STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — In an effort to help minority business owners who are still reeling from pandemic losses and now operating during a challenging economy, the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce recently brought New York City’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to the table, inviting the financially inclusive non-profit to hear the concerns of several local entrepreneurs.
“Small business owners are in limbo,” Edward Gomez, a North Shore restaurateur, told the panel, detailing the struggles he has faced in operating his restaurant, Da Noi. “This is my life’s work, a labor of love, something I’ve been doing for 23 years. I used to employ over 100 people and operate eight restaurants. Now I have three establishments and feel like we’re struggling to get by. Something has got to give.”
Facing higher costs, supply chain issues, and fewer sales with customers spending less due to inflation, Gomez was not alone in his concerns.
“The price of everything is absolutely astronomical,” added Deya Felici, owner of Vinum, The Richmond, Don Cheech and The Belvedere Club. “Food costs have doubled and, in some instances, tripled, and the price of other things we use on a daily basis, like gloves and paper towels, are through the roof. We have to keep our prices low, otherwise we don’t get customers, but it’s impossible to just eat these costs. The SBA [Small Business Administration] loans were great, but now it’s time to start paying them back. We can’t defer it any longer.”
Bobby Digi, co-owner of O’Henry’s Publick House on Minthorne Street, said he agrees.
“It generates a lot of frustration to have this conversation,” he said. “We’ve applied for all of the programs – every grant and loan under the sun — and we didn’t get one. We’re not even sure if we will be open in December, that’s how real the situation is. And the agencies who are supposed to be helping are completely disconnected from who they’re trying to service.”
The entrepreneurial forum was hosted by LISC NY and served as the third stop of the organization’s “Minority-Owned Small Business Listening Tour,” a program that is aimed at helping elevate the challenges that minority business owners across the five boroughs are currently facing. Together, a group of about 10 Staten Island business owners pleaded for additional support from economic development officials and state and city lawmakers.
“We tried to apply for PPP but we were denied, because we were too small,” said Michelle Chen, owner of Lil M Bubble Tea House in Castleton Corners, relaying her story of failure with the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. “I had to use my life savings instead. Getting capital for a business is hard; there are so many small businesses that need help.”
Other Black and brown business owners called for immediate and targeted action to stabilize and support the Staten Island business community during the event, describing issues with employee retention, rent increases, public safety and more.
“Our strip of Bay Street has always been plagued by crime, but after the pandemic it seems to have spiraled out of control,” noted Vickiana Cappellan, owner of Kiara’s Beauty Salon, citing recent break-ins and drug activity right in front of her shop. “The block has become so dangerous, I’ve contemplated breaking my lease and leaving. We’re dealing with so much as business owners right now, but this might be the worst part.”
Linda Baran, president of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, offered advice for such difficulties, while Valerie White, senior executive director of LISC NY, asked the business owners a series of questions to better measure the current temperature of the Staten Island business climate.
“We decided to embark on this tour across the city, because we want to hear about the challenges and successes you’re encountering,” White said. “We know it’s tough, and we want to make sure you’re on a platform of economic equality.”
Baran added: “We’ve partnered with LISC NY on a number of projects to support small businesses throughout the years, and we know firsthand their commitment to helping minority-owned businesses survive and thrive. We’re happy to collaborate with them once again on this Listening Tour, allowing the voices of Staten Island’s minority-owned business community to be heard and to have their concerns addressed.”
LISC NY will convene similar events in Queens and Manhattan, working with economic development officials, elected leaders, and local businesses to ensure that the voices of New York’s minority business community are heard, and their businesses remain central to the fight for economic recovery.
“Our small business owners have experienced tremendous strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting government mandates, and we must work at the city and state levels to ensure that sustainable solutions are available to them,” Sen. Andrew J. Lanza (R-Staten Island) offered in a statement. “Thank you to LISC NY and the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce for bringing together these powerful members of our community and giving them a platform to share their experiences with their elected officials. I will continue to support these small business owners and amplify their voices, so they can continue to provide goods and services, and representation in our communities.”
Said Councilwoman Kamillah M. Hanks (D-North Shore): “There is an incredible amount of minority and women-owned small businesses and entrepreneurs on Staten Island, and it is crucial that they have the support, knowledge, and resources to succeed, especially as so many still grapple with the impacts of the pandemic. Listening tours and collaboration with the S.I. Chamber are great ways to understand the needs and of our small business owners.”