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Swirlyz Frozen Yogurt closes for the season due to COVID-19 setbacks

NILES — Steven Estes did not originally plan on closing down his frozen yogurt shop for the winter.

On Sept. 17, Estes announced on the Swiryz Facebook page the last day the shop would be open for the year would be that Sunday. With the continued COVID-19 mandates and the additional staff Estes needed to run the frozen yogurt shop safely, he felt it was time to cut the shop’s losses for the year and begin again in the spring.

“It’s just been crazy times,” Estes said. “Our sales are down 70 percent.”

Swirlyz Frozen Yogurt, at 211 N. Front St., opened for exactly seven days for the spring season, starting March 14. On March 16, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down dine-in services in Michigan. When Whitmer signed the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order on March 23, Estes closed Swirlyz until they were able to try alternative ways of serving customers like offering curbside service in May.

The frozen yogurt shop usually allows customers to come in, fill cups with as little or as much frozen yogurt of multiple flavors as they desire and top them with a buffet of toppings ranging from fruit to candy. With COVID-19 mandates, the self-serve model was considered a buffet and had to be altered if Estes wanted to continue serving customers after mandates relaxed.

“I didn’t open back up until June,” Estes said.

He worked to find creative ways to continue his business, as Estes had left his full-time sales job at the end of February to run Swirlyz full-time. He and his wife were also expecting a daughter in mid-July, and at the time, the plan was to spend more time with his family.

Without events this summer due to COVID-19, the downtown Niles culture through the summer has not been the same without events, he said. Business has slowed down around Estes, too.

“There was always a car show on Main Street. It was going to be moved to the park this year,” Estes said. “There were concerts in the parks on Thursday. Even Wonderland Cinema being closed effects us. We used to get so many people from out of town that would come here after they went to a movie.”

He said even with The Rage, a restaurant next door to Swirlyz on Front Street still closed, he notices less foot traffic.

“It’s a snowball affect,” Estes said.

Estes said the business did receive the Paycheck Protection Program loan, but that it only covered about a month of his business’ payroll.

“I had to double my labor,” Estes said. “We went from everyone getting their own [frozen] yogurt to us making them. So on a busy day, it’s just impossible for one person. We always needed two to three people on the floor, when before I needed maybe one or two.”

With employees needing to do more than the regular tasks of making sure the topping buffets were full, wiping down tables and ringing people up, the business’ overhead began to rise, even as sales did not.

Still, Estes said the business counts itself fortunate. The business does not pay rent, as he owns the building Swirlyz is in.

Estes said he will keep thinking of ways for the business to operate in the future when Swirlyz aims to reopen in the spring. He has considered more outdoor seating, a walk-up window, and more hand-dipped ice cream flavors to offer guests.

Though the effects of COVID-19 have made it uniquely challenging for Estes to adapt his business, he said Swirlyz plans to reopen in spring.

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