I knew this was going to be bad. Two days before Andrew Cuomo ordered the shutdown of all restaurants, I gathered my 39 staff members at Her Name Was Carmen, my restaurant and bar in New York City, and I told them we had to adapt to the changes the coronavirus would bring.
Being an immigrant entrepreneur from Colombia in New York means you have to be proactive, and try to anticipate what might come next: from a new trend to a pandemic.
That’s why when I heard that the United States federal government was giving US$350 billion in loans to help small businesses like mine, I immediately got in touch with my bank to make sure I had everything in place to receive the funds from the paycheck protection program. On 1 April, I registered with Chase to make sure I could apply as soon as the scheme opened two days later.
The way the government’s Small Business Administration disburses these loans, which are intended for companies with fewer than 500 workers, is through regular commercial banks such as Chase, Bank of America and Citibank.
As I was getting ready to file my application, I was really happy I had picked a big, well-known bank to be the custodian of my finances, especially now they were in charge of processing my loan application. Back home, I got screwed over many times by local banks, so when I moved here I picked Chase because I thought: these guys I can trust. At least I thought so.
Days went past and I didn’t hear anything from the bank. My business partner and I started getting anxious. I sent multiple emails to Chase and heard nothing from them. Finally, on 7 April, they got back to me and I applied. I was positive it would all end well. Then silence.
Days later I read that the US$350 billion fund was running out of cash. I was panicking. My stress levels were hitting new highs. To make things worse, I found out that big restaurant chains like Shake Shack, Potbelly Sandwich and Ruth’s Hospitality Group, which employ thousands of people, had received tens of millions of dollars in federal money. Guess who gave them the loan? Yes, JPMorgan Chase. (Shake Shack has since returned the money.)
On 17 April, Chase sent me an email with this subject line: “The SBA has committed all the funds from the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program.”
I lost it. How is it possible that Shake Shack and many other mega-chains got millions of dollars, and small restaurateurs like me, who collectively provide jobs for millions of people, were left with nothing?
I’m not angry with Danny Meyer, who founded Shake Shack, or the others, for that matter. In many ways, Danny is a role model for people like me who are just starting in this world. I also get that Danny and other owners of mega-chains are doing everything possible to save their businesses and help their employees. I get that. But Shake Shack and others like them have plenty of avenues to access liquidity. They don’t need to get money from our pot.
What angers me even more is that Chase let me down. I trusted them and they failed me. Friends who applied through small community banks you’ve probably never heard of had much better luck than I did.
In the meantime, my business is struggling like never before.
The dancefloor in the basement of my restaurant is shut – and it could take months or years before people start grooving there to Latin American reggaeton again. Meanwhile, our high-end restaurant has turned into an affordable takeaway. Initially it was a disaster: most people have plenty of time to cook from home these days. Luckily, through Instagram we are now getting donations from our followers who are keen to buy a meal for healthcare workers. These donations keep those on the frontline of the war against Covid-19 fed, and five people employed at Her Name Was Carmen.
It’s not much, but the 1,000 meals a week we make keep five New York families alive. That’s while we wait for Congress to replenish the SBA loan program, hoping this time round they will actually help small businesses.
Her Name Was Carmen pays taxes like every other legitimate business. Whatever the government can give struggling companies should be divided in an equitable way. We aren’t asking for special treatment. We ask to be treated fairly.