Small businesses struggle to stay open during pandemic

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Bars and cafes offer takeaway drinks. April 10, 2020. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Chris Register has been a longtime fan of the Eagle Rock neighborhood. As the 12-year owner of the catering company Brown Paper LA, Register had the idea to finally open a brick-and-mortar eatery Summer 2019. When he visited and acquired a storefront on Colorado Boulevard and anticipated its opening in March, a pandemic and impending recession were not part of his plan. Nevertheless, he opened Plants + Animals March 23.

Following Los Angeles County’s “Safer At Home” order March 21, all but essential businesses closed. As of 2019, there were approximately 30.7 million small businesses — defined by the U.S. Small Business Administration as firms with fewer than 500 employees — in the U.S., which constituted 99.9 percent of the country’s business. About 70 percent of small businesses had applied for CARES Act loans as of April 9. A neighborhood with a vibrant atmosphere of primarily independently-owned businesses, Eagle Rock has experienced a chain of closures since the coronavirus outbreak. But for those that are still open, issues of sanitary protection, dwindling revenue and employee paychecks persist.

Arnie Miller is the owner of Highland Cafe. Since the order took effect, his revenue has decreased by 80 percent and he has decreased the cafe’s business hours from nine hours a day to six. He has applied to multiple small business federal relief programs since late March — only one has responded with a request for a business plan.

Local bar The Hermosillo is closed until further notice. April 10, 2020. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Meirav Leibovici, owner of Berry Bowl, experienced a similar change to her business. Reducing the store’s hours from 11 a day to seven, Leibovici said she also had to reduce her employees’ hours from full-time to part-time. Although she tried to give them as many hours as possible, employees now rotate their shifts. Leibovici said she is happy to keep the store open, but she said all aspects of her business are slowing, as events such as trade shows and new vendor meetings were canceled.

“It’s a domino effect,” Leibovici said. “It starts with my purchasing a product. And when that is slowed, because the sales are slowed and payroll is slow, everything else is slow.”

Register said his initial plan was to grow his new business organically, slowly letting the community discover it. However, as offices shift work online and cancel events, Register’s catering business stopped entirely.

“My safety net, down below the tightrope wire that we were about to walk with this new restaurant, just disappeared,” Register said. “The only way we can make any income is to just open the doors and go forward. So that’s what we did.”

Protecting those who still come to work is another major concern of shop owners. Leibovici said Berry Bowl now has glass partitions at the counter and toppings bar to separate staff from customers as well as a new cleaning station in the middle of the store with gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes. Miller said he has reduced the number of staff inside Highland Cafe at any given time from 6–8 to 2–3 in order to limit exposure. There is also hand sanitizer at the register for both employees and customers, and employees clean the terminals after each transaction. All six of Leibovici’s staff are currently working, according to Leibovici. Most of Miller’s fifteen staff are working.

“I really feel we’re being as safe as possible for our employees and our customers. But again, this is something we’ve never dealt with, right?” Miller said. “I mean, I’m in the business of feeding people. I’m not in the business of virus control. We’re doing everything that’s suggested.”

Customers at Town Pizza line up outside of the store for pick-up. April 10, 2020. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Some businesses seem dedicated to doing more. Annalissa Alietti, who co-owns Zweet Cafe with Kacey Sourakli and manages its social media, posted on Facebook March 20 asking for opinions on the store providing groceries for pickup. Two days later, the page posted its first compiled list of available essential items, including gloves, eggs, milk and rice. The list soon expanded to include a wider variety of food items, as well as sanitation products such as bleach and face masks. According to De Alarik Ojeda, the assistant manager of Zweet Cafe, all essential items are sold at the price at which they were bought and the cafe is not making a profit from them. Ojeda said Alietti and Sourakli also found a vendor for masks and bought a shipment to sell to the community.

“A lot of people are selling that for 15, 20 dollars, and at Zweet Cafe we are selling it for $5.50 flat,” Ojeda said. “That is the amount that we’re paying up for and that’s the amount we’re selling it for.”

Other small business efforts to support their community, each other or the frontline workers of the pandemic include food donation campaigns, promoting neighboring local businesses and mask sewing. Ojeda said the community has reciprocated with their appreciation — sometimes in the form of large tips.

“One person left [a] $100 tip. Another person left [a] $20 tip,” Ojeda said. “It’s truly empowering because it really gives us hope that we do see the community acknowledges and respects the things that we do.”

Register said despite the unfortunate timing of his store opening, he is happy to have a place to go to every day and engage with people. He said he has done a lot of promotion on social media and has already seen support from other businesses and individuals in the community, but the impact of these efforts is limited.

“We can all try, and it’s great that we’re trying, but at the end of the day we really do need the federal government and the state government have to step in,” Register said.