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‘If I could run away, I would’

Restaurant owners of color struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic.

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Nelson Perez who runs the family business Park View Diner (owned by mother Maria Solis) works a normal day amid the pandemic, with head chef Laura. - SAMANTHA CABRERA FRIEND
  • Samantha Cabrera Friend
  • Nelson Perez who runs the family business Park View Diner (owned by mother Maria Solis) works a normal day amid the pandemic, with head chef Laura.

Omelets alongside tortas and Polish sausages, pink lemonade next to agua fresca de pepino, Valentina hot sauce next to Heinz ketchup. At Park View Diner in Pilsen, owner Martha Solis and her son Nelson Perez have been serving a blend of cultures for more than three decades.

Families dining on the weekends were the bread and butter of the business, as Perez likes to say. Even as gentrification brought an influx of trendy cafés and gastropubs to the mostly Mexican-American neighborhood, families kept returning to Park View, crowding the 24 multi-colored stools that line the counter. Many had been coming to the diner for 30 years, Perez says.

Then the pandemic hit. For a cash-only restaurant that existed almost entirely off in-person meals, it suddenly could only serve takeout orders. Perez said he saw the eatery’s business plummet by 80 percent.

“I was scared,” he said. “We hit rock bottom. This was a reality check.”

Nearly eight months later, the diner’s business had started picking back up, thanks in part to the city of Chicago’s partial reopening that allowed restaurants to seat at 25 percent capacity with social distancing. But for the tiny Park View Diner, that was still just about six customers.

Perez isn’t sure how long the diner’s going to last, especially as COVID-19 cases surge again and Gov. J.B. Pritzker reinstates another ban on indoor dining. As other restaurants in Pilsen and elsewhere in Chicago have folded, he’s barely hung on.

“That will be another blow for us,” Perez said upon hearing about the impending shutdown. “I guess time will tell where we stand.”

After piecemeal lockdowns across the country, the number of coronavirus cases remains persistently high in the U.S. The longer the pandemic lasts, the greater the economic devastation grows. About one in five businesses, for instance, could permanently close if the limited economic situation continues through February, a National Federation of Independent Business survey found in August. The restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard—Yelp reported that, as of September, over 19,000 restaurants have permanently closed.

Perez’s experience echoes that of many small businesses across the country. With income either decimated or severely depleted, many shops don’t know how to pay their growing bills, let alone know if they have a future. Minority-owned businesses are finding themselves in even more vulnerable positions as the pandemic exacerbates pre-existing disparities and fractures communities.

By April, for instance, 41 percent of Black-owned and 32 percent of Latinx-owned businesses nationwide had folded, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published in June. Just under 20 percent of white-owned businesses had shuttered within that period.

In neighborhoods undergoing so-called revitalization—where many minority-owned businesses already teeter in precarious positions—these closures impact not only the individual businesses, but ultimately the fabric of their communities. Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA, sees the possibility that the pandemic may hasten neighborhood change.

“If these areas remain attractive places for outside investments, then the vacancies and opportunities created by minority business closures will speed up the transformation, and can lead to additional waves of business and residential displacement,” Ong said. “In other words, gentrification.”

Park View Diner is still doing takeout orders from its location at 2000 W. 19th. - SAMANTHA CABRERA FRIEND
  • Samantha Cabrera Friend
  • Park View Diner is still doing takeout orders from its location at 2000 W. 19th.

Perez credits his mother’s business and money management as what saved Park View Diner when COVID-19 cases peaked in Chicago in the spring.

“We’re still afloat because my mom paid this off a long time ago,” Perez said, referencing the diner’s building. “So that's what kept us afloat. We have no mortgage, no nothing. If it wasn't for that, we would have closed, no doubt about it. We would have been shut down.”

With utilities and other bills still needing to be paid, Perez applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, one of the federal pandemic relief programs intended to cover payroll, rent, and more for small businesses. Like many other business owners of color though, he never received any money.

The Center for Responsible Lending, a policy and research nonprofit, upon examining the loan and its requirements, started issuing warnings in April that the program’s setup would prevent most business owners of color from accessing the funds. The nonprofit found, for instance, that minority-owned businesses often have fewer employees and bring in less revenue. Those loans, as a result, would be smaller and would generate smaller fees for lending institutions. White-owned businesses, requiring larger loans that would yield larger fees for lenders, would be prioritized then.

With no loan in hand, Perez dipped into the savings his mother had been holding for a “rainy day.” Even then, he had to lay off a younger employee and take a paycut himself.

As another wave of COVID-19 forces him to close down again, he has some savings left to cushion the business. But the diner can’t last forever on to-go orders only.

