Coronavirus, New York

Pandemic exposes gaps in technology, business literacy in Haitian Community

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 Wesley 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. 

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Sam Bojarski

Sam Bojarski

Sam Bojarski has been covering Haiti and its diaspora for The Haitian Times since 2018. He is currently covering New York's Haitian community as a Report for America corps member.
Sam Bojarski
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Jun. 08, 2020