grocery store
A Haitian grocery store off Church Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

By Sam Bojarski

The Le Bon Pain Bakery has been a fixture in the Queens Village community for over 33 years. After the economy shut down in mid-March, sales dropped by more than 40%, although the bakery has recently seen an uptick, as loyal customers begin to return. 

Marie White, co-owner of the Haitian bakery, also said the store’s online sales have increased considerably. 

“The hardest part is that we’ve found out that a lot of our very dear customers that had been coming to us for so many years had passed away from this pandemic,” White also said.  

When it comes to the bottom line, Zanmi Restaurant on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn isn’t faring any better. After posting weekly sales of $5,000 to $6,000 when it opened in February, the restaurant now pulls in about $500 per day, on average. Only two of the nine employees Zanmi had when it opened in February are still on payroll, according to its co-owner, Jacques Deus. 

Zanmi has not been in business long enough to receive financial assistance from the federal government. Still, its owners are determined to keep the doors open, in part by expanding the restaurant’s online presence ‒ something many first-generation entrepreneurs in the community are reluctant to do. As the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, it has exposed gaps in digital literacy and formal business acumen that tend to vary along generational lines. 

According to Wesly Jean-Simon, a Zanmi co-owner and active member of the Haitian Business Coalition, formed to help business owners weather the pandemic and apply for assistance, first-generation business owners stand a greater risk of going under. 

“They’re basically suffering more than the new generations of Haitian businesses that really are embracing all the (digital) platforms,” said Jean-Simon, 41. 

Chez Mireille grocery store along Cambria Heights’ Linden Boulevard. Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

The older mom-and-pop businesses also tend to staff their restaurants or stores with family members or under-the-table employees. If they can’t demonstrate payroll expenses, these business owners become ineligible for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of the federal government’s flagship programs offering loans for small businesses. 

“With family members that have no papers … they don’t qualify for a lot of things, they’re not eligible because they don’t have the paperwork to show,” Jean-Simon said. 

Difficulties getting assistance

Not all business owners have opted to apply for federal and local assistance programs designed to help small businesses. 

“We figured there was so many people applying that we would not be eligible for it, so we just continued to maintain our business. We have a lot of preferred customers that have been coming for so many years that have been faithful to us, and we’re just holding on,” said White. 

Mahadya Mary, an advisor to the Haitian Business Coalition who also works for New York City’s Small Business Services (SBS) department, told the Haitian Times that the criteria for receiving a PPP loan has worked against some small businesses. 

The program offers loans to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, and Mary questioned if businesses that are close to that size can really be considered small. Businesses with hundreds of employees, she also said, often have closer relationships with bankers or other financial professionals, giving them priority in accessing loans. 

The $350 billion available in the first round of PPP funding was gone after just two weeks, although the program relaunched in late April with an additional $310 billion. Loans awarded in the second round have been smaller, and as of June 2, there was more than $120 billion left. 

New York City quickly created two assistance programs for small businesses: the Employee Retention Grant and Small Business Continuity Loan Fund. SBS awarded $24.9 million and $21.5 million, respectively, to local entrepreneurs through the programs, which have since closed, according to Samantha Keitt, press secretary for SBS. 

Last month, media reports indicated that Manhattan businesses received 66 percent of loans in the Continuity Loan Fund, while Brooklyn businesses received just 18 percent. When asked about these numbers, Keitt said that outer boroughs had fewer applicants, “which resulted in fewer awards.”

The SBS Business Solutions Centers can help business owners “identify additional financing available through our network of 40+ lenders, along with local philanthropic funding if you are a nonprofit,” Keitt told the Haitian Times in an email. 

Mary said a lot more “microbusinesses” are applying in the second round of the PPP program. 

“What the (Haitian Business) Coalition actually was doing was trying to help those businesses that weren’t ready, get ready,” she added. 

Through his work with the Haitian Business Coalition, Jean-Simon said he has seen very few businesses in the community go under, although many are hurting. For some, the inability to access PPP assistance has made a difference.

“That’s the biggest problem, because they cannot show the number of employees. They’re not paying their employees, not even with a 1099,” Jean-Simon said, in reference to the tax form businesses file for independent contractors. 

Employees that have been laid off are also having trouble receiving benefits like unemployment.

“They’re not eligible for (assistance) from the government, unemployment benefits due to COVID-19, because people don’t have any paperwork. The community’s really being affected by that,” Jean-Simon said. 

The Haitian Business Coalition, which has used Zanmi as a headquarters, has helped show business owners how to qualify for assistance outside of the PPP program. Other loan programs require businesses to demonstrate they have lost money year-over-year, usually through tax forms. 

But convincing the older generation of business owners to apply for loans has not been easy in many cases, said Jean-Simon.

“They’ve never really touched a credit or big loan from the government, a big loan from any bank … so they’ll stay away from what they don’t know,” he added. 

Getting a boost from digital

For many businesses, driving sales through digital platforms has taken on greater importance, as people are forced to order from their homes, due to social distancing guidelines. Although New York City is poised to enter Phase I of the state’s reopening plan on June 8, restaurants cannot fully open. Outdoor dining only will be allowed once the city enters Phase II. 

White said Le Bon Pain Bakery had DoorDash, a food delivery service allowing customers to order from their smartphones, before the pandemic. But since mid-March, she credited the platform as part of the reason why her online sales have increased between 30 and 40 percent. Customers can also order on the Le Bon Pain Bakery website. 

Online, out-of-state delivery sales alone, White added, have increased by about 60% since the pandemic began. 

“A lot of people come across our Instagram. Even news media, they come and see the products that we have,” she said about the bakery’s social media presence. 

Deus, the co-owner of Zanmi, said that after paying for food, utilities and rent, the restaurant isn’t breaking even. While he has kept two paid employees on staff, he and his business partner are at the restaurant everyday, working without pay. 

“I’m here seven days just to keep my door open,” he said. 

Jean-Simon, his partner, is still investing in keeping the restaurant’s digital presence fresh. He even hired a social media manager, and Zanmi has undergone a rebranding since the pandemic started. 

Wesley Jean-Simon, co-owner of Zanmi, working with his social media manager. Photo credit: Sam Bojarski

Jean-Simon acknowledged that many business owners in the community are reluctant to adopt newer technologies.

Mary noted the same problem, suggesting that not all business owners have been willing to change and embrace digital platforms like social media and delivery services. Many older, first-generation business owners do not even have email addresses. 

“They have to move or change. Change is hard, but it’s really good sometimes, most times,” Mary added. 

One communication platform is widely used across generations: Whatsapp. The Haitian Business Coalition has used this platform widely, to communicate with older business owners. 

In the middle of a global pandemic that has forced Brooklyners to spend more time at home, Jean-Simon isn’t the only entrepreneur expanding his digital presence.

According to Mary, the Haitian Business Coalition has multiple restaurants in Brooklyn create email accounts and social media profiles. 

“We’re rebranding our restaurant right now, just to have more of an online presence,” said Jean-Simon. “We’re sending newsletters, we started online blogging now on our webpage, so we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do right now just to stay relevant,” he said. 

Zanmi’s efforts to expand its digital presence have yet to pay off. But as the pandemic wears on, the business landscape is changing quickly. 

Digital sales have taken on greater importance for restaurants throughout the U.S. In March, the month most states closed their economies, year-over-year digital orders for restaurant meals increased by 63 percent, while delivery orders increased by 67 percent. 

“In the third quarter, that’s when businesses will start falling under, in the third and fourth quarter,” Jean-Simon said. “If you’re not running it right, with a good business model, you will start falling under, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

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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