Black-owned businesses on working through coronavirus and unrest

During the pandemic, Shelly Marshall knew she’d have to pivot quickly to stay afloat. Marshall co-owns Brooklyn-based Island Pops with her husband, Khalid Hamid, selling Caribbean-inspired ice cream.

“You come to a shop, sit down and have an ice cream cone and hang out with friends — that wasn’t possible during Covid,” Marshall said. “Customers had asked about us doing delivery, so we decided to offer it across Brooklyn and realized it was very popular.”

The goal was to make last year’s numbers for the seasonal business, she said. Instead the shop surpassed its goal with a 20% bump in May just from delivery over last year, at a time when restaurants in particular were experiencing historic losses.

As Marshall began to slowly reopen the store in recent weeks, protests swept not only New York City but the world over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis.

The tragic event and subsequent outcry had a surprising effect on Island Pops. The small business saw a boost in exposure as consumers moved to learn more about and support Black-owned businesses around the country.

“I hope that it lasts, because we’re truly great businesses, and we want people to know that. We hope it’s not a fad,” Marshall said. “We hope that they can come in and see us for who we are.”

Shelly Marshall co-owns Island Pops in Brooklyn, New York. Marshall and her husband leaned into delivery during the pandemic, helping to boost business.

Source: Anne Saint-Pierre

Outsized business impact, lack of aid

The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color in the U.S., who have experienced both higher illness and death rates from the disease, and more severe economic ramifications, with minority owners experiencing steeper declines in the number of working businesses in recent months.

One study found that while small businesses across the country were decimated due to Covid-19, with the number of active business owners nationwide falling by 22% over the course of February through April, Black businesses were hit hardest, with a 41% drop in working business owners. Latino business owners experienced the second-largest drop, nearly a third, and Asian-owned working businesses fell by 26%. Female-owned businesses were also disproportionately affected, falling 25%. 

“There’s enormous wealth inequality in the U.S.,” said Robert Fairlie, economics professor at University of California Santa Cruz, who authored the study. “It creates a problem of not having that savings to get that business through the 1, 2, 3, 4 months out that we’re stuck in shelter-in-place restrictions. And if that’s the case, then those businesses will shut down long term.”

The Center for Responsible Lending found that small businesses owned by people of color were also hardest hit by the limitations that were built into government pandemic aid programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program. Nearly 95% of Black-owned firms were nonemployers, meaning those business owners would be disadvantaged when applying, as their loans would generate lower fees than those of larger small businesses with employees, the study found. 

Getting creative and moving ahead

Juanita Morris owns Fashions R Boutique in Florissant, Missouri, outside of Ferguson. Morris rebuilt the store she owned for 30 years after it burned down during protests in 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. While she weathered hurdles in rebuilding in recent years and a downturn in business during the pandemic, she’s hopeful change will come from the challenges and pain being felt by many in this moment.

“Don’t give up — the main thing is when you get knocked down, the problem is you not getting back up,” said Morris, who was able to access a PPP loan for her business. “Even with me losing what I lost, I was blessed enough to get back on my feet with a lot of help. … I feel that coming out of this, there will be some good.”

At Cheeky Sandwiches on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, business also initially slowed during the pandemic. But owner Din Yates said customers showed compassion for the challenges the store was facing during limited operations.

“People would call and say, ‘Do you guys need anything?’” he said. “Before, we called it a patron-type relationship, but it became a bit closer, more like a family.”

Making use of delivery and Instagram were new for the company during the pandemic too. “This corona turned us into a new business in that sense,” Yates said.

UberEats promoted Cheeky as a Black-owned business to support as protests picked up across the country, which helped drive new customers to it in recent weeks. On Instagram on June 3, Cheeky’s posted “Thank You. Everyone. Today was the busiest day since our new bizarre existence. On a Tuesday. Sandwiched between a reminder of our past and civil strife. Our apologies if we were unable to accommodate everyone. We’re still one.”

At Island Pops, Marshall said she’s hoping the demonstrations have a lasting impact and change becomes a reality.

“We want equality and we want to live in an atmosphere, in a country where, in a world where, there’s not racist violence,” she said. “My business, I’m secondary to what the whole fight is about … there’s a greater goal here.”

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