Once the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading across the U.S., many businesses felt the shock to their core almost overnight.
For Wheelhouse Graphix of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a full-service sign and graphics shop, the rumbling had already begun, with jobs being put on hold or canceled, when the company received devastating news two weeks ago: one of its largest customers, Richmond Raceway, a NASCAR track in Virginia, was putting all of its scheduled events on hold for at least eight weeks.
Although Wheelhouse is now shuttered because of an executive order March 23 from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that all non-essential businesses close down, between the time of the race cancellation and this week’s Governor’s order, Wheelhouse was busy, helping other small businesses the only way it knew how.
“(We were) trying to think about what else we can do, and instead of just sitting around, moping around, we decided that it would be best if we just made ourselves available for people that are in need right now,” says Shauna Ryder, founder and CEO of Wheelhouse. “And it’s to keep our spirits up too; I feel like the more you give the more you receive, and the more you give the better you feel.”
As in many communities, restaurants were one of the first types of businesses affected, required to close their dining rooms and do pick-up or delivery only. Ryder decided one thing her shop could do was make signs for these businesses to let people know they were still open.
For Wheelhouse, which opened in 2015, this would be going back to the company’s roots. Doing signs and banners was most of their business early on, Ryder says, although the biggest revenue generator now is from larger corporate accounts such as the contract with the racetrack.
Sean Flynn, her company’s president, loved Ryder’s idea to help so they brought in employee Brandon Ash to run the machines and other employees worked from home working the phones to get the word out, or worked on the website to set up a link where businesses could apply for the free signs.
“My entire team at Wheelhouse really — it just chokes me up, it makes tears come to my eyes…” Ryder says. “It was really neat to see my team come together.”
Shauna Ryder says she and husband Jamie, who haven’t seen any income in a month, paid employees out of their own pocket while they were making the free signs.
Three different styles of “We’re Still Open” signs were made, and businesses were given their choice of two of those and a banner at no charge.
“We’ve had people from all over,” Ryder says. “We’ve had people from like an hour (away) come and get the free signage, because there’s such a need right now.”
Some friends that run the website www.detroitfoodupdates.com helped spread the word about the free signs, she says.
People would come to the back of the shop to pick them up, she says. They would pull up, the signs they wanted were placed into their trunk and they would drive away. No physical contact.
Ryder says she carried extras in her car and sometimes, she would be on her way home and see a small mom-and-pop business with a hand-written “We’re Open” sign taped to the window. She would stop and offer them a couple that were professionally printed.
And the Wheelhouse team went a step further: They printed up lawn signs and put them out around hospitals in Bloomfield Hills and surrounding towns, thanking the doctors and nurses who are on the front lines in this war against the virus.
They didn’t call the hospitals ahead of time, she says, she and her team just did it.
“We just really wanted to put a smile on people’s faces,” Ryder says.
They knew that the possibility of being told they had to close their shop temporarily was very real, so they printed extras and put the signs and banners into packages that they leave discreetly behind the shop. Ryder says they drive by frequently and replace ones that have been taken and will do so until they run out. In all they made about 500 signs, she says.
At the moment, Wheelhouse Graphix can’t make more. The company is a member of the International Sign Association, which is lobbying federal and state governments to declare that sign shops are indeed an essential business. Ryder says she supports that effort and she herself has made calls to the Michigan statehouse but so far, has not heard back.
If nothing else, she says, she would like to be allowed to reopen to help so many small businesses in her area that—like thousands upon thousands around the country—are struggling to survive.
“It’s a scary time for everyone—mentally, physically, emotionally—and we want to be out there helping our community as much as we can,” Ryder says.