Anafre chef and owner Alfredo Solis. Photo courtesy of Anafre.

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The Latino Economic Development Center is doing what it can to help Latinx and Black business owners reach their full potential despite the setbacks the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. 

The District has a robust and diverse Latinx population. Nearly 80,000 people or 11.3 percent of the city’s population identify as “Hispanic or Latino,” according to 2019 Census data. Yet LEDC is one of few organizations in the District that offers bilingual programming for entrepreneurs. (Life Asset is another.) 

“It’s so hard when you’re trying to learn something in this other language,” Joan Bonilla explains. He runs Quick Catering Services and recently received training from LEDC. “You don’t get everything 100 percent. It’s very, very special, the LEDC teaching in our language.” 

Latinx-owned businesses are a key driver of the American economy. A 2019 Stanford University study found that the number of new Latinx-owned businesses continues to outpace the U.S. average. Over the past decade, the number of Latinx business owners nationally grew 34 percent, compared to 1 percent for all business owners nationally. 

According to the recent American University study “Assessing Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Latino-Owned Businesses in the DC-Metro Region,” there are 66,000 Hispanic-owned enterprises within the D.C. metro area, which represents 12 percent of all businesses in the region.

Despite the rapid growth, most of these businesses are small and have less access to capital than their white-owned counterparts—and during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these businesses have suffered. Local organizations like LEDC have stepped up to offer creative ways to help them survive. 

Founded in 1991, LEDC provides training, guidance, and funding for small businesses and residents in underserved communities. (In addition to trainings for business owners, LEDC also works with individuals on housing support.) Of LEDC’s 4,000 clients, nearly 90 percent are Black and Latinx. During COVID-19, LEDC has been helping entrepreneurs apply for government assistance like Paycheck Protection Program loans, but the results aren’t always fair or equitable. 

In May, UNIDOS US and Color of Change released its “Federal Stimulus Survey Findings” highlighting the disparities in federal assistance for small businesses helmed by people of color. A small business was defined as an entity whose annual revenue is less than $7 million. 

Only 8 percent of Black small business owners and 14 percent of Latinx SBOs received the full amount of requested assistance, although 51 percent of Black and Latinx SBOs applied for loans of less than $20,000. The survey found that 21 percent of these businesses were still waiting to hear back about assistance, while 41 percent had received no aid at all.

Omar Velasco, LEDC’s director of small business development and lending, saw this disparity firsthand when helping clients apply for PPP loans. “Setting aside the fact that minority-owned businesses might not have access to information and resources as easy as white-owned businesses—mainly due to language barriers—minority-owned businesses tend to be also low-income businesses,” he says. “Many of them don’t have the administrative infrastructure to quickly provide financial information and complete the required paperwork.”

LEDC has also been helping its clients through its Food Venture Initiative, a bilingual program started in 2019 to help Latinx residents and other underrepresented groups in the local food and hospitality industries. The first iteration of the program worked with entrepreneurs to develop, test, and formalize a business venture. The nonprofit provides mentorship and workshops on topics such as credit building and financial literacy, as well a food manager course.

The 2020 Food Venture Initiative was already on the calendar when COVID-19 hit, but as cases ticked up and concern grew, LEDC, like many other organizations, pivoted to provide virtual training and assistance. 

Velasco surveyed clients about their pandemic-related needs and created a new curriculum, focusing on social media engagement, lease negotiations, and setting “a strategic mindset for the new normal.” While the Food Venture Initiative is free to program participants, LEDC relies on external funding for the program, such as a $30,000 grant from Capital Impact’s Good Food Fund in 2020.

The 2020 program took place virtually this August in weekly Spanish and English webinars. Recordings are available on LEDC’S YouTube account. LEDC also provided 10 businesses—Anafre, Backyard Smokespot BBQ, Esencias Panameñas Restaurant & Catering, FroZenYo, Open Crumb, Quick Catering Services, Simple Bar & Grill, Sommer Street Pizza, Tsehay Ethiopian, and Veg Andes—with free consulting on their most urgent needs. 

Several of these businesses shared how they’re operating a food business during a volatile and unpredictable time in D.C. They’re facing a reduction in consumer demand, a lack of capital, and a need for guidance in pivoting their businesses to stay afloat.

