This story was created by La Estrella de Tucsón with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a network that trains and connects journalists to cover how people respond to problems. This story is one of several exploring how COVID-19 is impacting the Tucson Latinx community, and what solutions are emerging to help. Read this story in Spanish here.
For two decades as Analy Guzman worked as an employee in several different restaurants she dreamed of having her own business serving traditional dishes from her home town in the Mexican state of Puebla — to bring something different to the Sonoran-heavy cuisine in Tucson.
In February 2019, after much hard work, persistence and convincing her own family that she could succeed in fulfilling her dream, she finally opened her food truck El Antojo Poblano on the city’s west side.
“My business is a food truck, but it’s not like any other,” she says. “My food truck is special, we pay attention to all the details. I like to have flowers on the tables because we want people to come sit and feel at home. We put out a floor, we have a cooler and it’s always clean.”
Her truck is parked in gated lot off St. Mary’s Road and pre-Covid she used silverware and real dishes to serve the cemitas, chalupas, huaraches and mole made with family recipes and immense pride and love for her culture.
“The town I’m from is called La Ceiba … where we are very proud of our roots, customs and traditions and we wanted our business to reflect that,” Guzman says. “I believe it’s our love of food from our homeland that inspires us to bring it here because when I cook, I’m not cooking for my clients, I’m cooking for my family. That’s how I think of my clients.”
As El Antojo Poblano’s first anniversary approached at the start of 2020, Guzman, whose husband, sister and kids all help run the business, was feeling pretty good about the year ahead.
“I had just said in January and February, ‘we are at that sweet spot and we’re headed upward,’” she says. “Business was starting to grow, more clients, more of everything and then in March everything fell apart.”
Like so many other businesses the last few months at El Antojo Poblano have been full of changes to operations prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including periods of time it had to close, limited hours and only offering take out.
People still kept coming to order food, but sales had declined significantly and on top of everything else someone broke in and stole the generator the truck uses for power.
“I thought ‘how are we going to work?’ This is our livelihood. I have four children in addition to our living and business expenses,” she says. “I said ‘how am I going to get by with all this happening right in the middle of a pandemic?’ That’s why I’m super grateful for the support of all the people involved in getting help to the small businesses and people who actually need it.”
Even in the best of times, small startup businesses, especially those in the food industry like Guzman’s, have a hard enough time accessing capital, says Francisca Villegas-Braker, director of the Women’s Business Center at the YWCA of Southern Arizona. The center works with anyone who wants to start and grow a business, but it primarily serves women of color and the Spanish-speaking community.
She says the strict requirements to apply for federal assistance programs meant to help small businesses impacted by the pandemic — like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan offered through the U.S. Small Business Administration — made qualifying or even applying for these programs incredibly difficult.
“The SBA loans, historically speaking they’re very rigid … they want perfect credit, perfect (files),” Villegas-Braker says. “They kind of wanted things to look really good to approve the business. Well if you think about it, landscapers, food-based businesses, bakers, hairdressers they generate a lot of revenue. They also can take a lot of cash, they might get paid 1099. ... They don’t have a perfect file to qualify for an SBA loan, so that was one of the barriers for the small businesses."
Many businesses weren’t properly set up to apply for many reasons including not having a business account and having a hard time calculating payroll if their business relied on subcontractors, Villegas-Braker says. Many micro-businesses and solopreneurs just weren’t ready to apply for those types of programs and were left struggling with declining income and no relief.
It was these businesses the City of Tucson’s mayor and council had in mind when it unanimously voted in May to allocate $2 million of federal CARES Act money to fund Small Business Continuity Grants through the We Are One/Somos Uno Resiliency Fund.
“What we saw with the Paycheck Protection Program with the federal government is that most of those funds went to larger corporations and businesses and the small mom and pops that make up the biggest portion of job creation here in the City of Tucson really were left holding the bag without any funds,” says Mayor Regina Romero. “We were very deliberate to make sure we created a program that gave priority to small locally-owned businesses that had not received PPP. Also, we wanted to make sure that there was an eye toward equity, that most vulnerable small businesses in our city had priority. We gave priority to small locally-owned, women-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned businesses within the City of Tucson and South Tucson.”
