Pandemic challenges survived emergency business aid. And now?
After quitting her job as a nanny to be home with her teenage daughter when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Grecia Diaz looked for ways to earn money from home. Her grandmother instilled in her the importance of nutrition: “As a mom and a wife, I also want my family to have great products that are as natural as possible,” she said.
This led the Brookline resident to start the small business Snackever last October, helped by her husband, Johnny, who also works as an Uber driver and painter. Snackever is an online marketplace for snacks like Strawberry Rice Crisps and Amaranth Coconut Wafers, with a focus on health and affordability.
The small business, which has buyers across the country, has had some success but sometimes struggles to find customers. About half of Snackever’s customers are individuals looking for snacks, but the other half are businesses looking to source snacks for their employees. Because so many businesses are understaffed or offering remote work, Snackever is missing out on potential customers.
“Some companies have approached us and said, ‘Well, you know, we see potential for us to work with you, but we don’t have our people in the offices yet, so eventually when people come back to offices, we could order from you,” and stuff like that,” Johnny Diaz said. “It was a bit difficult.”
The pandemic has proven difficult for small businesses across the country. Some Pittsburgh-area businesses have closed permanently, while others have survived thanks to financial assistance from the federal government. Now, as the Pittsburghers teeter between the steps toward normality brought by vaccines and concerns over the omicron variant, pandemic-era emergency aid is drying up and businesses are still struggling.
Because much of the emergency assistance has expired, small businesses are relying more than ever on the standard assistance made available by nonprofits and government organizations.
The Diazes in particular got help from The Hispanic Development Society of Pittsburghwhich connected them to The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, a project of the University of Pittsburgh. The institute helped them get certifications for their business to give it credibility.
“If you want to work with government agencies, you have to have certifications…and [the institute] has a lot of connections,” Johnny Diaz said.
That of the institute Small Business Development Center, which offers consulting, workshops and other assistance to Pittsburgh-area small business owners, has been contacted much more frequently since the pandemic began, according to development center director Raymond Vargo. The center typically assists 800 clients a year, but in 2020 and 2021 that number nearly doubled.
“Our demand workload for our services has been astronomical,” Vargo said.
The particular issues facing small businesses have evolved throughout the pandemic. At first, small businesses had to contend with government-mandated closures and other restrictions. Over the past six months or so, Vargo said many companies he worked with had struggled with staffing and changing consumer demands, such as a greater desire to shop or deliver online.
Still, while Vargo has heard from customers who have decided to shut down their businesses altogether, he said it doesn’t appear to be a pressing issue in the area.
“It’s been a bit higher, yes, but it’s not an overwhelming issue that we talk to our customers about,” Vargo said. “We have a few, but it’s not like one in five calls come in and say, ‘I want to close my business’.”
Kelly Hunt, director of the US Small Business Administration [SBA] Pittsburgh District Office said his office did not have an idea of the number of small local businesses closed.
Hunt noted that many federal government pandemic-era assistance programs have recently ended.
“Most of these programs have been around for almost two years … during the worst part of the pandemic,” Hunt said. “And so, I’m sure if you asked small businesses, they would say yes, we need more help.”
Pittsburgh’s SBA is offering microloans of up to $50,000 to small businesses, a program that predated the pandemic.
“We like to be the first stop for businesses that run into trouble,” Hunt said.
Some local nonprofits have also been providing aid during the pandemic, such as the Hill Community Development Corporation [Hill CDC], a group that assists the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Hill CDC’s Hill Tech Society initiative recently equipped small business owners in the Hill District with technology devices, according to Hill CDC President and CEO Marimba Milliones. About a third of these devices went to artists and other creative types, with the rest going to food, retail, personal care and other sectors.
The Diazes sought help outside the region. They received a loan from Kiva, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that funds loans. The couple hope to work with more Pittsburgh-based businesses and grow. Although they started their business during the pandemic, they share a similar sentiment to those who have been in business for decades.
“We hope things will get back to normal as soon as possible,” Johnny Diaz said.
Matt Petras is a freelance writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @mattApetras.
This story has been verified by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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