By Ruby Bugarin, co-owner of Margarita’s in Pasadena and Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant in Montrose.
Like most Americans, I breathed a deep sigh of relief when Congress agreed to a COVID emergency relief bill sending desperately needed help across our country — from families who are suffering terribly to businesses essential to our daily lives.
But this rescue package, while a welcome next step, falls far short of what’s essential to keeping small businesses like mine afloat, especially as we approach the darkest days of the pandemic, and with a COVID-19 vaccine still many months away for most Americans.
Navigating this continuing uncertainty requires more than Congress’s survival stop-gap measure that will help us only limp into April. If we want to ensure that small business owners like me here in California and across the U.S. can keep our doors open and our employees on payroll, we need a long-term recovery agenda that puts us — the backbones of our communities — front and center.
Trust me, this is not where my fellow small business owners and I expected to be when [last] year started. The year 2020 began with a bang for Margaritas and Pepe’s Mexican Restaurants, the businesses founded in 1970 by my parents as twentysomething Mexican immigrants. Both restaurants were doing really well and set to beat year over year sales. The COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt. We knew the shutdowns and ongoing restrictions were important to the health and safety of all Americans. But for hard-hit businesses like mine, these ongoing restrictions have forced us to make difficult, often heartbreaking decisions just to survive.
Since March, I have had to lay off 60% of our staff just to stay afloat. Our family business, my brother and I are co-owners, is literally run by family. We have two and three generations of family members working for us. Many of our staff members have been with us for 10-plus years, some as many as 35 years. So, it was with a very heavy heart that we had to lay off these members of our family, while we were only open for pick-up and delivery. As full-service family restaurants, this model is not profitable for us. We thrive on remembering what you like to order and making you feel special.
My story is not unique. I’m part of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices community, and a survey last month found that 42% of us have been forced to lay off employees or cut compensation, more than half had to stop paying ourselves and a third dipped into personal savings to keep our businesses operational. It’s even more bleak for Black small business owners — 61% have forgone paying themselves and 58% report using personal savings to stay open.
The recently passed relief from Congress will help bridge the gap for small businesses over the next eight to 10 weeks but that will fall short of the time it will take for a return to business as usual. While grateful to legislators for agreeing on a relief package, I’m pleading, as a small business owner, for our elected officials to step up with a comprehensive plan for small businesses. We employ nearly half the private sector workforce, and we need greater access to long-term capital, liability protection, and affordable health care and child care for our employees.
It’s not just the future of my small business that’s at stake. It’s the future of our nation’s cities and towns — our Main Streets — where small business owners are at the core of thriving communities. I’m so proud to be part of what makes Pasadena and Montrose a great place to live and work, and to have built a small business that invests in our community — from providing jobs to 64 staff members, to sponsoring local high school sports team and donating to local nonprofits.
Please join me and other small business owners in urging members of Congress to help us stay “open for business.”