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  • Brenna Brown

PBC small-businesses part 1: Breaking even or barely making it?

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Given that she and her husband were Salento Coffee’s only two employees working during the height of the pandemic, Johana Lara has taken to juggling the sitting-in and taking-out styles of business—both of which involve her grinding fresh espresso, baking arepas and brewing Colombian coffee every single morning. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

It’s approximately 5:30 a.m. on a typical Monday. The sun has just started to rise; its few small rays gently caressing West Palm Beach’s early morning horizon. Some of the city’s residents surge out of their homes in an eager attempt to beat the oncoming rush-hour traffic—while others haven’t even considered leaving the comforts of their beds.

But in a tight-knit coffee shop tucked into North Dixie Highway’s expanse of restaurants and boutiques, no one is sleeping and no one is driving—instead, two Colombian immigrants are hard at work opening Salento Coffee, a small cafe designed to mirror their very country and culture.

With the scent of savory pandebonos and café con leche permeating the interior, hand-painted guitars hanging on the walls and traditional Colombian music playing in the background, this little coffee shop is nothing less than a home-away-from-home for owners Jaime and Johana Lara. After years of language learning and saving money, the couple opened their cafe on Dec. 7, 2018. Since then, it has existed as a personal reminder of the life they left behind when they chose to come to the United States—and what they spend each waking hour trying to remember.

In stark contrast to the passionate couple, however, COVID-19 did not view Salento Coffee as something worth protecting. Instead, the pandemic interpreted this passion project the same way it did every other small business: As its own personal target.

Like many of WPB’s local business owners, this couple has faced major economic setbacks since the pandemic first struck in March of 2020—less than two years since their international dream became a local reality. Forced to completely eliminate indoor seating for a period of time and adapt to the standard expectations of the take-out lifestyle, Salento Coffee is one of many small businesses that attempted to serve customers who were few and far between. Even then, there is one significant aspect that COVID-19 hasn’t been able to steal away from them: The ability to keep their doors open.

In order to genuinely bring their Colombian culture to life, the owners of Salento have taken to decorating the interiors of their cafe with mementos they brought with them to the United States, including a variety of instruments, hats and the title of the town they named their coffee shop after. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

“I just say we were lucky because our type of visa is not a big business like restaurants that have a big number, a lot of employees, things like that,” Jaime Lara said. “It’s just me and my wife, so we can stay alive … we can survive.”

In addition to prioritizing to-go orders and making use of various delivery services, the Laras have made every effort imaginable to counteract the financial assaults their business has faced since the early days of the pandemic.

This includes acknowledging the aid they were—and were not—able to apply.

Orchestrated by the Palm Beach County CARES for Business Program in the second half of 2020, the Restart Business Grant was designed to provide economic relief to small businesses impacted by COVID-19’s financial recession. Consisting of $23 million dollars available for allocation, this grant was created solely for owners who were forced to shut down and/or restrict aspects of their business in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order 20-72 or Palm Beach County’s Emergency Order 20-002a.

In the context of this program, the small businesses eligible for this grant must adhere to an extensive list of criteria, including—but not limited to—being domiciled in PBC, being in operation since Oct. 1, 2019, and through Feb. 29, 2020, and being able to prove that they make no more than “$5 million in total gross sales or receipts.”

“We got a couple of aid from Palm Beach County, but there is different programs to apply for,” Jaime Lara said. “But that one was so hard to apply for. That was for small businesses but we have to have, like, special considerations.”

Even though the Laras ended up not applying for the Restart Business Grant, they confirmed that their business did benefit from aid distributed by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, but refused to mention exactly how much they were given.

While many local owners credit the city’s various aid programs for their ability to stay open during the pandemic, not all of WPB’s small businesses can say the same.

