It’s not business as usual for Brainerd lakes area businesses

Earlier this month, the National Small Business Association urged Americans to “be vigilant in supporting their community small businesses, which are reeling from the impacts of COVID-19 and now widespread riots.”

Store manager Biff Ulm (right), a former Nisswa Chamber of Commerce board member, checks lined-up customers for masks Saturday, June 20, before they are permitted to enter Zaiser's, a popular tourist attraction in Nisswa. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

NISSWA — Store manager Biff Ulm managed to sound cheerful and upbeat behind the mask he was wearing as he greeted customers lined up outside Zaiser’s in Nisswa, and he had reason to be.

Ulm said the tourist attraction had its best day ever in sales for June on Saturday, June 20, after reopening like many Brainerd lakes area businesses that were closed because of COVID-19.

“That was our best June day on record in 73 years of being in business,” Ulm said Monday. “But then like today, it’s like I could shoot a cannonball down the middle of the street right now, and there’s not a person around, which is just not normal, so everything has just kind of changed.”

Zaiser’s unpredictable sales amid the coronavirus pandemic are representative of small businesses that may have benefited from a pent-up demand to shop or suffered from those hesitant to set foot in stores during a recession and high unemployment.

“If it hits like a normal Fourth of July with visitors … we’re going to be playing catch up in a way that I don't know. It is going to be a ton of work, so there may be an opportunity to hire at that time. There’s just so much unknown at this point in time that we are not (hiring),” Ulm said.


Ulm and his staff brainstormed ways they could adhere to national, state and county guidelines about COVID-19 safety. They removed displays to provide more room to move and placed stickers on the floor to remind people to space out, for example, when they reopened.

“And we tried to do it in a fun way. One of my favorites is ‘Spread, love, not germs,’ and it just kind of talks just in a fun, kind of quirky way that people can see it,” Ulm said of the stickers. “It’s just really important to embrace all the tools that we have at our disposal right now.”

Zaiser’s is celebrating its 73rd year of being in business, according to Ulm, a former board member of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce.

“If you were to shop here a year ago, just getting through the store in the crowds it’s actually very hard to shop, so there might be a silver lining as a shopper, that it is a much easier experience to shop this time of year,” Ulm said.

A sign in Zaiser's storefront window reminds its customers in a playful way to keep their masks on. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Zaiser’s in Nisswa

Zaiser’s closed in early March shortly before Gov. Tim Walz’s order that nonessential businesses must close to slow the spread of the coronavirus and reopened last month.

“But what we did was we transitioned really, really quickly to Facebook Live videos,” Ulm said of Zaiser’s when its doors were closed. “We were already seeing things changing pre-COVID, like just how consumer behavior is changing… so we just got really lean and mean with online video.”


Zaiser’s staff would interact with potential customers much like QVC and act as their personal shoppers for those looking for, for example, gift baskets, children’s activities and thank-yous.

“So for instance, they’d say, ‘My sister is turning 30 and she is into X, Y and Z. I have a $50 budget. Can you come up with something?’ and then we would take a picture of it … and then we would mail it out with a personal greeting,” Ulm said.

Zaiser’s furloughed staff for about three weeks and reduced the number of seasonal hiring of additional staff it normally would because of concerns related to COVID-19. But Ulm said he has maintained almost all of his staff who is wanting to and willing to work right now.

“Between 9 and 10 o’clock in the morning, we limit it to a maximum of 12 shoppers at that time, so if anyone wants to get out but they want a little extra precaution and social distancing, we do offer that and that’s by reservation,” Ulm said. “We do allow reservations throughout the entire day, so if people want to bypass the line, they can make reservations.”

Arrows on the floor at Zaiser's in Nisswa to guide foot traffic and stickers that read "Share love, not germs" keep customers from crowding each other. Submitted photo / Zaiser's

Zaiser’s changes since last year include arrows on the store floor to direct traffic flow and keep customers moving instead of congregating, delivery of items, offering curbside pickup and more in addition to requiring its employees to wear masks and those who enter the store.

“We just hear over and over from our customers that there’s a lot of them who were still doing curbside because they’re not comfortable coming back into stores,” Ulm said. “I also want to create a refuge where people can shop and it feels as normal as it can be during this time.”


The family-run business prides itself on selling unique and hard-to-find items.

“In our shoe section, which is a huge, huge part of what we do, we made it much more self-service. … And instead of allowing as many people who want to come back to that area … we only allow six shoppers at any given time,” Ulm said.

