By Sam Bojarski

This past June, Wesly Jean-Simon traveled to Leogane, Jacmel and other cities, observing the techniques employed by chefs throughout Haiti. His investment of time and money was instrumental in starting Zanmi, a Nostrand Avenue restaurant that opened in February. 

“I put this time in to know my culture, my food, so I could come back and present it the way it’s supposed to be presented,” Jean-Simon said.

Initially, he said, business was booming, and the restaurant posted weekly sales of $5,000 to $6,000. That is, until mid-March, when New York City ordered the closure of non-essential businesses, to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Like other restaurants, Zanmi offered takeout at first but soon discontinued it, after sales dropped to little more than $150 some days.

Recognizing the need to help others facing similar situations, Jean-Simon and other restaurant owners have organized and expanded the Haitian Business Coalition. Formed initially to assist restaurateurs, the coalition plans to provide education and support to other small business owners in the Haitian community who might need assistance during this period of vulnerability brought on by COVID-19. The virus had infected more than 67,500 city residents as of April 5.

“It’s an unprecedented incident that is happening, nobody has that magic wand to say ‘that’s what’s supposed to be happening,’ except that if we can go through it together, we can teach each other how to deal with it,” said Jensen Desrosiers, former owner of the now-closed Tonel Restaurant & Lounge, who helped lead the effort to form the coalition. 

The Haitian Business Coalition will use Zanmi as its headquarters. Given the gaps in technology skills within the community, Jean-Simon said coalition members can help business owners renew food and health permits online, since government offices are closed. In light of recent efforts by the government to help small businesses ‒ including a federal stimulus package passed by Congress ‒ coalition members can collaborate to figure out the most appropriate loans or grants to apply for, according to Jean-Simon. 

Zanmi restaurant, at the corner of Hawthorne Street and Nostrand Avenue.

The coalition is already organized as a legal entity, and bringing business owners together could help streamline communications with elected officials. 

“We’re hopeful that if they have any intention of helping the businesses, we will be having an address and phone number where all the businesses can be reached at once,” Desrosiers added.

Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, estimated that there are more than 26,000 restaurants in New York City’s five boroughs. Statewide, Fleischut said about 48% of restaurants have temporarily closed, without offering delivery or takeout. 

Mahadya Mary, an advisor to the Haitian Business Coalition who works for New York City’s Department of Small Business Services, did not have an estimate of the number of Haitian-owned restaurants in the city. But she said the Haitian restaurant scene, largely concentrated in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, plays an important role in the community. Many restaurants are owned by immigrants. 

“That’s like the heartbeat, that’s an intricate part of the community,” Mary said. For those who don’t live with their parents, “it’s where you can actually go to get an authentic, Haitian-cooked meal,” she added. 

Coronavirus hit right before First Communion season, normally a busy time for Haitian restaurants and businesses. Many restaurant owners in Brooklyn also made preparations to host events like weddings, baby showers and large dinner reservations before businesses were shut down. 

Sharing advice for dealing with unplanned cancellations is one benefit of the Haitian Business Coalition.

Desrosiers said that a Whatsapp forum he created has been useful, helping restaurant owners discuss how to deal with customers requesting refunds. Anyone interested in joining the forum can contact Desrosiers at 646-726-5372. The coalition has also hosted weekly meetings and made use of the video conferencing platform Zoom.

The impact of coronavirus can vary depending on a business owner’s age, according to Mary. Younger, more technology-savvy entrepreneurs have been able to use services like Grubhub and learn about ways to receive assistance, via the internet. 

Older business owners may not be accustomed to offering takeout, let alone using delivery apps.

“You have to come in and order and wait, and they’re the ones that are suffering right now,” Mary said. 

During this time, many businesses are missing out on information, which is being disseminated through email and online. “That’s another reason why I told (Desrosiers) this is something we should do, so at least (business owners) know there’s a place where they can come and actually get information,” said Mary.

Along with many restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons and other small businesses were forced to close in March. But even restaurants that offer takeout services are likely hurting. 

“We’re hearing from folks in New York City that takeout and delivery has been a struggle, primarily because of the customers worrying and fear surrounding going out or having (food) delivered to their door,” said Fleischut. 

Statewide, 5% of restaurants have already decided to close permanently, while another 12% anticipate having to do so within 30 days. An inability to go a month without income has forced many restaurants to shed employees. 