On top of that, he has to consider his health as well as the health of his employees—he and another employee are cancer survivors, and his mom, who still comes in each week, is 80 years old.

“To go back to the way it was—not going to work,” he added. “The only way we will get back is if we open up 100 percent.”

The threat to Park View Diner extends beyond Perez’s business. Moises Moreno, codirector of the Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization in the community, called Pilsen’s small businesses, particularly the restaurants, bars, and mom-and-pop stores on 18th Street and Cermak Avenue—the neighborhood’s main corridors—the “lifeblood for the local economy.”

If they close though, the organizer said, they lose more than just storefronts.

“What we lose is obviously not just money, but we lose history, we lose culture. We lose economic power,” Moreno said. “And I think that's something that we cannot afford to lose.”

The condiments on the counter at Park View Diner have long gone unused during the pandemic. - SAMANTHA CABRERA FRIEND
  • Samantha Cabrera Friend
  • The condiments on the counter at Park View Diner have long gone unused during the pandemic.

For months, Leonel Rodriguez had been going back and forth on whether he should reopen his business Step Down Café in Pilsen. When Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that restaurants could operate at 25 percent of their capacity at the end of June though, he decided that was that. He closed down his two-year-old coffee shop for good.

“I'm not going to make enough money to actually pay my employees and then bills for light, electrical and all that, the supplies, and this and that,” Rodriguez said. “So, I just thought, you know what? I'm not getting it. I'm losing money.”

Longtime minority-owned restaurants aren’t the only businesses struggling during the pandemic. Even newer eateries in Pilsen find themselves barely scraping by or shuttering completely. Rodriguez is one of several business owners in Pilsen who have permanently closed their shops as a result of COVID-19. In May, the owners of Taqueria Sabor y Sazón also closed down their seven-year-old eatery after they could no longer keep up with rent and other bills, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Prior to the pandemic, Step Down Café attracted a lot of customers with its simple coffee drinks and sandwiches. Rodriguez, who grew up in Pilsen, named the business after an old lounge that existed in the same location on Racine Avenue. Residents were eager to support someone from the neighborhood.

Because the business was so new, however, Rodriguez wasn’t making a profit.

“I was making enough money to cover everything—wages, supplies, electrical bills, all that,” he said. “But I was barely making it.”

When COVID-19 cases began spiking in Chicago, Rodriguez closed the shop for all service, even for takeout, as his employees called in sick, too scared to come into work. “Barely making it” turned into Rodriguez paying bills with his own personal funds from another job.

The café owner actually secured a $9,000 PPP loan thanks to his payment processing system Square, which had his business information and helped complete an application for him. But when he learned in late June that he could only operate his café at 25 percent for an indefinite period, he determined that that loan wouldn’t be enough to cover all his costs.

Rodriguez now plans to return the money and sell the building. He said he recognizes he was even lucky to try out his business. For many residents in Pilsen, he believes the rising rents prevent them from opening businesses. The neighborhood’s property values increased by $105,000 between 2012 and 2020, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.

“I had the space to actually try my dream,” Rodriguez said. “I'm sad it didn't work out. I wish it would have, but it didn't.”

Owner of Abundance Bakery Bill Ball continues to keep his business alive while trying to navigate the maze of requesting PPP loans and other recovery grants. - SAMANTHA CABRERA FRIEND
  • Samantha Cabrera Friend
  • Owner of Abundance Bakery Bill Ball continues to keep his business alive while trying to navigate the maze of requesting PPP loans and other recovery grants.

Elsewhere in Chicago, other small business owners of color feel strains similar to those found in Pilsen. In Bronzeville, Bill Ball, who has been running Abundance Bakery for 30 years, said his credit score has crashed as a result of the pandemic. Still, the bakery owner said he’s put in too much work into his shop to give up on it now, even as he finds himself deeper in debt.

Ball started baking and then selling his family’s recipes after he grew weary selling cell phones in the 1980s. Those same recipes for pound cake, peanut butter cookies, apple pecan bread, and more are still taped up around his tiny workspace.

“The fact that I've been here so long, I'm a part of the culture. We celebrated pregnancies, we celebrated marriages, and we celebrated repasts,” Ball said, referring to the receptions after funerals.

Many local residents come into the shop and tell Ball how glad they are to see a longtime Black-owned store in the neighborhood.

Ball, on the other hand, claims he’s just crazy for staying in business for so long.

“I really don't have a good sense,” Ball said with a laugh. “My wife wants me to quit at least once a week.”

