'We are still here': Siler City’s Hispanic businesses stay afloat despite little aid

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SILER CITY — To Siler City beauty salon owner Yazmín Hernández, Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to reopen businesses came as a great relief.

“I had been thinking about looking for a temporary job to be able to support myself and my business,” she said. “Economically, wow. (Being able to reopen) was one of the best things that happened to me after the pandemic began.”

Like Hernández, many Hispanic business owners in Siler City struggled to stay afloat and secure federal coronavirus aid during and after North Carolina’s stay-at-home order. Yet despite receiving little aid, several Hispanic business owners in Siler City found ways to innovate and survive.

Hernández owns Estética Yaz, a beauty salon on North Fir Avenue. She’d originally worked in Archdale but moved to Siler City and opened up her salon in early February.

“Hardly after being open a month, I had to close,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God.’”

But she was able to keep working: She also handles money transfers and other financial services considered essential at her salon. People can go to her salon to pay telephone bills and send remittances back home.

“It’s not like I made a lot of money in that aspect because my main business is my beauty salon,” she said. “This (financial services) is something extra.”

To move to Siler City, she took out several loans that she’s still paying, and the commissions she earned from her financial services haven’t provided much.

“So, yes, (the pandemic) affected me a lot in everything since I’d hardly just opened,” she said, adding, “But we’re moving forward little by little.”

After reopening in late May, Hernández said she’s begun to see more and more clients come in. Everything’s done by appointment, and she estimated that the maximum number of people she sees in a day is around 12.

“I try not to have many people because I don’t want the salon to turn into a center of infection,” she said, adding, “I try to follow everything they say about checking temperatures, cleaning after every client and not having many people concentrated in one place.”

Leo Davalos-Nuño and his wife Aidee own a Mexican restaurant called Rojo Canela on East Third Street in Siler City. There they serve family recipes in a restaurant that Davalos-Nuño said “looks like a house.” If you’re not careful, he added, you could drive right by it.

For Davalos-Nuño, the pandemic came as an unwelcome sequel to a previous misfortune: In May 2018, Third Street closed for around eight months and hurt Rojo Canela’s bottom line.

“At the beginning, we were selling like anywhere from $800 to $1,400 a day,” Davalos-Nuño said. “Then when they closed the street, it went down to $600. And then it kept going down and down and down because they sent the traffic to the next street.”

And then COVID-19 struck.

Following Gov. Cooper’s stay-at-home order in March, Rojo Canela closed its in-door dining and switched to fulfilling take-out orders.

“Sometimes we would only sell like $80 or $50 (in a day),” Davalos-Nuño said.

They also had to let go of their remaining employees, and Davalos-Nuño said he doesn’t think he’ll earn even half of the revenue Rojo Canela earned during their first year in Siler City.

But since North Carolina reopened restaurants at half capacity, he said business has picked back up. They’re now selling between $250 to $400 a day in take-out orders, and some customers even leave generous tips. In fact, Davalos-Nuño said one customer bought a meal for around $13 but left a check for $200.

On South Chatham Avenue, Luis Armando Lucas owns a small shop called Tres Estrellas. A friend, who had owned and operated the shop for 12 years, signed it over to him last October, and he’s been managing it ever since.

Tres Estrellas offers a little bit of everything: People can wire money to different countries, pay their bills and reload their phones. They also sell sporting goods, athletic clothing, Bibles and “things from different places.”

“We fulfill orders,” he said. “More than anything, people come, and if what they’re looking for isn’t here, we order it.”

Since they provide essential financial services and sell food, Lucas said they never had to close the shop under the stay-at-home order. But, he added, it’s been difficult.

“There are highs and lows,” he said. “Sometimes there’s business and other times there’s definitely not any.”

The most difficult months were March and April, he said.

“There were no people,” he said. “People were scared and panicking. In March and April, we were open, but there wasn’t much movement.”

It began to improve in May, he said, after the governor partially lifted the stay-at-home order.

“Purchases have begun to normalize again,” he said, “but there’s still not as much movement as we were hoping for.”

‘Nothing, nothing, nothing’

In mid-July, Camino Financial, an online financial institution, released its quarterly U.S. Latinx Small Business Survey. The survey, which compiled data from all across the country, concluded that many Hispanic businesses are “in a credit crunch caused by a disproportionate lack of access to government relief funds and other lines of credit.”

According to the survey, 70% of Hispanic businesses had to close at some point during the first half of 2020, and sales declined for 80%.

“Latinx-owned businesses get the short end of government business relief,” the survey further explained. “Lack of technical and financial support withheld Latinx-owned businesses from relief funds,” such as the COVID-19 Small Business Administration loan programs funded by Congress in late March.

All three Hispanic entrepreneurs in Siler City applied or tried to apply for such loans, but only one managed to get any funds.

Hernández tried to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, a forgivable loan of up to $10 million intended to help employers retain their employees. Since she’s self-employed, she wasn’t eligible to apply for the program until about a week after it had opened.

And then funds ran out. After Congress infused more money into the PPP, she tried to put in an application online and over the phone without success.

“They told me they were going to call me, but they never did,” she said. “And well I tried three times to call, but sometimes I was waiting for up to two hours online and nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Likewise, Lucas wanted to apply for a PPP loan, but he was told he didn’t qualify because of the “time” he had.

“I think the majority of Hispanic businesses didn’t qualify for being very small,” he said. “It wasn’t so much what they are or what they report or those kinds of things.”

“Those that qualified,” Lucas added, “it could be that the government only helped them a little bit.”

That was Rojo Canela’s experience.

Davalos-Nuño applied for and received a PPP loan of just over $3,200. They couldn’t get more, he added, because they didn’t have all the necessary documentation and they paid employees by check.

“We only had the proof of the checks,” he said, “but they wouldn’t take the checks as proof of having people working for us.”

He said he’d seen many large companies collecting what they needed to survive and even some returning the money.

“People like us, we need it,” he added, “but we only get $3,000.”

‘We’re still walking’

To stay afloat, Hernández and Davalos-Nuño found ways to cut costs or generate more income.

Davalos-Nuño began doing what he could to cut restaurant costs, including turning to more efficient cleaning measures to cut his water bill down to a fifth of what it was pre-pandemic.

Likewise, Hernández collected cleaning and household supplies – like toilet paper, snacks and hand sanitizer – and sold them to customers “without exaggerating the prices.” She also began to sell phone cases and masks, which she still sells now even after reopening.

“If you simply can’t earn income one way, you’ve got to find another way,” she said. “It was like we mobilized ourselves in all that we could.”

Davalos-Nuño said he’s optimistic despite lower income and fears over contracting COVID-19.

“I will be here and serve the people with quality and friendliness,” he said. “And I’ll be here as long as I need to be.”

Hernández said she’s working nearly seven days a week to pay off her loans as quickly as possible.

“You never know what’s going to happen in December or January with flu season coming up,” she said. “Sometimes it looks positive. Other times it looks a bit negative.”

Lucas said his shop will finish the year with a negative balance, but he said they’re surviving.

“But well, thanks to God, we are still here,” he said. “We’re still walking. We don’t give up so easily.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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