Two alumni business owners share their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic

In an interview earlier this year with Missouri Western supporter Tom Payn, he was asked about the challenges of being an entrepreneur. Payn, who owns several Subway restaurants in the Denver area, talked about how business owners are constantly facing a barrage of “darts” and trying to dodge them. 

That was before COVID-19. Today, Payn would most likely agree that with the pandemic, those darts got sharper and more numerous, and kept on coming. We talked to two alumni business owners about their experiences with the pandemic and dodging those darts.

Adapting in Vicksburg: TyAnn ’10 and Brady ’10 Ellis

TyAnn and Brady Ellis own two businesses in Vicksburg, Mississippi – a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Billy’s Italian Restaurant, and both were able to remain open and offer delivery and curbside pickup.

TyAnn, who manages the businesses, said shortly after dine-in service was suspended at Billy’s, they began offering a pizza kit for families, and those were a big hit.

“This gives families a chance to be creative and spend time together,” she said. “And parents LOVE how their little ones eat their entire meal since ‘they made it.’ I have had many adults messageme pictures of their ‘masterpieces.’”

RMCFs are well known for their Fudge for Troops program, so TyAnn began offering Fudge for First Responders. That meant that for every pound of fudge sold, their RMCF sent a pound of fudge to all the first responders in the county.

“Our community is awesome; customers have really stepped up,” she said. “Also, I have had many donations given to both businesses to help feed first responders,” she said. “I even had a lifelong friend from Iowa call to purchase a few gift cards. He wanted to help not only our business but asked me to give them to first responders.”

The Ellises, who have two young sons, took advantage of the closed dining room of the restaurant to start a “long overdue” renovation of Billy’s. When the pandemic hit, they were in the middle of remodeling their home, as well.

“Family life is a little hectic right now,” TyAnn said in April 2020. “Brady has been working his fulltime job (as a general sales manager for a car dealership) and then remodeling the restaurant once he is off. We couldn’t be more excited, and I can’t wait until the economy gets back on its feet and we can have a ribbon cutting for our newly renovated space.”

TyAnn said this has been a challenging time,  and each week seems to bring a different adjustment. “But our crews have been rock stars every step of the way. We are very blessed and thankful for everyone that has helped us through this time.”

Facing the Challenges: Ross ’15 and Mackenzie ’15 Theesen

Theesen Lyons Which WichFor Ross and Mackenzie Theesen, COVID-19 brought a lot of darts and challenges. The Theesens own two Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Additionally, they are in a partnership with Seth Lyons ’09, where they own 12 Which Wich sandwich shops in Albuquerque and Colorado.

The two RMCFs were in indoor malls, so they had to close in mid-March.

“It was a very surreal moment for Mackenzie and me,” Ross said. “We had to get rid of any product that was perishable, so most of our shelves are completely empty. We were able to donate a lot of apples and other goodies to local hospitals for the staff there, which was a good feeling. We also gave apples away to customers who came in for a sandwich at our Which Wich locations.”

He said they had to furlough employees at the RMCFs, but they kept paying the general manager. At the sandwich shops, they continued to pay the general managers, assistant general managers and the best shift leads.

“We know we can’t do this on our own, and we truly believe that the businesses that take care of their employees through tough times such as COVID will thrive when things get better.” He noted that the general manager at one of the RMCFs had recently bought a house, and they didn’t want her to struggle.

At the RMCFs, they began making deliveries two days a week, and that has helped the bottom line because the community has been so supportive. The pandemic, he said, seems to have turned them into a logistics company that delivers chocolate.

As all the sandwich shops offered take-out and delivery, Ross said he found himself more involved with the day-to-day operations than before, such as inventory and scheduling. He spent a lot of time trying to procure fresh produce.

“We had to change everything we normally did almost overnight to keep costs down as much as possible to ride this thing out for as long as we can,” Ross said in May 2020.

Unfortunately, there were setbacks. One business was robbed, which had never happened before, and another suffered a broken window (they believe someone was trying to break in after hours).

“This is without a doubt the toughest situation we’ve been through as business owners. We’ve made very tough decisions very quickly, and so far we believe they’ve been the correct ones,” Ross said. “We truly believe that we have a chance to come out of COVID stronger than before, for the way we’ve taken care of our staff and stayed open for our communities.”

Teaching through a Pandemic: Kaleb Johnson ’15

Teachers set out to give their students the tools and knowledge they need to succeed. Oftentimes, they provide them with comfort and mental guidance as well. During a pandemic, the latter becomes an even more vital part of the job.

“I could easily sense the anxieties that COVID-19 brought to the world,” said Kaleb Johnson, fifth-grade teacher at Hyde Elementary in St. Joseph. “As a teacher, I knew that my main job at that point in time was to help ease those anxieties for my students.”

When the pandemic hit, there was an instant transition needed between in-person and online classes. Johnson was able to provide his students with daily Zoom meetings so they could have some consistency. These served as a way to check in with his students both academically and mentally. He would play interactive games, read and discuss stories, and just make sure that they were doing as well as could be expected.

Johnson is thankful that “the school district did a great job” enacting a solid plan sending students home for spring break while determining what to do after. Little did Johnson and his students know, they wouldn’t see each other in person again. “If I could go back in time, I would say so many things differently to my students to help give them some sort of closure for our in-person school year,” Johnson said.

With daily changes due to COVID-19, it is hard telling what the future holds for in-person classes. No matter what classroom learning looks like, Johnson knows that there needs to be an even greater focus on the social and emotional health of students and staff. “We need to meet our students where they are. This is something teachers have always done; it will just be even more important this coming school year.”

socially distanced class

COVID-19 Planning in Griffon country

In light of the quick changes that needed to be made to the spring semester because of COVID-19, Missouri Western’s administration worked diligently to ensure that the 2020-21 academic year would provide students with a quality educational experience while protecting the health, safety and well-being of the campus community. The administration evaluated multiple scenarios and recommended the best course of action based on the available information from CDC, state and city officials.

While planning for the fall semester, the only thing guaranteed was that COVID-19 would remain unpredictable for many months. After multiple discussions with faculty, staff and student leaders, it was decided to shift the start and end dates of fall semester – beginning the semester August 17 and concluding before Thanksgiving. The University also instituted protocols for wearing face coverings, social distancing, limiting room capacity and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, as well as contingency plans if cases occur on campus. As always, the health and safety of the campus community remains the top priority. As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, please check the COVID-19 webpage,, for the most up-to-date information.