He proudly declares his roots in Bronzeville—the Black Metropolis once home to Ida B. Wells, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole. But around his business on 47th Street, Ball sees a neighborhood lacking in resources with vacant storefronts and empty lots. Many of the area’s low-income Black residents don’t have access to jobs, he said, and end up cycling through poverty.

At the same time, Ball added, he’s also starting to see gentrification push up property values, making the situation all the more uncertain. Like in Pilsen, Bronzeville’s property values have jumped by about $100,000 in the last eight years, according to the Zillow Home Value Index. Ball’s own rent has doubled in the time that he’s been there.

The pandemic could further gentrification. It could also deepen the disinvestment in many communities of color, said Ong, the UCLA professor.

“Many of them already suffer from a history of disinvestment and a lack of new investment, leaving them job poor and underserved by businesses,” he added. “So, it will be a downward spiral, a process of further marginalization of disadvantaged communities.”

Back in March, at the start of the pandemic, Ball hadn’t planned to completely shut down, until a person visiting the business threw up in the shop. With his wife scared he was going to catch COVID-19 at work, Ball closed the bakery through the end of June, losing, he estimated, about $15,000 to $20,000. Rent and utilities went unpaid.

“If I could run away, I would,” he said.

Ball started applying for the PPP loan, but he said the paperwork was a maze. He typically has three to five employees, although sometimes he hires people in unofficial ways—usually when someone needs money quickly and wants to help out for a couple days—which complicated the process for him.

The city of Chicago did give him $5,000 as a part of its Microbusiness Recovery Grant Program, but even that wasn’t enough to boost him out of debt.

“We went through that in a couple of days,” Ball said.

Since Ball reopened in June, more customers have been trickling into the bakery each day. Without some more cash soon though, he said he will have to close down. Residents wanting baked goods would have to go to Walmart or another chain store, which he doesn’t like. He sees his pastries as different—as genuine.

“If I can’t get past this,” Ball said, “then, you know, I'm going to take a horrible loss.”

Bill Ball has been running Abundance Bakery in Bronzeville for 30 years. - SAMANTHA CABRERA FRIEND
  • Samantha Cabrera Friend
  • Bill Ball has been running Abundance Bakery in Bronzeville for 30 years.

Agustin Bahena admits his restaurant Mole Village in Pilsen struggled prior to the pandemic. Situated on the neighborhood’s industrial southern edge, his business doesn’t draw the traffic that many of the restaurants do on the bustling 18th Street. It’s quiet. On the restaurant’s stark white walls, paintings done in muted colors of a rural village, Frida Kahlo, a still life of fruit, and other illustrations hang.

The chef knows almost everyone who visits—he’s never had enough money to attract new customers.

Still, serving up dishes such as pollo con mole and camarones a la diabla, Bahena aims—even now—to create an upscale dining experience that draws from the rich flavors of Guerrero, Mexico, where he migrated from in the 1980s.

“It's not just food,” Bahena said of his hometown’s cuisine. “When you eat mole in my little town in Guerrero, that means you're going to have, like, a wedding, a big party, a big celebration—that’s when people eat mole. It's not like just to be every day or every week—no, no, no, no. When you have mole, it means [there] must be something big happening.”

Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been little to celebrate though. When the eatery could be open only for to-go orders, Bahena said he and his wife, who helps run the business, would see $40 in food orders one day and maybe $100 the next. It was barely enough to buy more ingredients. He stopped paying rent and utilities.

Bahena applied for multiple federal loans, and even had a friend look them over and help with his English. After watching Mayor Lori Lightfoot speak on television one night about the city’s $5,000 Microbusiness Recovery Grant Program, he pulled out his phone and tried applying. He also called his bank, Chase, to apply for the PPP loan.

“I never got an answer,” he said.

Somehow, though, Bahena continues to persevere. With no government support in sight, he’s been able to get by, even if barely so, thanks in large part to community support and his own will.

At the end of July, he held a grand re-opening event for three days, offering full-course meals and buffets. While still following social distancing guidelines, the chef had enough people come that he raised several thousands of dollars.

A number of customers have also been generous with tips. One person gave Bahena a $100 tip for a $20 meal, which he took as a sign that he needs to continue his business.

Even the Mexican consulate in Chicago has pitched in, giving Bahena $300 when he asked for support. It’s not much, he said, but anything helps. As a result of those funds and customers trickling into Mole Village, the chef added he’s been able to pay his rent since August.

Still, many of his earlier bills remain unpaid, and there’s no clear end in sight yet to the pandemic. Bahena, however, refuses to think that his business won’t survive, in one form or another. With his wife and three children eating meals at the restaurant to save money, he said he feels he has nothing else beyond the business.

“If I have to close these doors, I'll be out in the street,” he said, laughing. “Making tacos.”   v

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