An exit-only sign on the sidewalk in front of Zaiser's in Nisswa directs visitors on how to leave the building and limit crowding in its small retail space. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Picture Perfect in Brainerd

Visitors to the Brainerd lakes who walk along the picturesque streets of downtown Brainerd will likely either stumble upon Picture Perfect Framing Studio or are making it their destination.

“When I reopened, lots of people had items they had actually been using their time off during the shutdown to create like cross stitches, people that had put together jigsaw puzzles — things like that — that they were bringing in to have custom framed,” owner Beth Workman said.

Promoted in radio commercials as “the cure for the common wall,” the custom picture framing business on Front Street also offers framing supplies, glass, mirrors, ready-made frames and pre-cut mats.

“A lot of homemade paintings, drawings, etc. people were having framed came in that first week. But since that first week with that kind of rush of people, it’s been a slow steady — enough to keep me going but much less than what would be typical for this time of year,” she said.


Picture Perfect Framing Studio specializes in hard-to-frame items such as jerseys, shadow boxes, memorabilia, needlework and original artwork.

“This season is usually my busiest as people are doing spring cleaning and remodeling and updating of their homes, and we get the influx of people in for summer cabin owners, etc. … And that has just not been the case,” Workman said.

Workman said she does all the work herself, so she does not have any employees but the shutdown has affected her bottom line.

“I’m way down from what I would be normally doing this month, but it is enough to pay the rent and pay the lease rather and pay the electric bill and whatnot, so it could be a lot worse. I’m not complaining,” Workman said.

Picture Perfect Framing Studio is located on Front Street in the heart of downtown Brainerd. Submitted photo

Picture Perfect Framing Studio has been in business for seven years and temporarily closed earlier this spring because of the governor’s orders. When it reopened, the store encouraged but did not require its customers to wear masks. Workman, herself, wears a mask.

“There is that protection during the selection process when they’re picking out their frames and their mats. I’m also not allowing people to touch the samples because I can’t clean mat samples effectively. This way, it’s just me touching them and there’s no risk that way,” Workman said.


Workman also limits the number of people in her small store with signage, and offers curbside and in-store pickup of items. There are also Plexiglas barriers in the store for protection.

“Most people, you know, 99% of people just go with the flow. It’s not really been an issue. I have had a few people walk out because they were unhappy they would have to wait until another person was finished before they would be allowed to come in,” Workman said.

Workman also said most of her customers have worn masks but that number has decreased as the weeks go by.

“I will continue to wear a mask as long as I feel like there would still be a risk in the community for transferring the illness. … I know eventually it will get better — just have to kind of wade through these troubled times as best we can and hope for the best,” Workman said.

Melgram Jewelers in Little Falls

Melgram Jewelers in Little Falls has been in business for more than four decades, so shuttering its doors due to coronavirus concerns did not come easy.

“And then we reopened for curbside delivery and pickup when that was allowed for nonessential businesses,” said Peter Grams, manager and bench jeweler.

Melgram Jewelers specializes in custom engagement rings and jewelry, and carries a variety of diamond and colored stone jewelry.


Chris Grams (left) and his son, Peter, of Melgram Jewelers stand outside their storefront on Southeast First Street in Little Falls. Peter Grams / Melgram Jewelers

“We seem like, especially in Morrison County, we have a somewhat of a fairly low count of (coronavirus) cases, and it seems that people still feel safe going out and shopping,” Grams said.

As of Monday, June 22, Morrison County had 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since late March and one resident has died from the disease.

The store’s employees wear masks every time they are working with a customer, and Plexiglas is now at countertop areas, such as at registers and repair stations, according to Grams.

“We wear masks for the protection of our customers, and we do not require them but we sure appreciate it when people wear them because, you know, you wear a mask to help the other people, not to protect yourself,” Grams said.

Melgram Jewelers has signs up asking people to maintain a 6-foot distance between themselves and to respect social distancing guidelines.

“We are also available by appointment for those who want to avoid, you know, public business hours, so people can reach out online or call and schedule appointments,” Grams said.

Grams said there has been a drop in the request for repairs by Melgram Jewelers and speculated people will repair their jewelry when they are better able to afford the service.

“We have some busy days and some very quiet days. … People are always getting engaged and celebrating anniversaries and birthdays and fun events. That’s what makes jewelry fun,” Grams said.

Melgram Jewelers is no longer, however, performing any same-day services like it used to, for example, watch battery replacements because of a quarantine period for incoming items.

“We want to do everything we can to ensure that we can stay open and not have to have another statewide business closure because of another resurgence in cases,” Grams said. “We have a very small staff here. If one of us contracted the coronavirus, we’d have to close the business for two or three weeks while we’re on quarantine.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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