ANAFRE

Anafre, a Mexican seafood restaurant on 14th Street NW, closed at the onset of the pandemic so owner Alfredo Solis could evaluate his options. “We initially closed Anafre because the concept is so different from the other restaurants that we needed to take a step back and figure out what we wanted to do,” Solis says. “We reopened in May to a good reception, but the food at Anafre is not as casual, and we were still seeing most of our business only on the weekends.” Solis, who also owns Mezcalero and El Sol, reached out to LEDC for the first time this year to seek assistance on securing a PPP loan. 

Solis says one of the main reasons he sought out LEDC training was to learn how to market his business better. “My business wasn’t doing as well as I had hoped,” he says. “Even with great critical recognition and press, it was difficult shifting to this new climate … LEDC also showed me I could use this time to think more creatively and try some things that I’ve wanted to do for a while.” Although Solis is still in the middle of his training, he’s looking forward to applying what he’s learned from his sessions. 

Chef Yadira Stamp. Photo courtesy of Yadira Stamp.

ESENCIAS PANAMEÑAS RESTAURANT & CATERING

In 2019, after Chef Yadira Stamp‘s landlord nearly doubled her lease from $6,695 to $12,000 per month, Stamp shut down the restaurant portion of her business, Esencias Panameñas, and focused on its catering arm, while also building out a Panamanian cuisine delivery service that ships products such as corn empanadas and Panamanian tamales to addresses across the country.

Now, her various business entities are being economically impacted by the pandemic. Stamp lost 65 percent of her catering bookings, and delivery services like UPS and FedEx aren’t able to guarantee precise delivery dates, which is problematic for perishable food. “Until I can get back to shipping my products, my business will continue to be at a loss,” Stamp tells City Paper in an email. Stamp attended LEDC’s webinars hoping for ideas on how to address these shipping issues. 

LEDC can only offer businesses so much support because of its limited funding. Velasco estimates that the minimum cost to run the program in its current format—around 20 hours of one-on-one consulting for 10 businesses—is between $20,000 and $30,000, which goes towards consultant fees (lawyer fees run high) and other related expenses. “We try to accommodate the program to the budget or the budget to the program,” he says.

Peter Opare. Photo by Laura Hayes.

OPEN CRUMB

To Peter Opare, LEDC is practically part of his family. In the early 1990s, the organization gave his parents, Tony and Abigail Opare, a loan to open a coffee shop, Café Dio Opare, in Adams Morgan, launching the couple’s career in the D.C. restaurant industry. The family also ran Ghana Cafe on 14th Street NW until its closure in 2014. Earlier this year, LEDC helped Peter, now the chef and owner of Open Crumb in Anacostia, secure a PPP loan for his restaurant.

Peter is working again with LEDC, this time with a marketing consultant through the Food Venture Initiative. “We’re really excited about the marketing assistance, especially because previously, we were going to reach out to a marketer and get our own consultant, but because of financial reasons, we couldn’t do that at the moment,” he says. “I’m just really happy that they are there to provide this assistance to us businesses.”

QUICK CATERING SERVICES

After closing his business for five months due to the pandemic, Joan Bonilla is now researching the extensive reopening requirements of D.C., Maryland, and Northern Virginia for catering companies like Quick Catering Services, which he has owned and operated with his wife since 2015. 

A few years ago, Bonilla attended an accounting training at LEDC. In August, he watched the Food Venture Initiative webinars. In both cases, Bonilla was able to learn in Spanish, his native language. Bonilla is also working with LEDC to apply for a loan and hopes to streamline how he runs Quick Catering. 

“I know it’s a hard situation for everyone; it’s also [hard] for us,” Bonilla says. “But I think it’s the right moment to learn more about the rules, the licenses. But we’re here, you know. Many, many businesses have had to close and never come back. We’re still here.”

SOMMER STREET PIZZA

Before the pandemic, London Sommer Hitchman served his lactose-free pizzas at distilleries and breweries around the District. When those venues closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, he started selling and delivering frozen versions of his pizzas. But since Sommer Street Pizza had only existed as a pop-up, Hitchman was looking for ways to increase his business’s visibility and, in turn, viability.

A few months ago, Hitchman received a grant through LEDC for Sommer Street Pizza, which led him to reconnect with the organization. LEDC set up Hitchman with a marketing consultant, who worked with him on branding and packaging his pizzas and his pizza sauce, which he makes in-house and tops each Sommer Street pizza with. 

“It’s been great to get that feedback and bounce those ideas off someone at this time,” Hitchman says. “I think what we all know is that it’s not going back to the way it was.”