Don’t Surrender, Reinvent: The New Mantra of Small Biz in Puerto Rico


NPR‘s Malaka Gharib writes about the need for reinvention in Puerto Rico, and how entrepreneurs are dealing with the multiple crises, but it is an uphill battle. One challenge: in order to apply for low-interest loans, businesses need to gather paperwork, find a computer and WiFi, and fill out complicated forms; evaluation of the requests could then take up to nine months. . . Gharib writes:

Just seven months ago, Puerto Rican chef Jose Sanchez opened the restaurant of his dreams: a place where you could feel like you were in Italy one day, and like you were in France the next. He served up fusion cuisine and called it Pera Maraya. There was deconstructed ratatouille, caprese salad with octopus. The restaurant in Carolina, east of San Juan, was getting rave reviews: five stars on Yelp, Trip Advisor and Facebook. He spent nearly a decade saving up to open this restaurant, and was overjoyed at how quickly it found success. “Everything was going perfect,” says Sanchez, 28. “Then the storm hit.”

[. . .] Small businesses like Sanchez’s were the backbone of Puerto Rico’s economy. They employed more than 80 percent of all private sector workers in Puerto Rico, according to a 2016 survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But the big question now is how the economy will possibly recover. Small shops face a mountain of challenges: can they receive emergency aid? Can they repair their storefronts? Will customers ever return?

That all depends on whether owners can se levanta — get up — says Alessandra Correa, a local business leader in San Juan. It’s a phrase that’s been repeated over and over again by Puerto Ricans since the storm hit. “We have to fight,” she says. “Fight for our businesses, for our employees and our economy. Giving up is not an option.”

That’s why today Sanchez is slinging Styrofoam containers of fried steak and eggs for workers at Correa’s office in San Juan. It’s a far cry from the six-course tasting menu he whipped up at his restaurant. He’s hoping to raise $5,000 to buy a food truck so he can start over. It was an idea suggested by Correa, who had been a regular at Pera Maraya. She called him up after she saw the restaurant shuttered as she passed by one day. “Where are you?” she asked Sanchez. He was just sitting at home. “You can cook. You’re still alive, right?” She invited him to set the pop-up lunch at her office. “Go ahead,” she says. “Come sell your food here.”

Correa is the founder of Inprende, a startup that helps entrepreneurs get off the ground. Since the storm forced many small businesses to close, her office has been buzzing with owners who’ve come to seek help on how to get back up and running. It’s advice she usually charges for — but is now giving away for free to anyone who needs it. [. . .] While Sanchez was using Correa’s space to host his pop-up lunch, others were using it for WiFi and power from a generator. [. . .]

But local business leaders like Correa can only help their peers so much. In times of crisis, the government should be doing even more to provide support and resources to small businesses, says Arnaldo Cruz, director of research and analytics for Foundation for Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that promotes economic development on the island.

The stakes are high. If the island’s small businesses fail, that could mean massive layoffs and unemployment on top of an already disastrous economic situation: billions of dollars in hurricane recovery efforts on top of the island’s pre-existing $74 billion debt crisis.

On Tuesday, the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DEDC) of Puerto Rico hosted a workshop for businesses on how to apply for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration and the Puerto Rico Economic Development Bank. Mostly, how to fill out its very complicated forms.

It’s all the help that the government can offer at the moment, says Manuel Laboy, the secretary of the DEDC. “Puerto Rico doesn’t have the resources to inject money into the economy. We don’t have that cash.”

Cruz, who did not attend the meeting, heard from others in the business community that the meeting was not very helpful. To apply for a loan with the Small Business Administration, for example, businesses would need to gather their paperwork. Find a computer and WiFi to fill out forms. Then the office has to evaluate the application. In some cases, that could take up to six to nine months. “Small businesses don’t have time,” says Cruz. “They’re gonna run out of business in the next couple of weeks.”

That’s why his organization is trying to figure out ways to disburse money right now. They’re distributing up to $5,000 in cash grants to 50 small businesses that show the most promise of making a profit. Restaurants that just need enough money to cover one or two payrolls are good investments – they’re likely to survive after Maria. A gift shop geared to tourists in front of a hotel that just shut down, not so much.

The underlying message of the aid: “Just don’t close. Don’t surrender,” says Cruz.

For Sanchez, the restaurant is gone for now. But it doesn’t mean that he surrendered. After hosting four or five pop-up lunches at Inprende, he almost has the $5,000 he needs for the food truck.

He knows things can’t go back to the way they were before. Since Maria, many of his customers have moved out of Puerto Rico or don’t have the means to pay for a $31 plate of lobster in Manchego cheese sauce. If he ever reopens the restaurant, he’s thinking maybe he’ll cook high quality comfort foods at a lower cost, like the steak and eggs. He reminds himself what Correa, the entrepreneur, told him: He may have lost everything. But he can still cook.

[Puerto Rican chef José Sánchez inside his restaurant Pera Maraya. “Everything was going perfect. Then the storm hit.” Photo by CHRISTINA CALA / NPR.]

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