While it may seem like business is back to normal in San Francisco, with shops open and restaurants once again offering indoor dining, some of the Mission’s Latino-owned businesses have never stopped struggling since the March 2020 shutdown.
“Monetarily it’s been terrible, most of my clientele are gone…I’m living off my savings,” said Einstein Paredes, who owns Latin American Barbershop, located on 24th Street, with his business partner Jonathan Hernandez. “All I’m doing is paying off my bills.”
Paredes and Hernandez spent $40,000 to open his barbershop in March 2021, but have worked as barbers at other shops for years. Compared to 2019, Paredes’ has 75 percent fewer clients, dropping from 100 clients a week down to roughly 25. Many of his former customers have moved, according to Paredes, either to different neighborhoods or out of the city, and now Paredes nearly breaks even between the cost of signage, hair products, and rent. Paredes even recently classified his business as a Limited Liability Corporation to avoid financial ruin if his shop goes under.
“I had a client who moved to the Marina, he’s not going to come to the Mission for a haircut, he’s getting one somewhere else, haircuts are a dime a dozen now,” Paredes said.
Paredes is hardly alone in having fewer customers due to COVID. Francisco De La Torre, owner of Regalito Rosticeria on 18th Street, said that running his restaurant continues to be difficult due to mandated socially distanced seating. Even with outdoor seating in parklets, seating has effectively reduced by one third, a significant handicap in an industry which was operating on razor-thin margins even before the pandemic.
“It has changed 90 percent of the business…economically there’s no business around, even now, there’s not that much. It’s going to take a little bit to come back to normal,” De La Torre said. “Capacity inside used to be 50, now we’ve turned it into 20 people inside, and we have a patio outside…I have 12 seats [there] right now.”
In the face of dire financial straits during the pandemic’s darkest days, many business owners in the Mission sought financial aid during the pandemic, but some faced roadblocks in getting relief including language barriers and dealing with the bureaucratic crawl of the Small Business Administration during the roll-out of the Payroll Protection Program.
Ariel Balam, owner of Mayan restaurant Mi Yucatan on Mission Street, faced substantial barriers with getting financial aid both at the local and federal level, needing assistance with the application process due to his limited English skills.
Balam secured a $15,000 grant after applying six times, but was unable to secure a PPP loan due to delays from the SBA in processing his application. Despite being eligible for a $130,000 forgivable loan, Balam never saw a penny, as the program had run out of funds by the time their application was reviewed. Balam has still not received updates on his application, and when he tries to log in to review his application, nothing shows up.
Erick Arguello, president of the council at Calle24, has helped small businesses near 24th Street and the surrounding area between 22nd and Cesar Chavez Streets apply for aid during the pandemic. Arguello said that many owners of businesses in the Cultural District have a fundamental lack of trust in the government and other large institutions such as banks, which has made it harder for them to qualify for and accept financial assistance.
“It’s cash, under the table, and a lot of the time with these loans, everything needs to be documented…It’s like, ‘are they going to shut me down because I pay my employees cash?’” Arguello said. “It’s also big government….they come from countries where the government has not been helpful to them, so they come here not trusting this government, especially with the Donald Trump era and anti-immigrant rhetoric. It all adds up to ‘keep your head down, just work hard, don’t be seen, and try to survive.’”
Adding to the struggles faced by business recently is pervasive inflation that has driven the cost of business up, making everything from hair gel to food more expensive, with business owners having to transfer that cost to customers. At Mi Yucatan, popular dishes such as Poc Chuc and Panucho have risen from $3.50 and $15 respectively to $5.50 and $18, which has frustrated some of their customers.
“A lot of people who come in think that we’re taking advantage of people, but we’re not, we’re just trying to make ends meet. We would have to buy meat that’s, like, $30 per pound and then try to make profits out of that,” said Balam through a translator.
Even as businesses try to survive the ongoing impacts of COVID, the new Omicron COVID-19 variant has driven concerns of a potential second shutdown among some of the Mission’s business owners, an existential threat to those already on the precipice of closure.
“They’re saying not to worry about [Omicron], but I am worried about it…if the city or the state is going to close, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Paredes said.
The Omicron variant has been a worrying sign for many that the pandemic may be here to stay for quite a while. As San Franciscans settle into this new normal, some business owners are left wondering if the pandemic has caused their customers to change their habits, with those who can afford to go out to eat or get a haircut continuing to work remotely, in turn becoming less focused going out into the community for errands and leisure, instead having their needs delivered to their doorstep or even decoupling from the Mission altogether.
“People are at home, a lot of my clients are techies, they’re either moving out or they’re waiting to go back to the office,” Paredes said. “I think people are disconnected, in every way. We’ve done the email blast, we’ve called our clients…Two or three of my clients moved to LA, it’s nicer, it’s cooler, and I get it, you know? San Francisco is upside down, they see the homelessness, they what’s going on in the city and they want to get out. I get it.”