Warren Wettenstein has a positive attitude.
Despite leading the Milpitas Chamber of Commerce as President during a historic pandemic, he consistently finds a way to couch his thoughts in humor. Speaking by phone to The Beat in recent weeks, he said to me, a smile in his voice, “All of a sudden I’m President, and the virus hit.”
He took the reins from former Chamber President Tina Broyles in late winter, and is geared to finish out the term, which has him up for almost immediate reelection come July. But he’s taking on the job with gusto–just the kind of energy and resourcefulness one would expect from 2019’s Milpitas Chamber Businessperson of the Year.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I expected chicken dinners and ribbon cuttings—and speeches. Instead, I’ve been doing triage for 4,100 local businesses.”
The 4,100 figure comes from Alex Andrade, the City of Milpitas’ Economic Development Director, per the City’s count of its active business licenses—it being noted that 2,800 Milpitas businesses are actual brick and mortar locations, whereas the remainder of the licenses are for home-based businesses and/or contract workers. Whether a Milpitas business is a Chamber member or not, the Chamber under Wettenstein’s leadership is presently available to serve as a clearinghouse and referral resource, sending businesses to small business development centers and to Andrade’s office, with the intended outcome of helping them attain grants, loans, and other forms of economic support.
He extended compliments to both Andrade and Daniel Degu of the City’s Office of Economic Development: “They’ve been very proactive. In helping and updating all the information.” And he said he would like to see them help set up a citywide Shop Milpitas campaign: “Besides restaurants, there are local retailers that may not be getting as much attention as they should…”
Regardless, Wettenstein made clear that by way of the Chamber and the City’s efforts thus far, “People are getting money.” He noted that so far his record in terms of phone calls has been 3 businesses phoning him within 1 hour, in search of emergency support and guidance.
“Everybody has stepped up,” he added, specifically citing Vice-President Inderjit Mundra and Office Manager C.J. Erickson, both of whom he described as “indispensable.” In the meantime, Wettenstein has also orchestrated the addition of former Milpitas Unified School District trustee and sometime Milpitas Beat contributor Robert Jung to the Chamber’s Board of Directors. (Full disclosure: This author sits on the Chamber’s Board of Directors, as well, but is writing this article as a private citizen.)
Striking a serious note, Wettenstein said, “We’re concerned, how many restaurants and retailers are not gonna be able to reopen.” He assumes that most such places are teetering on the brink. “Except for the franchises,” he added. “They have more of a buffer.” Franchises are more inclined to have active sanitation policies, training, and equipment, in addition to aggressive advertising practices. “They’re more geared for this,” he explained, citing Pizza Hut’s proactiveness in terms of takeout as just one example. “Whereas individual mom-and-pops are deer in the headlights.”
In the meantime, restaurants of all shapes and sizes are dealing with staff members not returning and customers growing increasingly accustomed to takeout and home-cooking. Add to this the expected need for social distancing over the long-term, and it’s reasonable to expect restaurant occupancy to drop.
“We’ve got a lot of them that found it was just cheaper to not open”…as opposed to keeping the doors open and filling only 3-5 orders per shift.
On a more optimistic note, Wettenstein revealed, “We’re also working on Phase 2, in conjunction with the City, on how to jumpstart their businesses…”
He reassured me that restaurants and retailers will open again—eventually. In the meantime, however, things will change: The pandemic has made people more accustomed than ever to buying what they need online. “It’s gonna take a while for them to understand to support local businesses.”
This is a key note for Wettenstein, one he strikes repeatedly: small businesses are essential to Milpitas’ economic survival. He’s working on getting the Chamber to partner with American Express through their small business support program, as well as on Small Business Saturday, the day after Black Friday, when frequenting small businesses is literally the fashion of the day.
“I want to promote small businesses,” Wettenstein underlined and boldfaced, before going on to expand upon how small businesses differ from large ones mid-pandemic: “One of the things we’ve noticed…In talking with other Chamber presidents, we’re finding that the larger companies may be telling their landlord that we’re not gonna pay rent right now. Whereas the smaller companies do not have that leverage.”
“If they irritate their landlord,” he stated plainly, “they’re out of business.”
So what is Wettenstein’s advice to a small business that is feeling the pressure right now? Step one: Touch base with the SBDC (Small Business Development Center). “Small businesses are generally stretched,” he said, “and there are free resources that they may not be aware of…” Step two: Use the current lull to work on a business plan, one geared toward jumpstarting your business when things pick up again. Step three: Advertise. Advertise in The Beat (his words!); advertise on Facebook or Yelp.
In the meantime, the Chamber is helping businesses to develop websites. As the pandemic began, Chamber personnel called 200 restaurants. Said Wettenstein, “Probably 30% had their own websites; 70% did not. Of those, they were depending on Facebook or Yelp…”
This in mind, Chamber members and non-members are eligible to get their own Milpitas Chamber-based website, complete with their own URL, SEO optimization, and two custom email addresses. “It’ll be a good, basic website, better than they currently have. That will be one factor in growing.”
This is but one way in which Wettenstein seeks to bring greater value to Milpitas Chamber membership. “Not just a plaque on the wall,” he said, wielding his characteristic blend of humor and bluntness.
Still, Wettenstein’s most persistent message during our call was directed more toward customers than business owners: “Support local businesses. Because they’re your neighbors. They may employ you or your neighbors. And you have a relationship with them. Versus Amazon.”
He went on to drop a sober outlook: “It’s gonna be longer than people expect, and that’s very depressing…My opinion is this is gonna take several phases. People are impatient. But if they start [opening up] too soon, we’re gonna be sheltered in place all over again…
“But this is gonna be a paradigm shift for movie theaters, for restaurants, for retailers…” And: “Unfortunately, business owners are gonna need to seriously calculate their numbers. And they may find that it is unfortunately not worthwhile to continue in business.”
He’s optimistic, however, in terms of envisioning a functional post-pandemic world. In it, he sees Milpitas Chamber mixers that are opened up to other regional chambers: “Not the usual suspects at each mixer. The purpose of a mixer is to mix…I want people to mingle.”
On May 18, shortly after we spoke, Wettenstein joined Mundra for a presentation at the virtual Rotary Club meeting titled “Milpitas Chamber 2.0.” He described it as being “about Chamber benefits and how we have been helping the 4,100-plus local businesses endure the virus and try to get government aid.
“Milpitas Chamber is very compassionate and service-oriented. Last week was [working with Rotary] supporting local mask production by students. This week it was supporting an elementary school raising funds and providing supportive t-shirts.”
The video is here.
Scroll to 13 minutes in. That’s when Warren Wettenstein takes the stage.
Check out Milpitas Chamber’s new website here: www.milpitaschamber.com