Latino small businesses stay resilient through a ‘pandemic year’

people sit at a table eating
Rodrigo Cala (left) and Aaron Blythe (right) eat a late lunch with Javier Garcia (center) and his family after meeting about their cooperatively owned and run farm, Agua Gorda at Mi Pueblito, Jose Garcia's market and restaurant in Long Prairie, Minn. on February 27, 2021.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

Javier Garcia’s Agua Gorda farm took a financial hit last year after demand for produce fell as restaurants and schools shut down in the COVID-19 pandemic. The 54-acre Long Prairie cooperative survived a 30 percent drop in sales and stayed solvent. 

The disease, though, is still delivering challenges. The farm is struggling now to sign up enough hands for spring fieldwork. While the disease has been retreating and vaccinations accelerating, fear of contracting COVID-19 lingers.

Hoping to lure workers, Agua Gorda this spring hopes to be able to toss in a box of produce on top of paychecks. “We need more help. We need more labor for harvesting produce from the field,” said Garcia, whose family owns and operates the cooperative farm.

“La vida de Aqua Gorda, la cooperativa, no es buena ni es mala tampoco. Hay de dos partes,” Garcia, 52, said, summing up the state of many small businesses: Life on the farm is neither good nor bad, it’s both. 

The pandemic dealt a blow to many small businesses in Minnesota in 2020, especially those tied to the state’s food and restaurant industries. One year into pandemic-related restrictions, some are starting to look to the future. Others are still trying to hold on.

COVID-19 hit the community hard, said Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of the Latino research organization HACER and co-author of a recent study with the University of Minnesota examining the impact of the pandemic on the Latino business community.

“The largest effect was felt among restaurants and businesses very similar to them,” and businesses outside the Twin Cities metro had an even harder go of it, Gutierrez said, adding that the Latino community is resilient. 

two men sit at a table
Javier Garcia (left), co-owner of Agua Gorda farm co-op, talks with Aaron Blythe and Rodrigo Cala (not pictured) of the Latino Economic Development Center about farm business at Mi Pueblito in Long Prairie, Minn. on Feb. 27.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

Garcia’s farm started in 2012 as an outgrowth of a community garden project intended to bridge the Latino and non-Latino communities of Long Prairie, about two hours northwest of the Twin Cities. Agua Gorda grows tomatillos, squash, bell peppers, jalapenos, cilantro and melons, which make up 50 percent of their production. 

Finding enough workers was a challenge before COVID-19 and the pandemic exacerbated that. Even with social distancing and personal protective equipment protocols in place, Garcia says the difficulties remain 

“It’s very difficult to work on the farm with COVID,” said Garcia but he thinks he can keep it going for the next year and looks forward to the new challenges and opportunities. 

He’s hoping to diversify the growing operation by working with about ten other farms around Minnesota and Wisconsin to sell organic free range chickens. Garcia’s wife and son, Marina Corona and Carlos Garcia, are joining Javier and his brother Jose as members of the co-op.

Minnesota has developed programs to help Latinos buy land and manage their own farms. And interest among Minnesota Latinos to buy and work the land has been going up over the last decade, according to Rodrigo Cala with the Latino Economic Development Center. 

Cala, who’s worked with the Garcias, says their success isn’t common in Minnesota or the United States. There are very few Latino owned and operated farms. Cala, who also owns his own farm in Wisconsin, and LEDC hope to change that. 

‘More healthy now’

People eat in a reduced capacity dining room.
Diners eat in the reduced capacity dining room of Maria's Cafe in Minneapolis on Feb. 23.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When the pandemic hit home for much of the country last March, restaurants were deeply affected. 

In Minneapolis, Maria Hoyos closed Maria’s Cafe for about five months. With the help of almost $100,000 in federal and local aid, including a Paycheck Protection Program loan, Hoyos has made it through what is hopefully the worst of the pandemic. 

Not many Latino business owners were able to access PPP loans. According to John Pacheco, the president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Minnesota, one of the factors in getting a PPP loan, was having the tax documentation and also “it was being aware of the programs that were being offered.”

Hoyos’ accountant was the one who initially told her about the forgivable loans.

Pacheco sees compounding hardships faced by the Latino business community, including a harsh immigration policy, the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 and the uprising on Lake Street after George Floyd was killed in May while in police custody. 

“I've been telling people, it's like, three strikes, and you're out,” says Pacheco. But adds that the beauty of the Latino community lies in its determination, while also being some of the fastest growing sectors of consumer markets and business owners.

For the past five years Latino entrepreneurs have been reported to be important and necessary to the U.S. economy. A Stanford University study published in 2020 found that nationally, Latino business grew by 34 percent over the past 10 years. All other business owner growth in the United State was just 1 percent.

A woman sits at a counter in a cafe.
Maria Hoyos, owner of Maria's Cafe in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In order to survive the pandemic Hoyos had to pivot her business model. She tried something she had never done before: delivery. 

Hoyos, who is in her seventies, attributes survival to her loyal customers, once called the “Maria club,” when she worked at Rick’s Ol’ time Cafe in Minneapolis.

Hoyos says once they started the service, “everybody called for delivery. And that's why we are still open. Because otherwise I don't know if we can make it.”

The beloved restaurant is currently paying for everything except Hoyos’ salary. At this point, she said it’s more important for her to be able to pay her employees and feed people as the cafe struggles to regain its footing. 

The cafe still boasts a wall full of rave reviews and photos of dignitary customers. Hoyos wears a uniform shirt and won’t use her cell phone while working, following the rules she sets for her employees.

Pandemic health restrictions have cut her occupancy in half. Out of three dining rooms, only the front room seems to get used. Menus are cleaned and sanitized after each use and stored in a clear plastic tub with a lid. Condiments are now dispensed in prepackaged servings. Gone for now are the days of side work, filling ketchup bottles and salt shakers.

Hoyos wasn’t able to bring back all her staff, saying many were college students who moved home because of the pandemic — but those who did come back, were grateful. Hoyos and her assistant manager note that the staff that did return haven’t called out sick at all, a reflection of a larger trend while people are (or should be) staying home or wearing masks. 

“I feel happy, not one of my employees [are getting] sick. They are very healthy. They even notice. They say “Maria, we are more healthy now.” Hoyos says, “Nobody calls [out] anymore.”

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