“They operate on such small profit margins to begin with, and they don’t have reserves, they don’t have cash reserves, they don’t have big savings accounts put away. So I think that’s why we’re seeing such dramatic numbers in unemployment and why the longer this goes, the harder it’s going to be on folks,” Fleischut also said. 

Getting relief

According to Mary, some immigrant business owners have not readily adopted best practices after moving to the United States, making them more vulnerable during the current crisis. These practices include separating business and personal bank accounts and keeping accurate books. 

“A lot of these small businesses, not just Haitian restaurants, but businesses altogether, they don’t necessarily keep very good books,” Mary said, citing her 20-plus years working with merchants.  

Missteps like these could hurt their ability to get relief from the federal stimulus package and other assistance efforts. 

Included in the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress last month is a $367 billion loan and grant program for small businesses. Business owners can apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration (SBA) at sba.gov or through a participating financial institution. 

The relief package allows almost any business, house of worship or nonprofit the opportunity to receive assistance. But applicants must have records of monthly operating expenses from the past year, to determine the amount of the loan, according to Mary. SBA loans have a maximum term of 30 years, with the first payment deferred for 12 months. 

“The criteria for it is so flexible that everybody should just apply for it,” Mary said. 

Addressing the language barrier that could arise during this process, she added that the Haitian Business Coalition can help business owners get connected with translation services, if necessary.

A man walks by Kreyol Restaurant on Church Avenue.

New York City has also extended aid to small businesses. The city’s Employee Retention Grant Program covers 40% of payroll for two months, for businesses with less than five employees. The Small Business Continuity Loan Fund offers zero-interest loans up to $75,000 for businesses whose sales have decreased 25% or more. 

“The city has made it very flexible for people to actually get approved for the grants and the loans that are out there right now. But they just need to keep good books,” Mary said. 

At the state level, the Restaurant Association has pushed for certain measures, including relief from sales tax due March 20. While officials announced that there would be no penalties for late payments on quarterly taxes, the status for those who file monthly is still in question. 

Normally, restaurants that fail to pay monthly bills on liquor orders can get placed on the New York State Liquor Authority’s delinquency list. 

“We have asked them to waive that requirement right now, because everybody is trying to preserve cash and figure out what they have to pay and what they can afford to pay,” Fleischut said. 

The State Restaurant Association is also part of a coalition that has called for reduced fees from delivery apps like Grubhub ‒ which charge fees as high as 30% on orders. In late February, New York City Councilmember Mark Gjonaj introduced legislation to cap commission fees from third-party platforms at 10%. 

New York City’s elected officials cannot focus exclusively on the Haitian business community, Desrosiers admitted. But the Haitian Business Coalition is asking that leaders be mindful of the concerns voiced by minority business owners. 

“If we organize ourselves, it will be easier for them to reach out to us, and we are asking for them to do their work, as we are doing our work, to see if we can keep business going,” Desrosiers said. 

While there isn’t a lot of business to go around, entrepreneurs are exploring every avenue. Jean-Simon said he was in talks with the mayor’s office and city council, about a contract to provide meals for hospital workers. He has negotiated down to $10 per plate but said the money could at least help pay rent for the time being. 

The city’s firefighters and police officers could also benefit from meals provided by local restaurants. While these limited opportunities can sustain some businesses, meetings and discussions among coalition members in recent weeks have focused on identifying the best financial assistance opportunities for surviving the pandemic, Jean-Simon said. 

Looking ahead, Mary said she sees the Haitian Business Coalition playing an educational role, teaching business literacy skills like bookkeeping. 

“That’s what usually shuts a lot of small businesses, not just Haitian businesses or immigrant businesses … out of getting assistance,” Mary added. 

Of course, there’s plenty of time to dream about life after coronavirus. Jean-Simon wondered aloud about the possibility of providing relief for Haiti or setting up a neighborhood Haitian food festival. This could help Central Brooklyn restaurants grow their customer base in an area that is changing demographically. 

“Ninety percent of our customers that walk in my building tell me they’ve never had Haitian food in their life, and they live in Brooklyn,” Jean-Simon said. 

The Haitian Business Coalition can be reached via email, info.haitianbusinesscoalition@gmail.com, or phone at 901-800-9229. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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