Small business owner says inflation harms little shops more than giant corporations

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

CHEYENNE, Wyo.—A curtain of lush green leaves and vines drapes the storefront windows at the Hawthorn Tree apothecary in downtown Cheyenne. Beyond the verdant curtain is a peaceful space filled with rows of glass jars containing tea leaves and aromatic spices.

Owner Susan Allen, who is in her late 50s, started her business to promote wellness to the community, but between inflation, ongoing supply chain issues and the very real threat of not making it—all is not well at the Hawthorn Tree.

Susan Allen straightens a jar of herbs at Hawthorn Tree, her store in downtown Cheyenne. Allen says small shops like hers are facing bigger hurdles than large corporations because of soaring inflation. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

Allen sells tea and coffee drinks, pastries made in-house and loose teas, herbs and spices. The store features gluten-free and dairy-free foods, gift items like bath products, journals and locally made jewelry, pottery and other art. A meditation space lets customers meditate on their own or during a guided session.

Allen opened Hawthorn Tree in response to her own health struggle with fibromyalgia triggered by West Nile and Epstein Barr viruses. She worked with a medical doctor in Cheyenne and a naturopath near Boulder, Colo., going on to attend the Equinox Center of Herbal Studies in Fort Collins, Colo. She found relief for some of her symptoms using herbs, meditation and a change in diet, most notably eliminating gluten and dairy.

“I had spent thousands trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” Allen said. “Not everyone has that money to spend to heal.” She decided to try to help others by opening her store.

Now Allen is turning her attention from assisting the community to saving her business. Recently, she borrowed money from her personal savings to keep the doors open.

“It’s hard for me to make payroll,” she said. “. . . I’m chasing my tail every month. I don’t want to borrow any more money, because I won’t be able to pay it back. At some point something’s gotta give.”

It’s not that Allen is new to the business world. She and her parents operated a garden center in Cheyenne for about 20 years that employed 36 people. She also owned an organic produce farm in Weld County, Colo. But even someone with Allen’s experience couldn’t have predicted what it would be like to launch a business during a global pandemic.

Allen opened her store during the height of COVID-19 in 2020, and the business still managed to grow, despite her difficulty securing supplies. Now inflation is complicating things even more, and two years later, the Hawthorn Tree still hasn’t turned a profit. While Allen’s sales have steadily increased, her expenses are skyrocketing.

“We’ve tried really hard not to raise our prices, but we’re getting squeezed on all sides,” Allen said. “We have to keep paying our employees a living wage. We’ve got the labor shortage, but at the same time, we’ve got prices increasing.”

Rising interest rates pose another challenge—and there’s no end in sight. Last week,  Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell announced that the Fed will continue to hike interest rates until inflation is under control. 

“As everything is increasing, our debt is going up, too,” Allen said. “We’re having to pay higher interest rates. Not only are we paying more for business services, the debt that we have incurred is now more expensive to pay down.”

Currently, Allen is deciding whether to replace her summer workers who returned to college, as well as significantly reduce the hours of her eight year-round staff. If she does so, Allen will need to pick up those shifts herself—and she is already running herself ragged working seven days a week. 

Even though things are hard right now, Allen is still hopeful.

“I think with every challenge you’ve got to look for opportunities,” she said. “People always make money in an up economy or a down economy. You have to keep looking for the opportunities instead of spinning out into negative.”

Allen hopes the community helps small businesses by shopping locally. Not only do the prices of her herbs and teas match Amazon’s, but shoppers can get their products immediately rather than wait for a delivery. Plus, they can speak with the herbalists on staff. Allen said many customers seek information on improving sleep, energy, vitality, digestion and brain clarity. Others want help with anxiety and hormone support.

“You’re helping support something in Cheyenne versus a big corporation,” Allen said, noting that giant companies are making record profits despite inflation while small businesses are struggling to survive.

“We’re really working toward cannibalizing the small businesses,” she said. “It’s not going to hurt the whales. It’s going to hurt the small fish.”

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