in restaurants, retail, hotels, arts, recreation and entertainment are at risk.
  • The current unemployment rate is now roughly 6% for King County, double the rate at the start of 2020.
  • Over the past week, restaurant sales in Seattle are down 81% year-over-year compared to last year.

The association and others are calling for aggressive action at the national level to support local businesses. Seattle has taken steps to aid small businesses, including deferment of B&O taxes and a temporary prohibition on evictions due to missed rent payments.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

On Friday, the government passed a $2 trillion economic stimulus package — the largest in U.S. history — and is considering additional action. The package includes $350 billion for small business loans to cover expenses for up to eight weeks.

“Gift cards and innovation are great,” said Don Blakeney, vice president of advocacy and economic development for the nonprofit Downtown Seattle Association. “But we really have to tackle this at a high level with major resources and commitment from the government.”

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