Your favorite pho shop, taqueria or Korean barbecue may not make it through the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis. But the leaders of business improvement districts in two very different parts of the city are doing everything they can to help owners stay afloat, and save some of this city's flavor in the process.
Leslie Twarogowski, executive director of the Federal Boulevard Business Improvement District, and Chance Horiuchi, executive director of the On Havana Street business improvement district in Aurora, are offering guidance to establishments in their BIDs on how to adapt to current government restrictions and also get back to a sense of normalcy as stay-at-home orders are lifted.
The two BIDs vary in size and scope, but both have a high percentage of restaurants and bars, and both encompass a diverse group of business owners representing many cultures. The Federal Boulevard BID is the smallest in Denver, according to Twarogowski, stretching only from West 22nd to West 27th Avenue (but also including businesses at West 25th Avenue and Eliot Street). Nearly half of the businesses in the BID are food- and beverage-related, including bars, restaurants, coffee shops, markets and bakeries. In contrast, On Havana Street is one of the largest BIDs in the country, with over 120 restaurants and bars out of a total of more than 500 businesses.
Despite the differences of their BIDS, the directors face similar challenges in language barriers and lack of access to funding. Twarogowski points out that most federal, state and city relief funds have been funneled through banks, and if business owners don't have close relationships with bankers or loan officers, or if the paperwork and application process prove too confusing, they're shut off from the possibility of receiving economic aid. Fortunately, she's been able to make about $20,000 available to businesses in the BID to help with bills, payroll and other operating expenses.
"My hope is to bring attention to the fact than many of these minority- and women-owned small businesses are being overlooked," Twarogowski explains. Small restaurants like Araujo's (at 2900 West 26th Avenue) and Taqueria Mi Pueblo (at 2300 Federal Boulevard) lack the resources to get the word out that they're still open through social media or advertising, she says, but at least the BID can help them figure out how to connect with their mortgage companies and other creditors. (Both restaurants at least own their buildings, she notes.)
The Federal Boulevard BID typically hosts several events during the year, but this summer's Farm & Flea dates, which give businesses a chance to showcase their goods and services in an outdoor market environment in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, are now in jeopardy. Twarogowski says she's looking at new ways of setting up the events in order to bring attention to BID members without encouraging large gatherings.
She knows that the coming months will be tough, even after dining rooms are allowed to reopen. "Takeout is not what's going to get businesses through this," Twarogowski says, noting that Araujo's and other restaurants have also relied on catering jobs for additional income, but those have dried up, too.
Horiuchi faces similar problems, but on a much larger scale. She's been pitching in with social media, marketing ideas and even menu and graphic design assistance for businesses in her BID. About ninety of On Havana Street's bar and restaurant members have managed to stay open for takeout and delivery she says; some of them are well built for off-premises business and are thriving, while others are only selling a few orders a day.
Although some restaurants, bakeries and cafes have closed for the time being because of fear of exposure to coronavirus, others stay open despite meager sales because they don't know what else to do, and continuing to make food for the community is their only way of staying connected. "For some places, an uncle might be the one in the kitchen and a son or a daughter is behind the cash register," Horiuchi says. "They tell me, 'If we open up and someone gets sick, that's my family.'"
Others, she notes, initially closed and then reopened, including Sam's No. 3 (at 2580 South Havana Street). The restaurant isn't making much money through takeout and delivery sales, but the owner is able to pay employees and "maintain their health insurance — and their sanity," Horiuchi says.
While the BID is too big to be able to offer monetary assistance (there aren't enough dollars to spread out among the businesses), Horiuchi says she's helping members stay connected to Aurora and state agencies so that they can tap into any funds that may be available. But she also points out that many family-run establishments don't maintain the proper paperwork to be able to apply for loans and grants.
"Some have no P & L statements and no accountants," Horiuchi explains. "My biggest fear for the ones that receive money is that they won't be able to maintain adequate evidence that they're using the money properly and will have to pay it back."
Mayor Mike Coffman has been very supportive of small businesses in Aurora, according to Horiuchi. "Even before COVID-19, he was working with me to schedule calls with businesses to really get the pulse of the district," she says. And then once restaurants were required to close their dining rooms, he started the Mayor's Challenge, posting pictures of himself on his @AuroraMayorMike Twitter feed, purchasing takeout at restaurants all over Aurora — including several on Havana Street — and challenging the city's residents to do the same. The owner of El Cameron Loco (at 513 Havana Street) called her just to let her know that Coffman had promised to come for food and then made good on his word.
While retail occupancy for the On Havana Street BID was at 98 percent going into the current crisis, Horiuchi says she's dreading running the statistics again at the end of summer, because she knows many businesses won't make it. But she's also an optimist, and has seen many signs of the community coming together — despite the fact that business owners and customers in the district speak more than 160 different languages. Those signs range from the On Havana Street's $4,000 purchase of hundreds of masks from Mile High Workshop (an Aurora nonprofit that specializes in repurposing banners and other materials) to the sharing of ideas on how to make restaurants safe, whether by adding plexiglass screens at host stations or simply putting a chair in front of cash register counters to maintain social distancing and build customer confidence.
"A lot of businesses are so creative and so resilient — that's what's inspiring to me," Horiuchi concludes. "They're so hopeful and optimistic even though they've been through so much."
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