With imagination, small local businesses are recovering

Retail and restaurant traffic on the increase


I had a chance to dine twice at August 1 Five, located in San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood and serving Cal-Indian fare, before it closed down in December 2020, one of more than 2,900 businesses that were permanently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Yelp’s September 2020 Economic Impact Report. Hotels lost 91 percent in sales, restaurants 61 percent, and clothing stores lost 56 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

In fact, much of 2020 felt like we were whacking at the coronavirus mole only for it to pop up defiantly elsewhere in some new avatar. But as The City and state open fully on June 15, and the vise-hold of the virus eases, there could be good news around the corner. Finally.

According to Yelp’s data, nationwide, 146,486 businesses (re)opened in the first quarter of 2021, and this “level of new openings is comparable to years prior.”

And, data scientists at Zenreach have gathered that brick-and-mortar foot traffic is up 44 percent since the beginning of 2021. The San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad area saw the most invigoration with 172.68 percent more traffic in restaurants, stores and theaters since the beginning of the year. The Bay Area was a little under 100 percent, and the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area had a 94.11 percent increase in physical customer patronage.

In San Francisco, we have been seeing the boards come off store fronts and both indoor and outdoor dining options are now offered as possibilities to diners. In fact, it’s become tough to get reservations at popular dining spots once again.

“The virus is losing and the economy is winning!” said South Bay Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna at a briefing. “If you’ve survived up to now. It’s pretty good news,” he remarked.

Many local restaurant obituaries have been written of late, and while it hurts to think that Hakkasan, Mission Cheese and Cliff House are no more, the good news is that the restaurants that survived might be seeing better times. The 100-year-old Far East Café, a Chinese banquet restaurant in Chinatown, was poised to close late last year, but managed to outlast the shutdown with the help of a $1.9 million Chinatown relief measure passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In the laid-back town of Los Altos in the Bay Area, Kids Only — a 20 year-old children’s clothing store on Main Street, where I have memories of buying matching toddler dresses for my own young twins and gifts for every kiddie birthday I attended — shuttered on Oct. 31. Gitane, a clothing store on an adjacent street, closed a few months later. The village stationery store said goodbye too. But a small cobblery has survived, and so has Linden Tree Books.

Everett Sands, CEO of Lendistry, has helped thousands of small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Discussing the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federal incentive program which provided eligible borrowers an opportunity for full loan forgiveness so long as they used at least 60 percent of loan proceeds for payroll expenses, Sands said that toward the end of May he saw “surprisingly tens and thousands of applications come in, in the last week, for small businesses that are anxious to apply,” and early indications show that between 60 and 70 percent of those businesses are minority-owned and run. The PPP program closed on May 28, 2021.

Rita Tjhoi, the owner of Kids Only, said that when she announced she was closing, loyal shoppers came in to let her know that they were deeply distressed. Tjhoi received some financial assistance, though she doesn’t know if it was PPP, because “a neighbor friend helps with all that,” she admitted. This is not unusual.

Sands said the pandemic brought to light that many small businesses “do not have the infrastructure and/or the knowledge by which to put together the proper paperwork in a variety of different things. Lending, specifically was exposed. But I would also expand that to say contracts and opportunities to execute in the small business.”

From all accounts, PPP has been a mixed bag. Shashi Murthy, the owner of Gitane, applied for PPP, but it was a small amount and patched a money bleed temporarily.

Congressman Khanna said he was a big supporter of the PPP program initially. But he realized it was not implemented correctly. “A lot of the people who were getting the money were multimillion dollar companies and people who had relationships with banks, and [the program was] particularly hard to access for disadvantaged communities, particularly Black and Brown communities and Asian communities.”

In a promising sign, Tjhoi reopened across the street from her old store recently. She credits her survival to reimagining her business. “I work hard, seven days a week, and pay attention,” she said.

Tjhoi’s mantra is “customer service No. 1 and merchandise No. 2.” Kids Only does not have a website and no way to process online sales. But when she had to innovate, Tjhoi took to texting details of new shipments to her loyal customers. Now, while she has resumed her brick-and-mortar business, she continues her successful texting format.

Reset, Renew, Relocate, Reimagine. These are the ideas that are driving us out of the slump. From consolidation of inventory to a more robust online presence, or a restart in a brand new location, every new idea promises better days ahead. As for August 1 Five? Yes, the chef Manish Tyagi relocated to Los Altos. His new restaurant is called Aurum.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.

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