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In Clearwater, Latino business owners feel effects of pandemic

The five business sectors most impacted by the COVID crisis create almost 50 percent of the revenues of Latino-owned businesses, according to a McKinsey report.
Erica Ventura Catalan, 37, owner of Salinas Produce, works in the store unpacking goods to shelve. Catalan and her husband have been running the shop for about five years and say business has been steady but since the pandemic, customers have stopped doing their heaviest shopping there, opting for big retailers like Walmart where they can shop while receiving government assistance. Those who do shop at Salinas Produce often ask for discounts or credit which Catalan can’t afford to give. “They wouldn’t ask for that at Walmart,” she said, on Monday, October 4, 2021 in Clearwater.
Erica Ventura Catalan, 37, owner of Salinas Produce, works in the store unpacking goods to shelve. Catalan and her husband have been running the shop for about five years and say business has been steady but since the pandemic, customers have stopped doing their heaviest shopping there, opting for big retailers like Walmart where they can shop while receiving government assistance. Those who do shop at Salinas Produce often ask for discounts or credit which Catalan can’t afford to give. “They wouldn’t ask for that at Walmart,” she said, on Monday, October 4, 2021 in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 5

The man knocked on doors in the neighborhood, making a circuit between the duplexes facing each other.

“Good evening,” Pablo Trejo said after a woman opened the door. People had slowly started to gather outside his van as he knocked on the doors. In the back of his van were tamales, conchas, doughnuts and many varieties of pan dulce.

“Good evening,” she responded.

“Would you like some bread?” he asked her.

Trejo leaves his store, Panaderia Mi Mexico, in the evenings and spends a few hours driving through the neighborhoods of Clearwater in search of more customers to buy his pastries. He began to work as a baker during the financial crisis of 2008. There weren’t any jobs, he said, and he decided to work for some friends that sold bread. Now, with a bakery of his own, Trejo had to survive another financial crisis — and support his employees — relying on his baked goods.

Fresh-baked pastries are shown at Panaderia Mi Mexico on Monday in Clearwater.
Fresh-baked pastries are shown at Panaderia Mi Mexico on Monday in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Trejo opened his store a few months before the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread shutdowns across the United States. He tried to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but he said he wasn’t able to obtain one because his business was too young. Now, in order to be able to pay all his costs, he is selling his products in the streets as well.

“The sales aren’t the same,” Trejo said one August evening in his store in Clearwater as he stood in front of a fan, covered in sweat, while the smell of conchas floated through the store. Post-pandemic, business has been harder to come by, he said, but when he goes to neighborhoods to sell his products he can earn $500-$600 in one night.

According to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 4.7 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States, and those businesses contribute more than $800 billion to the economy each year.

But the five business sectors most impacted by the pandemic account for almost half of the revenues of Latino-owned businesses, according to a McKinsey report. Those sectors include hospitality, retail, transportation, construction and a catchall “other” category of assorted business sectors. In Clearwater, on a stretch of Drew Street where many businesses are owned by Mexican immigrants, the business owners feel these effects.

Since 2018, Mario Hernandez has maintained La Huasteca Mexican Food & Produce. With higher unemployment in his community since COVID, many of his customers don’t come anymore, he said, and others are afraid of getting sick. He said he asked for a loan from his brother to survive the pandemic.

“It’s affected us so much,” he said from his store. “It’s affected the whole world.”

Mario Hernandez, 42, owner of La Huasteca Mexican Food and Produce, poses for a portrait in his store on Monday in Clearwater.
Mario Hernandez, 42, owner of La Huasteca Mexican Food and Produce, poses for a portrait in his store on Monday in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Salinas Produce owner Erica Ventura Catalan said some of her customers go to large stores to buy groceries when they have food stamps, so lately she’s seen sales drop.

“With the pandemic, it’s gone down a bit,” she said. The store’s main source of revenue right now is its hot food items, she said.

As a researcher for the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., Jorge González-Hermoso has examined the impact of the pandemic in Latino-owned businesses.

Latinos are underrepresented in business ownership, he said. Even though they make up 16 percent of the adult population, they only own 6 percent of businesses that have employees, González-Hermoso said.

Latino-owned businesses have been more vulnerable during the pandemic because they’re concentrated in accommodation and food service, he said. And, according to González-Hermoso, many Latino-owned businesses are new.

“When it comes to access to capital, it’s harder for them to access small-business loans, because these are younger firms, these are smaller firms,” he said. Furthermore, many Latino business owners don’t have connections with financial institutions that can help them with PPP loans, González-Hermoso said.

For 12 years, José Hernandez and his wife, Josefina De La Cruz, saved money. They had worked as restaurant employees, but they wanted to run their own business. In February 2020, they realized their dream and opened Taqueria Viva Mexico. But two weeks later, the pandemic hit Tampa Bay, and sales dropped.

“People stopped coming,” Hernandez said. “So I don’t know, unfortunately, how busy we should be or what type of business we’re supposed to do.”

Jose Hernandez, co-owner of Taqueria Viva Mexico, poses for a portrait on Monday, October 4, 2021 in Clearwater.
Jose Hernandez, co-owner of Taqueria Viva Mexico, poses for a portrait on Monday, October 4, 2021 in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Hernandez said he wasn’t able to obtain a PPP loan because his business was too new. Before the pandemic, he began work at 4 a.m., he said, but now he opens his doors at 11 a.m.

Many people don’t have jobs anymore and can’t afford the luxury of eating at restaurants, Hernandez said. But even more, he said, Red Tide has impacted his business.

“Some people come and say … ‘We have to leave because Red Tide is too high and we can’t stay here,’” Hernandez said.

González-Hermoso, of the Urban Institute, said that to help Latino-owned businesses, it’s important to expand access to capital, raise awareness about aid programs and support nonprofits that help Latino business owners.

Even though Latino businesses have faced some challenges, their numbers have grown since the Great Recession, González-Hermoso said. Between 2007 and 2012, Latino-owned businesses grew by 46 percent, while the total number of U.S. companies only increased by 2 percent.

“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit among the Latino community,” González-Hermoso said.

A Mexican flag flies from the storefront of a company nestled among other businesses along Drew Street, an area heavy with Latino-owned businesses, Monday in Clearwater.
A Mexican flag flies from the storefront of a company nestled among other businesses along Drew Street, an area heavy with Latino-owned businesses, Monday in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]