Antonio Lopez drives his Mexican Food Truck every morning from Holyoke to Hartford, where he has been selling food for three years on the corner of Putnam and Park streets. But customer traffic has been scarce, and he says a second wave of the coronavirus could put him out of business.
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“I have to spend as little as I can to be able to stay in business,” he said in Spanish, explaining that the prices for things like meat have spiked, putting the squeeze on his profits. He’s not alone. From Main Street to Prospect Avenue, Hartford’s Park Street is known as the heart of the Latino community -- with restaurants, bodegas and markets. But the pandemic has taken its toll there, too.
Miguel Bueno owns Bueno Grocery -- also on Park Street. He says that the surge in prices has had devastating effects on his grocery store, too.
“There’s been a shortage on practically everything, even meats, eggs, you name it, there’s a shortage,” Bueno said. “And then also maintaining people to follow the rules, because people don’t believe it even exists just to today, so just imagine [getting] people to come and wear their masks and not to touch everything even though they’re not going to buy it.”
“What I fear,” Bueno said, “is that there could be another shutdown.”
Julio Mendoza, executive director of The Spanish American Merchants Association, says only four businesses have been forced to shut down entirely, but the effects of the pandemic have been devastating on small business owners on Park Street.
“It's been incredibly hard on them, because all of them closed basically at one time,” Mendoza said. “There were very few businesses open -- just grocery stores -- and very minimal restaurants because they can only take out or deliver. So it’s done incredible damage to their ... finances.”
The association provides business owners with services in developing business plans, preparing loan presentations, and accessing licenses and permits. But with the pandemic, what was starting to become years of hard work and progress became a retrogression.
“We’ve done a lot of things on Park Street to promote the growth of businesses,” Mendoza said. “And this has put a hold completely on it. It’s now basically not growing your business. It’s survival.”
There’s another challenge for small businesses on Park Street. The state has directed restaurants to open at reduced capacity. They can also use outdoor space for dining. But Beatriz Gutierrez says that can be a challenge in an urban environment where space is limited. She’s the executive director of the Office of Business Development at the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
“A lot of the businesses that we are talking [about], in particular in the Latino community are in the service area, so we’re talking restaurants, landscapers, nail salons, hair salons,” Gutierrez said. “And, because of that, when you are asking citizens of a state to stay at home, that has a significant impact in the community.”
She also says these businesses don’t have big cash reserves. Gutierrez says there are loans available, but not every business qualifies, and not all of the application materials are in Spanish. Finding the right type of program can be challenging, especially for businesses with fewer than 100 employees. According to Gutierrez, the effort to provide technical and communication assistance to small businesses has come in translating information and providing outreach, to ensure that owners aren’t further jeopardizing their financial position by getting them a loan they can’t afford.
“In general, they may not be as stable from a cash flow perspective, so these are businesses that go month to month, or week to week, to keep their doors open,” Gutierrez said. “And when they are faced with a significant hold to their income, they find themselves in a very difficult situation to survive.”
Such is the case of Wilmer Briceño, who owns Antojitos Colombianos at El Mercado Marketplace food court. Since the pandemic, he’s had to let go his three employees, even those who have been with him for over seven years.
“Here we are trying to survive and maintain our business,” Briceño said in Spanish.
He says he’s been able to stay open for now because customers would trickle in.
“My fear,” he said, “would be to have to close my business after so much sacrifice.”
And he wonders how long he’ll be able to hold on.
Brenda Leon is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.