The Women’s Business Center was selected to run the application process and administer the funds for the program meant to help struggling businesses cover payroll and operating expenses.
Applications for the first round of grants opened at the end of July and a second round opened in early September. To be eligible, businesses must have fewer than 50 employees, cannot have received PPP, EIDL (excluding the EIDL advance), or Rio Nuevo Emergency Relief Funding and must be able to demonstrate economic hardship or loss of income due to the coronavirus pandemic. The grants must be used for operational expenses such as rent or payroll and cannot be used to pay sales taxes.
Depending on how much revenue businesses lost between February and May they can receive grants, which do not have to be repaid, in amounts between $2,500 to $10,000.
The Women’s Business Center created the application in both English and Spanish and simplified it as much as possible to make it easy for business owners to apply.
El Antojo Poblano owner Guzman, who reads very little in English and doesn’t write in English at all, says applying for this grant was a much easier process than other assistance programs she applied for — including one that was 17 pages long.
The center also built in technical assistance, so applicants could get help from a staff member over the phone at any stage of the process ranging from helping fill out the application online, to opening a business bank account, or registering for a federal employee identification number. Staff also made follow up calls to businesses that submitted incomplete applications to see if they could help with completing the process. Almost half of the 512 applications received so far have required some form of technical assistance.
As of Mid-September, 174 grants totaling $1 million have been funded, with nearly half of those grants going to woman-owned businesses and 36.5 percent going to minority-owned businesses.
The most number of grants, totaling $315,000 have been distributed to businesses in the city’s Ward 1, which covers the west and southwest parts of the city, an area that received very few PPP loans
This is the area where Ahydee Almazan has been running her bakery Dolce Pastello, known for its Mexican pastries, tres leches cakes and flans, inside the Mercado San Agustin since 2011.
“Before the pandemic, we had started off the year really well. I was happy because I felt like we had reached the level where we needed to be and sales were great,” she says.
The Mercado temporarily closed and businesses there were encouraged to move toward takeout only for a period of time and then the cancellations started coming on orders placed for parties and weddings.
“I have lots of weddings of people from elsewhere who come here to get married. The first couple that canceled was from New York and I said to myself ‘how could I not help this person?’ Knowing it’s out of their control, you have to be human and put yourself in their shoes,” she says. “So we refunded most of our wedding contracts and then all of the desserts and orders were reduced down much smaller in size. Everyone said ‘well, now there will only be four or six of us.’”
She cut her staff to just herself and one other employee and used savings to help sustain the business until she was approved for a Small Business Continuity Grant, which she says was her last hope to help keep her business running.
Almazan tried applying for funding through banks and other programs, but did not qualify and didn't understand why.
“It was like small businesses didn’t have access to the funding because they didn’t think we could repay the debt even though our bank statements and everything was right there,” she says.
With the money she received she was able to bring on another staff member and buy baking supplies.
The Women's Business Center also helped Almazan build a website so she could take orders online and helped her get set up on food delivery platforms like DoorDash to diversify her revenue streams.
Helping businesses make the changes needed to compete in the COVID-19 economy and getting their business files and financials in order so they are prepared to apply for future assistance programs is another way the Women's Business Center is helping its existing clients and recipients of the Small Business Continuity Grants weather the pandemic.
All grantees are required to take at least one free course of their choice offered by the center that will help strengthen their business.
“We don’t know if this (pandemic) is going to go away, when this is going to go away so we want to make sure this is not just a grant, but it’s also an opportunity to build capacity to plan for the future because we don’t know how soon we can get back to normal, if we can get back to normal,” Villegas-Braker says.
While the grant Guzman of El Antojo Poblano won was a one-time cash infusion, she is still working toward raising more funds through a Kiva crowd-funded loan to help her business with other necessary expenses during this time, she says the $10,000 grant gave her the help and hope needed to keep her dream afloat.
“Honestly, I was at the point of throwing it all away. The business needed a certain level of funding that I didn’t have,” she says adding that she applied for and had been declined for other loan programs. “When they told me I had been approved I said, “oh my god! Thank you!’ We were basically down to nothing and it looked like we might have to close and that wasn’t my plan, because I think we’ll be able to expand and become a big company.”