Coronavirus Conversations:

Pam Gueldner

March 18, 2020

Photo by Olivia Pastella

This episode is part of a limited series of conversations with people who are being forced to make difficult decisions in a rapidly evolving situation with many unknowns.

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Listen to the conversation below or scroll down for the transcript and more information.

Pam and business partner Kathleen

Pam (left) and co-owner Kathleen (right)

[Phone ringing]

Pam Gueldner: Hi, this is Pam.

Dan Gorenstein: Hey, Pam, this is Dan Gorenstein.

PG: Hey, Dan.

DG: How are you doing right now, Pam?

PG: I’m panicking.

DG: Yeah, I can only…

PG: I’m doing some prices right now. We’re trying to return some stuff and seeing how many how much longer we have to sell today or tomorrow. You know, it might just be today and tomorrow. I don’t know.

DG: It’s Wednesday, March 18, and I’m Dan Gorenstein with our latest Coronavirus Conversation, stories of people making difficult decisions in the midst of this pandemic.

From the Annenberg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, this is Tradeoffs.

Yesterday, I called Pam Gueldner. She’s the co-owner of Manndible Cafe, an independent cafe housed in the lobby of one of the libraries at Cornell University.

DG: Can you just describe what it looks like, describe the vibe?

PG: So the space is you walk in the front door of the library and there’s a big lobby space with lots of tables around. And to the right is our cafe. It’s a colorful place. We have birdie egg blue walls and lots of artwork around hanging on the walls.

DG: And tell me, how many people do you employ at Manndible?

PG: We have 40 employees. About six or eight of them are students, about 10 are part time and about 24 are full time.

DG: So as coronavirus has hit, the campus is closed. How is this impacting Manndible Cafe?

PG: Friday, we learned that they would be canceling classes starting Monday. We knew there weren’t going to be many students on campus, but we figured we would still be open to serve faculty and staff and people working in the labs. You know, we scaled back the schedule, and then we heard that the library was going to close. We realized that we couldn’t have enough business to open. So I made the decision to lay everybody off so that they could start the process of applying for unemployment or looking for another job as soon as possible.

DG: So over the weekend on Sunday, you decided to lay people off.

PG: Yeah. Yeah, I knew it was coming because students don’t come back until late January. So we had just had really one full month-and-a-half of sales. So we’re just coming off like using up all our reserves and we hadn’t built them back up again. So we don’t have any anything…

DG: You don’t have any money to pay people?

PG: We don’t have any money to pay people. And we don’t have any money to pay the bills that we have sitting in my drawer right now. You know, I don’t have money to pay for the food and the coffee and, you know, the items that people have sold us on terms.

DG: So, Pam, you’re telling me right now you are sitting on food, coffee, other bills that you have and you have no way to sell these things. You don’t have cash to pay for them.

PG: Right. Yep. I have very little way to sell it. And I don’t have any money to pay for it if I don’t sell it.

DG: And so what are you trying to do?

PG: So the first step is to try to return anything that we can. So far, our coffee supplier said they cannot take the coffee back because we didn’t want them to ship everything in sealed bags because their roasting facility is, like, a couple of miles from here. So we had requested that they put it in buckets with lids so we don’t have any trash from all of those foil bags. But now they can’t take it back because it’s not in a foil bag. And so we have probably $1,500 worth of coffee right now that we can’t sell. Whatever we can’t sell, we’re gonna just have to donate and take a big loss on and hope that, you know, the federal government comes through with some kind of a relief package for us and for everybody else in our supply chain, because it’s not just gonna be us going under. We’re gonna be taking under other people on our supply chain.

DG: If you can’t sell this food and you have these debts and you’re waiting for a bailout, what are you going to do?

PG: What do you think I’m going to do? I don’t know. That’s kind of a dumb question because I don’t know. I’m right in the middle of it. And I’m working through it. Every day is changing and I don’t know what I’m gonna do. So somebody’s gotta give me an option, basically. I don’t have any options. Unless somebody gives me an option, I don’t have any. So I don’t know. I have to wait and see what happens and how it shakes out. This is not something you plan for and this is not something that we have a path for at this moment. Nobody has a path for it.

DG: So there’s the challenge of trying to pay Manndible Café’s bills. What about you?

PG: I’m going to be claiming unemployment and and relying on my parents.

DG: Very sorry, Pam. I’m very sorry.

PG: Thank you. I just have about two more minutes…

DG: Are there any other points that you want to make?

PG: I mean, I think, you know, we’re all in the same boat or there’s a lot of us in the same boat. There’s a lot of people that have jobs that are going to continue and they’re going to continue to get paid. And that’s great. There’s a lot of people who aren’t. And there’s a lot of people that just don’t have money to pay their bills and they won’t in the next couple of months. So there’s going to be credit that needs to be made available and then lots of forgiveness of payments.

DG: Pam, what’s giving you hope or solace right now?

PG: Well, the fact that I have my family and, if I didn’t have my family and my community to rely on right now. You know, it would be a heck of a lot harder.

DG: Pam, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us.

PG: You’re welcome.

DG: On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was on Capitol Hill pushing for an economic stimulus package that could reach $1 trillion.

Mnuchin: We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately. And what we’ve heard from hardworking Americans, many companies have now shutdown, whether it’s bars or restaurants. Americans need cash now and the president wants to get cash now, and I mean now, in the next two weeks.

DG: Multiple press reports say Mnuchin told senators about $250 billion would go to sending those checks.

I’m Dan Gorenstein, this is Tradeoffs.

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Additional Resources & Credits

COVID-19 Information and Updates

World Health Organization

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

Recent Reporting on COVID-19’s Economic Impact

Coronavirus Cost to Businesses and Workers: ‘It Has All Gone to Hell’ (Ben Casselman, Patricia Cohen, Stacy Cowley, Conor Dougherty, Nicholas Kulish, David McCabe and Karen Weise; New York Times, 2020)

The First U.S. Layoffs from the Coronavirus Are Here (Abha Bhattarai, Heather Long, and Rachel Siegel; Washington Post, 2020)

Poll: Nearly 1 In 5 Households Have Lost Work Because Of Pandemic (Camila Domonoske, NPR, 2020)

White House Expresses Support for Immediate Cash Payments to Americans as Part of Coronavirus Stimulus Package (Erica Werner, Jeff Stein, and Mike DeBonis; Washington Post, 2020)


Manndible Café Website and Facebook

A List of Relief Funds for Coronavirus-Affected Restaurants, Bars, and Food Service Workers (Eater)

Resources to Help Your Small Business Survive the Coronavirus (US Chamber of Commerce)


Music in this episode by Miscellaneous, courtesy of Badman Recording.

This episode was produced and mixed by Ryan Levi.