‘Our government is failing small businesses.’ A bakery struggles to stay open, and then, some good news – NJ.com

Restaurant News

This is another in a series of field reports, titled A State on Edge, on how life has changed for New Jerseyans during the coronavirus outbreak.

A cry for help. A plea for fairness. A feeling of disgust.

Renee Faris’ e-mail two weeks ago spoke of the bakery owner’s tenuous business situation and her apparent inability to tap into the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), aimed at small businesses.

“The minute they started releasing loan applications, I began applying in hopes I would get some sort of relief,” the owner of Erie Coffeeshop & Bakery in Rutherford wrote. “I went on worrying and stressing out that my business would be ruined . . . I started reading about all these big businesses getting their small business relief funds — Shake Shack, Eataly, Ruth’s Chris. ARE YOU KIDDING MEEEE?”

“We were promised so much in the beginning,” says a masked Faris, standing outside her bakery a week later. “Then it turned into, just wait for it. Then it was, oh, I’m sorry we ran out of money. How do you run out of that much money? I just gave up. This is all a sham.”

The PPP loans — a $660 billion program, with additional funding being contemplated — have been controversial since day one. The first round of loans were quickly gobbled up, many by businesses that didn’t seem to fit what most people would consider “small business.” The Los Angeles Lakers received assistance. So did Shake Shack and AutoNation, the nation’s largest car dealership. Under widespread criticism, all three eventually returned the money received — $4.6 million in the Lakers’ case, $77 million from AutoNation, $10 million from Shake Shack. Many companies much larger than your usual mom-and-pop business refused to return the money, however, stating they met the program’s guidelines. In all, at least 60 companies have returned their small business loans, according to The New York Times.

”My rent is due, my landlord doesn’t care we are closed. Thankfully, Verizon, ShopKeep (a payment processing system) and our garbage collectors were able to put our accounts on hold. But we’ll have to pay water, gas, electric, credit card bills, workers comp, insurance, etc,” Faris wrote in her email.

Faris’ experience with the loan program, funded by the Small Business Administration, was frustrating. She called her bank — Capital One — and was told to contact her local branch.

“I said, I don’t have a bank, it closed. When I called back, they gave me a big run-around — call the SBA. The SBA said, call Capital One.”

At 10 p.m. one night, a Capital One representative called her. It was a 609 area code number, and Faris was leery because she had heard of coronavirus-related scams. She let the phone ring, got a voice mail message, and returned the call. It was indeed a Capital One rep. “She said, we’re working around the clock doing our best to get small New Jersey businesses (money). They’re releasing more money tomorrow; you just have to wait until the SBA goes over (the applications).”

'Our government is failing small businesses.'
The interior of Erie Coffeeshop & Bakery is closed to customers (Andrew Mills I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Faris waited, and waited. She closed the bakery for a month and half, from mid-March to early May.

She shut down the business “because a close friend of ours died from the coronavirus. That scared me. He was here a week before, a regular who became a really close friend. He was sick and then they took him to the hospital . . .”

“I didn’t feel comfortable being open,” she added. ”I would never be able to forgive myself if anyone got sick.”

With the shop closed, and no financial assistance forthcoming, she suffered “panic attacks, depressive funks, insomnia.”

“I wish I could say I used this time wisely, but it just wasn’t in the cards,” she said. “I didn’t spend the month watching TV, sleeping, resting or exercising, I spent it on the phone, on the computer, and in my head worrying. Scared s—less every day.”

She finally decided to re-open the shop, and return to some sense of normalcy. “My landlord said he could put me on a payment plan. I said, forget it, I’ll figure out a way to pay you. I paid him, took it out of my savings.”

The bakery re-opened, with several restrictions. Employees must wear masks, and change clothes once inside. Customers are not allowed inside; all orders are now done online. The bakery initially re-opened on just Saturday and Sunday. it is now open Fridays, also.

'Our government is failing small businesses'
Renee Faris and her husband outside her bakery (Andrew Mills I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

A poll by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that one quarter of all small businesses say they are two months or less from closing permanently due to the economic downturn. Small businesses, by government definition, have fewer than 500 employees and represent half of all U.S. employment. Small businesses, by any measure, are a big deal.

Faris has worked as a baker for several heralded restaurants and chefs. While working at Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, she appeared in seasons one and two of “Cake Boss.” She worked at two restaurants in Los Angeles, at New York’s acclaimed Gramercy Tavern, and at Maysville, a Southern-inspired whiskey bar/restaurant. In his review of Maysville, New York Times reviewer Pete Wells gave a shout-out to Faris’ apple granita. ”I was bummed that he didn’t put my name in his review, but I cried when I read it,” she told northjersey.com.

Today, all her New York City chef friends are out of work, on unemployment. “They’re all laid off, with no idea when they’re going back and no idea what’s going to happen when they do go back to work.”

Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery just celebrated its fifth anniversary in business.

“I was going to have a big party,” Faris said. “Now I can’t.”

'Our government is failing small businesses.'
Renee Faris puts finishing touches on cakes and cookies in her kitchen (Andrew Mills I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Her olive oil citrus cake remains a popular item. For Mother’s Day, she made an “insanely delicious” blackberry/blueberry/ginger mini-pie. Other items includes biscuits, brownies, cookies and doughnuts.

On May 17, World Baking Day, she posted this message on the bakery’s Facebook page: “Just wanted to shout out our incredible team…. missing the heck outta hugging everyone and being crammed In a tight kitchen screaming HOT/BEHIND.”

When I interviewed her on the sidewalk outside her bakery, Faris had given up hope of receiving a PPP loan. “I’m just going to make it work, for the summer, the fall and however long this is going to take. I don’t have a nice car, I don’t have a nice house. But my (customers) are beyond supportive. I’m so lucky, I’m so blessed.”

This story has a somewhat happy ending. Several days after being interviewed, Faris was informed she did receive a PPP loan -— “less than $15,000.” she says. She will use it for payroll “and hopefully get some rent and utilities covered.”

She says she feels “a bit better” because “help actually came through.”

It’s not much, but it’s enough, for now.

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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].

Source: Thanks https://www.nj.com/coronavirus/2020/05/our-government-is-failing-small-businesses-a-bakery-struggles-to-stay-open-and-then-some-good-news.html