The Effect of COVID-19 on Small Businesses

By Jordan Carrier

Interview Series: Center City, Philadelphia

Due to COVID-19, small businesses have been hurting financially and socially. I decided to interview a few small business owners in the Center City, Philadelphia area, exploring the extent to which they have been affected by the pandemic. I interviewed the owner of Bower Cafe, a black-owned coffee and cured meats shop; Homemade Goodies by Roz, a Kosher, non-dairy bakery; and Cheu Noodle Bar (and its associated restaurants), Asian inspired cuisine. My conversations with these owners provided me with awareness of the numerous demands on small businesses. I also gained much more sympathy and gratitude for workers in the food/restaurant industry. Let’s look at how these courageous, creative owners have managed during the pandemic. 

 

Bower Cafe (Coffee Shop)

263 S 10th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107

@bowercafe

Owner: Thane Wright 

 

Bullhorn [BH]: Tell us briefly about yourself, your business, and how long you have been with the business.

Thane Wright [TW]: I wrote Bower Cafe’s business plan in 2014. Bower is a bird that’s indigenous to Papua New Guinea and Australia. The bird is known for making nests on the ground and putting treasures in it. He flies around collecting particular things and likes a lot of blue, which is why I have the blue theme here. The one in Papua New Guinea collects flowers, beetle shells, and nuts. Blue and orange are the shop colors because that's what the bird resembles. And my merchandise, coffee and meats, are the treasures. 

 

BH: In general, how has COVID-19 affected your business?

TW: To be honest, it made me think more about my business. We were closed for about 1.5 months. I didn’t really get any grants so we did a Gofundme which helped. I got the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan which helped. All of that is gone already. 

Right now, we are trying to rebuild the cafe. I redid the menu. We’re following all of the CDC regulations. If I didn't have any of the regulations in place, my staff probably wouldn't want to work here. And people probably wouldn't want to step foot inside the cafe. 

Essentially, you don't know what is going to happen on the daily. It’s hard for business.

 

BH: Have the federal, state, or local governments helped your business at all? If not, how have they hurt your business?

TW: Being African American, there’s all these grants and loans out there for African Americans and minorities. But, I did not get the PIDC [Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation] or the LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation]. I did not get the merchant fund. This is the 5th round of the LISC and I applied for it again. They've denied me every single time. I feel like they’ve been going to the neighborhoods that are less fortunate. But it does nothing for businesses in the city that need help. I still have Triple Net payments to rent and Thunder Payments that I owe. I need the grants primarily to pay for past bills, rent, and to sustain future operations. 

 

BH: What advice might you offer to other small businesses that are struggling during these times?

TW: You have to stay present. I encourage all business owners, especially small ones, to be at your shop. If you’re not here, you won’t survive. 

    The small businesses that I’ve seen have pivoted. When you pivot, you’re still in the same spot, just shifting. You’re not maneuvering enough to catapult you. I think we are swinging. Not aimlessly; we’re trying to connect and I think we are in a few areas. That’s the goal: throw your punches and make sure you connect and have an impact. It’s a game of survival right now.  

 

Homemade Goodies By Roz (Bakeshop)

510 S 5th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147

@homemadegoodies_byroz

Owner: Roz Bratt

 

BH: Tell us briefly about yourself, your business, and how long you have been with the business.

Roz Bratt [RB]: Hi, I’m Roz Bratt. I’m the owner of Homemade Goodies By Roz. In November, I will have been in business for 23 years. I started out as a small bakeshop. About 11 years ago, I became a Kosher bakery and we’re non-dairy now. We supply baked goods to wholesale and retail customers which have included Barnes & Noble, Cosi, and Walnut Street Theatre. 

 

BH: In general, how has COVID-19 affected your business?

RB: I don’t have the customers coming in. People are doing their own baking now. They have all this time to stay in so they’re not coming out. It was never as dead as it is now.

 

BH: Have the federal, state, or local governments helped your business at all? If not, how have they hurt?

RB: I have gotten one grant from the city. I applied for another grant and am waiting to hear if I’m eligible or not. I am collecting the PUA [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] for my business, as being the sole proprietor. 

 

BH: How have you adapted operations in response to COVID-19?

RB: I am only open 3 days a week and a lot less hours. 

 

BH: Is there anything that you have learned, through a business perspective, from this pandemic?

RB: Apply for as many grants as you can. Keep your head above water and hope only for the best. Hope that things will calm down and we’ll get back into some kind of semblance. 

 

Cheu Noodle Bar (Bar/Restaurant)

Associated Restaurants: Cheu Fishtown, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and Nunu

255 S 10th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107

@cheunoodlebar 

Owner: Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz (Interview with Darragh)

 

BH: Tell us briefly about yourself, your business, and how long you have been with the business.

Shawn Darragh [SD]: My name is Shawn Darragh and I am the co-owner of Cheu Noodle Bar, Bing Bing Dim Sum, Cheu Fishtown, and Nunu. We opened Cheu (10th street) about 8 years ago. 

 

BH: In general, how has COVID-19 affected your business?

SD: It definitely has been difficult. We immediately closed all of our restaurants on March 15 until May 15. We opened for takeout only and did very limited hours, days, and staff. We’re not at our full sales so paying monthly bills is the most difficult part. 

As you know, everything changes by the week: what we’re allowed to do as a business and what we have to provide for our employees and guests. These changing guidelines are important for safety but it can be difficult making quick transitions. 

 

BH: Are you concerned about the possibility that customer and business habits are shifting more toward e-commerce? If so, do you guys have mobile platforms?

SD: Luckily for us, our restaurants were already built for doing takeout business and deliveries through third parties like Caviar and Doordash. That was already a very big part of our business model, whereas some of these fine dining restaurants didn't have that in their business model and a lot of them had to transition to make that change. 

 

BH: Is there anything that you have learned, through a business perspective, from this pandemic?

SD: Proactive communication with employees is important. There are a lot of policies that we have to share with employees such as paid sick time, health insurance, and vacation days. It can only benefit us as employers to communicate with our staff.

Also, slow down. COVID-19 has made me realize that sometimes you have to slow down, take a look at what you have, make sure what you have is working the way it’s supposed to, and check for improvement.