First published by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 1, 2020, a series of “executive orders” were put into place to help Florida residents distinguish essential services from non-essential ones. Given that Salento Coffee, Subculture Coffee Roasters and Alchemy Juice Co. & Market openly distribute food to the public, they meet the criteria needed to be deemed an essential service. (Photo courtesy of Executive Order Number 20-91)

Subculture Coffee Roasters, located at the west end of Clematis Street, fell victim to the fate the owners of Salento Coffee just barely avoided: They shut down completely for a span of six months. Mitchell Gibson, 27, has been one of the shop’s primary baristas since 2018, and is one of many who was forced to file for unemployment when all three of Subculture’s South Florida locations closed their doors.

“The day that they announced the lockdown our boss brought us into the alley to have a company meeting,” Gibson said. “He's just like, ‘OK, so you guys should all file for unemployment because we don't know what's going on, or when we're going to open up again.”

Given that this particular coffee shop is one of several locations that belong to Subculture Group—which also owns DADA, Dubliner, Howleys, Hullabaloo and Kapow Noodle Bar—their COVID-19 recovery process was a feat equal to—if not greater than—the pandemic’s initial attack itself, and one that required everyone to chip in and help.

Gibson (left) is hard at work assisting his fellow baristas with a midday customer rush. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

Gibson said Shawn Scott, the boss of Subculture Coffee’s WPB location at the time, continued to roast bags of coffee in the early days of the pandemic and, after encouraging his then ex-employees to market the shop’s bagged up wares on social media, proceeded to distribute a portion of the profits to staff who were out of work and struggling to make ends meet.

Unlike Salento Coffee, it has not been confirmed if Subculture Coffee Roasters—or any of its locations—were eligible for the Restart Business Grant. There is, however, a shop a few doors down from Gibson’s workplace that most definitely wasn’t: Alchemy Juice Co. & Market.

As the owner and founder of one of Clematis Street’s newest additions, Jennifer Wesley’s business strategy was much more unorthodox than any of her neighbors: She intentionally opened her small business approximately one year into the pandemic.

“I feel like coming out of the gate fresh—even though it was a pandemic and people were still undecided about the vaccine, wearing masks and not wearing masks, all of that—I felt like it was a good time to just make a move,” Wesley said.

Originally inspired by her mother’s experiences with organic food and all-natural juice remedies, Wesley initiated her small business in 2014 from the confines of her home—assisted with nothing more than a single countertop juicer. As the demands for her homemade products increased, Wesley eventually found herself moving from her collection of Norwalk models to an empty Clematis Street unit. Officially signing her lease in November of 2020, Wesley spent several months converting what used to be a bright red hookah lounge into her minimalist, plant-covered cafe—and leaving her fingerprints on “every square inch of the place.”

In addition to having potted plants scattered throughout her cafe and her handmade juices arrayed across her counters, one of Alchemy Juice Co. & Market’s primary focal points is the wooden bar nestled in the back corner of the establishment. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown.)

Despite Wesley’s personal initiative and intense preparation, her small business was not exempt from COVID-19’s ongoing aftermath. Officially opening her doors on March 2, 2021, the newly established business owner saw firsthand the negative side effects both the pandemic and the aid being distributed by the federal government was causing; namely, a distinct absence of potential employees.

“Our biggest hurdle has been with hiring and staffing,” Wesley said. “There were just a lot of people that weren't working because of things the government was affording them. And you can't beat that … you can't even compete with it.”

In addition to the staffing shortage, Wesley reported that she was not eligible for the city’s Restart Business Grant—as she had opened her cafe after the city’s established deadline and didn’t have to limit any of her services after her business launched. Regardless of this setback, Alchemy Juice Co. & Market still exists as proof that WPB’s small-business owners can and will defy COVID-19’s odds to the best of their abilities.

Eyes bright with excitement and the corners of her mouth turned up into a passionate smile, Wesley hands one of her homemade concoctions off to a waiting customer. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown.)

Three small businesses, three unique stories and three groups of people who share a single, unanimous goal: To reclaim some of the profits the COVID-19 pandemic has taken from them—with or without governmental assistance.

By Brenna Brown

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