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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Rainer Avenue Businesses Face Challenges, Remain Resilient As COVID Struggles Continue

Theo and Gaelyn Martin, owners of Island Soul Restaurant in Columbia City say that COVID has taught them a “whole new way to do business.”

By Cliff Cawthon, The Seattle Medium

Many of the longtime family-owned businesses along Rainier Avenue are iconic, and during the pandemic many of them have been finding innovative ways to stay afloat. Before the pandemic, many of these businesses were concerned about displacement due to gentrification and the rise in rent and property values in the area. Small, Black-owned businesses were particularly vulnerable to these changes due to a history of financial discrimination. During the pandemic, according to the Seattle Times’ reporting in November, forty percent of Black business owners nationally reported closures to their businesses or were unable to re-open.

In Seattle, many Black business owners say that what is happening national, has been happening locally and it has forced them to adapt.

Theo Martin, owner of Island Soul restaurant, one of Seattle’s most well-regarded Black-owned restaurants, says that the pandemic has taught him about a “whole new way to do business.” According to Martin, part of this business transformation required a massive re-organization of his storefront, which also highlights the disconnect between minority businesses and government relief programs.

Martin says that up until now community support more than government assistance has kept his business afloat. Martin had purchased tents to allow him to provide outside dining during the pandemic, and lost five of them due to weather conditions and one to arson. After the loss of his first tent to an act of arson, Martin says donations flooded in and a lady from the Eastside set up a Go Fund Me account for him after he lost two more tents due to the weather.

“She saw my tent in the street and called me and asked, ‘I saw that you lost two tents, how much does a tent cost’ and I said ‘$500 each’ and next thing I know that there was a $1000 check,” recalled Martin.

Despite financial assistance and support from the community, Martin, who is accustomed to re-investing in his business, says that he learned a valuable lesson about leveraging public resources that can help him during these trying times. Martin says that he is now taking advantage of a program that will reimburse his business for expenditures like PPE, tents, or other needs during the pandemic. He also learned about a Temporary Dining Permit program from the City of Seattle, which was free to apply for and it has made things viable for him in the interim.

“I was the first [business owner] on Rainier to put out tents. It was an investment from my own money,” says Martin. “There’s are new [small business relief program] now and this is the first time I am taking advantage of it.

While Martin has been able to weather the storm, other businesses along Rainier Avenue have not been so lucky. The Royal Esquires’ Club, a private, members-only association that also operates as an event space, has remained closed since last March.

On March 11th, Washington State’s Governor Jay Inslee announced that the state would be moving to phase three from phase two on March 31st. For businesses that means that they can welcome business at fifty percent capacity. This applies to all industries and indoor activities currently allowed; restaurants, gyms and fitness centers and movie theaters, among others, may all increase their capacity. For counties across Washington, if their Intensive Care Unit capacity goes above 90% then the county will move back into phase two.

Esquire Club President Roberto Jourdan says that the club also houses a small restaurant/café called the Comfort Zone that has been impacted by the pandemic. When asked if the shift to a statewide phase three re-opening status would help, Jourdan said that, “as the governor has lessened restrictions…[the comfort zone] has several tables available to eat but we [The Esquire Club will] remain shut down.”

According to Jourdan, regulating which members may have access to the venue at fifty percent capacity is an issue that may result in some of his clientele being turned off, or at the very least cumbersome to address. Other venues such as, theaters and restaurants and smaller niche stores, have created a limited reservation model; however Jourdan noted that, “in order for those models to work there has to be a larger charge to make reservations” and he was concerned about making the price of admission prohibitively expensive. Jourdan is currently considering virtual meetings for events, as he has been conducting virtual meetings with club-members and his business partners.

Jourdan did note that the club did take advantage of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant which is administered by the city and allowed them to “pay for the light bills.” According to Jourdan, they have received requests to re-open, but the organization wants to “do it the right way to make sure everyone is safe, and no one is turned away.”

Tess Thomas, the owner and operator of Emma’s BBQ, echoed Martin’s sentiments. Thomas says that she was taking precautions due to rising concerns about the possibility of a viral outbreak back in late 2019 before the first U.S. Covid-19 case landed in Washington State in January 2020.

Due to COVID, Thomas’ business is open only three days a week. While her walk-in business is down, Thomas says that delivery services have helped stay afloat during the current COVID restrictions.

“When I heard that [my] age group was at risk, being a family business, I limited Emma’s to the three day,” says Thomas. “Now, we’re staying at those three days because, of the coronavirus variants and the resurgence [in cases].

“Moving to a three-day window and using the various delivery services, such as to move products out has kept [us] in business, however, it has not been the same,” added Thomas. “When you have a business, where you can have walk-in traffic, it’s not the same and it has impacted sales.”

Historically, Black communities and other communities of color have faced barriers to building credit and wealth due to discriminatory lending, housing, and banking practices as well as a racial employment gap and discrimination. These disparities have led to Black businesses being sensitive to these systemic economic shocks. 

Coronavirus relief programs, such as the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development’s disaster assistance programs have been put into place to address the needs of small businesses, like Emma’s BBQ; however, on the local and federal level the implementation of these programs have left many small, Black-owned businesses behind. From a federal perspective, “roughly 95 % of Black owned businesses were left out of the federal paycheck protection program” according to a study cited by the Tabor 100, a local Black business group. In order to help address these disparities, Tabor 100 has set up a Black Business Equity Fund.

Emma’s BBQ is one business that was able to benefit from the Federally administered Paycheck Protection Program. Thomas said that it was difficult to access and qualify for the program, and based on her experiences “these [relief programs] weren’t as forthcoming to African American businesses as they were to others.”

“The way things work in American society is that if you don’t have crystal clear credit and books with every I dotted and T crossed then, you are going to be excluded from these programs,” says Thomas. “It’s sad, you’ve been a presence for four years in Hillman City and then you can’t take advantage of the resources available. I’m going to take a stab at another [federal] small business loan. The deadline is at the end of the month.”

There are city and state resources available for small businesses who are experiencing issues with tax payments who need to make changes to keep their business running. If you are applying for a small business loan or coronavirus relief, the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of commerce have setup online platforms to provide the public with information on these programs. For information on the Tabor 100’s Black Business Equity fund one can visit, www.tabor100.org/bbef.

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