Small Businesses in Chicago Persevered Through Pandemic Hurdles — While Some Were Launched

Written by Lluvitza Alvarez and Emely Lobo

Amidst COVID-19 restrictions and paranoia, small Chicago businesses adapted to the demands of the city as well as new rules and regulations.

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Schools began transitioning to online learning in March 2020, along with many companies switching over to remote operations, and non-essential businesses being forced to cease operations temporarily or switch to other operational methods that complied with safe social distancing measures.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 56 percent of establishments saw a decrease in demand for their services or products while 19 percent of establishments were mandated to close by the government.

Both large and small businesses have suffered, but experts say small businesses found some new ways to innovate and even grow.

Dr. Helen Roberts, associate director of the Center for Economic Education and Clinical Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that small businesses can be affected in both good and bad ways.

“One of the problems for small businesses is that they usually have a lower cushion than a large business,” Roberts said. “It’s Mom and Pop and then when Mom and Pop run out of money, the business goes; whereas a corporation can kind of limp along without making money for much longer with various ways that businesses can raise funds.”

A Yelp study released in Sept. 2020, six months after the initial lockdown, showed that 3,200 businesses saw permanent closures in Chicago by Aug. 31. However, the pandemic did not affect all businesses equally. Roberts says that the fear surrounding the contraction of the virus may actually make small businesses more appealing.

“Small businesses are usually far more likely to be benefitting from personal contact and to the extent people can’t connect in the same ways, well, then they are going to be hurt,” Roberts said. “But in the same sense, people are, even now, afraid to go out to a lot of the bigger businesses where people will be because that increases their exposure and that would benefit the small business because you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”

And she’s right. It is true that not all businesses were negatively affected. With Chicago entering a lockdown, many city residents flocked to stores to stock up on essentials such as food, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It was normal to go inside their local grocery store and encounter empty shelves and long lines — this made some Chicago residents feel safer in smaller shops that did not receive as much traffic.

“As a healthcare worker, I saw the effects of COVID firsthand,” said Andy Pina, a certified medical assistant and phlebotomy tech. “The last thing I wanted to do after a 16-hour shift during those first few months was to go into a packed store and risk even more exposure. Small stores are quicker, less packed, and I trust the cleanliness a lot more.”

A look at three small businesses in Chicago and how they handled the COVID-19 pandemic:

La Cabana

In the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on the Northwest Side, Eduardo Ramirez’s convenience store, La Cabana, saw an increase in demand from neighborhood patrons. Situated at the corner of Austin Avenue and Wrightwood Avenue, the establishment resides in a residential neighborhood at an easy walking distance from a lot of homes. The business sells alcohol, snacks, lottery tickets, and grocery items.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when residents were unsure of how long the lockdown would last and whether most businesses would remain open, La Cabana experienced a demand in their products.

“At the beginning of the pandemic there was a big spike in business,” Ramirez said. “A lot of neighborhood locals came looking for things they couldn’t find at Walmart or Target like toilet paper and tortillas. I remember having to put tortillas and masa on hold for those who would call ahead of time.”

That initial spike in demand soon saw a few days of slow business which, according to Ramirez, did not affect business income all that much.

“This is a neighborhood business,” Ramirez said. “The majority of my customers are regulars who live down the street. I see a lot of them frequently. Instead of experiencing long lines at Jewel’s, they come to me.”

While Ramirez’s business did not take a big economic downturn, the business did have to adapt to the new environment in terms of social distancing and proper sanitization protocols.

“I always wear a mask and I make sure everyone who comes into my store is wearing a mask,” he said. “I have hand sanitizer available at the entrance. My wife and I try to keep the store as clean as possible. Since it’s not a big building, I try to keep the limit at no more than ten people inside at a time. I haven’t really had any issues with that.”

Joe’s Food and Liquor

Similar to La Cabana, the small, family-owned businesses like Joe’s Food and Liquor located on Lawrence Avenue in North Chicago, have experienced their own pandemic downfalls. A typical family-owned shop, the small bodega has every essential that one may need for any basic need or situation. On top of that, the little bodega has a restaurant attached to the store where they make and sell authentic Colombian food.

“This is a small family-owned business, aside from being a liquor store it’s also a restaurant,” Marco Gonzalez said. “We opened back in 2006, two years after we came to this country from Medellin, Colombia. My grandmother raised my mother, myself and also my brothers while maintaining an entire business and she always had this hardworking ambition to pursue her goal. Since she is currently no longer with us, I made a promise to her that her vision will be carried on.”

During the pandemic, there was a spike in sales. However, the restaurant was not met with the same luck.

“So due to the pandemic, it only affected us on the restaurant side due to the fact we get all of our meats and vegetables fresh every single day down in the industrial district,” Gonzalez said. “When phase one of the lockdown went into effect, we couldn’t really get the meats we needed.”

Because the bodega carries everyday essentials, the business did not struggle to stay afloat and the family hopes the restaurant side of the business, although still open, will soon go back to normal.

According to Google Trends, Mar. 2020 saw a huge increase in Google searches for the term ‘small business’.

Google Trends graphic of how many times the term “small business” was searched by users since February 2020.

As for the bodega side, we carry everyday household items so we always have things people need and we had a purpose to remain open,” Gonzalez said. “Also, because of the amount of time we have been at the location, we know all of the neighbors and people around the area and we wouldn't turn our backs on them. There was a spike in sales in certain items such as toilet paper, Clorox, and water gallon jugs.”

Because one side of the store was doing well in sales, it balanced out evenly for everyone so they left things at the restaurant on pause until further notice

“We never really changed our methods on running both sections, we’ve always kept it the same,” he said.

Along with big spikes in sales on essentials, other changes in the bodega included health and safety protocols which made a huge difference in how the small business runs.

“We sanitize tables, chairs, bathrooms, every time they’ve been used,” said Gonzalez. “Aside from working at the bodega, I’m also a contractor so I am able to use products from our office to use at our business. We always wear masks as well as gloves when cashiers are handling money. We have a nine people limit in the restaurant portion and we allow eleven in the bodega.”

Mercy’s Sweets

As businesses saw a decline in demand and some, unfortunately, came to a close, there were those who decided to take a risk and open their business in the middle of the pandemic. Mercy Hurtado, a young college entrepreneur, decided to do something that would allow her to make some extra cash as well as promote her creativity. In December of 2020, Mercy’s Sweets was born.

“I started this as a way to help my mental health,” Hurtado said. “I felt like all the things that I was doing in my life were kind of robotic.”

After experimenting with baking as a gift to her best friend, she received encouragement from those around her to take a risk and test out something new.

“I started researching and developing my business that way,” she said. “And I’ve seen a lot of people do it like in California and Las Vegas. I see a lot of Instagram pages promoting similar businesses. I didn’t know a lot of people doing it in Chicago, but lately the ‘sweets’ industry has been booming in the city.”

Because she opened her business in the middle of the pandemic, Hurtado already knew that there were safety precautions that needed to be taken in order to adhere to proper COVID-19 sanitation.

“I wash all of my dishes before starting an order to ensure that they are as clean as possible,” she said. “I use Clorox wipes to disinfect my work area. I also use an apron, gloves, and wear a mask while baking and creating any order.”

Currently, Hurtado’s business is mostly run through Instagram where she espouses its tools in order to more effectively market her products. Because she does not have a physical business location, she creates everything in her apartment where customers go and pick up their orders from.

“I know businesses are struggling right now but I am really grateful for the support I have received throughout these stressful times,” Hurtado said. “I do hope that businesses overcome the hurdles they have experienced throughout this pandemic and everything goes back to normal.”

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