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BRANDON — After moving here in the late 70s from Peru, Aldo Rodríguez decided to open a grocery catering to the Latino community. He called it Latin Touch.
During the early years, he and his wife Saida successfully sold hams, Inca Kolas (a popular Peruvian soda), plantains and other tropical fruits and spices from Central and South America. They learned how to make the perfect Cuban sandwich from the late Angelo Cacciatore in Ybor City, for whom they worked before starting their own business.
But now, Rodríguez has to master a new skill: operating a family business during a global pandemic with the same attitude and commitment to his loyal customers.
“Every single day is a challenge, but I’m not depressed because we don’t have time for that,” said Rodriguez, 59.
In the past three weeks, his business has experienced a substantial drop in sales. Latin Touch’s profits are down nearly 40 percent, something that hasn’t happened before in the 36 years he’s been in business, Rodríguez said.
Before the pandemic, Latin Touch typically sold around 200 Cuban sandwiches each day. These days, it’s fewer than 40.
Before, the phone rang steadily with customers placing food orders for parties and family gatherings. Now, there is an urgent silence.
“Our clients know us and know we are here to serve them,” said Rodríguez. “The problem is that money is starting to run out of people’s pockets and parties are banned.”
Rodríguez added that he used to deliver 400 loaves of Cuban bread each day. These days, if he delivers 60 loaves, it feels like a well-earned victory.
“It’s been hard for us to keep up with all the problems and major threats to our economies,” said Rodríguez. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but the economy has to run. Because if we don’t work, we don’t make money. It’s very simple.”
Meanwhile, Rodríguez has started using his savings to handle some expenses, like paying his suppliers and covering the rent. He and his wife have enough savings to cover the next three months, but nothing more, he added.
"It is hard but while we can continue and help, we will continue making all the efforts that are necessary," Rodríguez said.
According to Census estimates, nearly 30 percent of Hillsborough County residents — over 400,000 — are Hispanic. Florida has exploded with niche specialty markets, carrying merchandise targeting Cuban, Dominican, Mexican or other Latino shoppers.
A Stanford University study last year found the total number of Latino business owners in the U.S. grew by 34 percent between June 2009 and June 2019 — in stark contrast to all business owners, whose numbers grew by only 1 percent over the same period.
As businesses in all sectors are struggling to adapt to the new economic reality, Hispanic markets are moving to take-out orders and contact-free delivery.
A few blocks down Brandon Boulevard, La Familia Latin Hot Food & Grocery was recently forced to shorten its hours and reduce its workforce. Now, it only serves its most popular dishes at the take-out counter, like chicken and rice, yuca and seasoned ground beef patties.
Selling only canned and bottled goods from faraway places wouldn’t generate much extra cash right now, said owner Blennin Azcona.
“The goal is to reduce our operations cost, because we’re seeing less customers than ever. And I’m frightened.” said Azcona, 35, originally from the Dominican Republic.
Nearby, Manuel Rocha owns El Mercadito. He said his clientele is about 90 percent Hispanic, mostly from Mexico. His customers rely on him for Mexican products and services like money transfers. Prior to the pandemic, his business had been steadily growing — about 15 percent a year since he opened in 2004.
Rocha, 30, said his business is suffering deeply; sales are basically where they were when his parents opened 16 years ago.
Rocha said his customers typically like to browse his store’s inventory, order a hot meal and have a leisurely chat with the employees — something that’s now not possible because of the pandemic.
“We want to be positive because nothing is forever, but it is not simple,” said Rocha.
Two weeks ago, his family decided to reduce store hours. He now closes each day at 7 p.m. to save some money needed to pay his three employees.
"We are like a family and we will stick to the end," said Rocha. "Our clients deserve that we make an effort even though we all, absolutely all of us, are concerned about our future."
According to a new survey fielded as part of the Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways project, Hispanics “are more concerned than Americans overall about the threat the COVID-19 outbreak poses to the health of the U.S. population, their own financial situation and the day-to-day life of their local community." The survey also found that Hispanics might be more vulnerable financially than other Americans if the coronavirus forces them to stop working.
Silvestre Amador, 55, likes to shop at El Mercadito because they have fresh avocados, jalapenos and a Mexican mentholated ointment. Originally from Toluca, Mexico’s fifth largest city, Amador said he often buys his favorite El Milagro tortillas and fresh bread for his family here.
Amador lost his job a week ago at a local restaurant, but said he’s confident that in one or two months the economy will go back to normal.
“Your country’s food gives you some relief,” said Amador. "That’s what we need now in the midst of so much despair.”
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