Black businesses continue to face the pandemic

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Virginia Ali, who opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 with her husband, Ben, thanks her children and family for keeping the business open during the most difficult times of the pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

WASHINGTON DC – Virginia Ali is the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, an iconic restaurant that she and her husband, Ben Ali, opened in 1958 in Washington DC. Ben Ali died in 2009. He was 82 years old.

The restaurant has since become a landmark as a long list of celebrities have passed through its doors including former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Serena Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Durant, Steve Harvey. , Kevin Hart, Mary J. Blige, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Anthony Bourdain.

The restaurant is woven into the fabric of the city’s black community. He helped serve the tens of thousands of protesters who came to Washington during the Campaign for the Poor in 1968 and the March on Washington in 1963.

Ben’s was one of the few restaurants open after the curfew to provide food and shelter to those working to restore order after the 1968 Washington riots following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Still, Ali said COVID-19 was the most difficult hurdle his business has ever faced, as it was the first time his business had to shut down for an extended period. It normally remained open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. and until 4 a.m. on weekends, she said.

“We didn’t get the loan (from the federal paycheck protection program) the first time,” Ali said. “We had to reduce staff, adjust our hours and find a way to reach out to the community in a different and more efficient way. This virus has been very scary, but our community embraced us and helped us. “

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was a loan issued by the federal government at the start of the pandemic to directly incent small businesses to keep their employees on the payroll. The first PPP loans could be used to help finance labor costs, including employee benefits, rent, utilities, and worker protection costs related to the pandemic.

Ali said she has started receiving letters and donations from people across the community. The restaurant has received enough funding to deliver packed lunches to Howard University Hospital and other first responders, she said. She thanked her children, some of whom have other professions, for taking on full-time roles in the restaurant to make sure the family doors stay open.

Not all businesses have been fortunate enough to receive support from an entire community and other popular publications.

Oriel McKinney, owner of 1000 Degrees Pizza in Winter Garden, Florida, said the pandemic was very difficult because she and her husband Brian had just purchased the location in August 2019.

McKinney’s business was forced to close due to the Florida Governor’s Order in Council.

When it was allowed to reopen, only a handful of employees were able to work, she said. With no customers able to eat inside due to health service restrictions, McKinney and her husband had to change their service model. A key factor in their success was being part of a curbside pickup group on Facebook, McKinney said.

“Our marketing plan had to evolve quickly,” she said. “We had to adapt to curbside pickup and continue to develop our relationship with the community. “

McKinney said she has called other owners for advice and advice on how to run their business in uncertain times. She said she has partnered with local black businesses, such as Smile Ice Cream and Full Press Juicery, selling their products in her store. Their social media page kept the community up to date with the latest news, products and fundraisers, she said.

His company was able to provide food to the National Basketball Association during the playoffs and the 2019-2020 Championship inside the quarantined facility, “The Bubble,” at Walt Disney World, which has helped business tremendously. she declared.

“We were one of the few companies allowed to deliver inside the bubble,” McKinney said. “It was a very exciting experience. But we’re still not clear with the new Delta variant on the rise. “

McKinney said they have adjusted their schedules and put customers at ease by offering pickup, take out and curbside delivery.

Ernest Strickland, president / CEO of the Black Business Association of Memphis, said many small black businesses were struggling to find consistent capital before the pandemic swept across the country.

Because they were underfunded, Strickland said, they started operating in survival mode. The government is quarantining businesses and fear of infection has caused customers to stay away.

H&R Block conducted a study which found that more than half of black-owned businesses experienced a 50% drop in revenue during the pandemic, compared to 37% of white business owners.

A study from the University of California at Santa Clara found that 41% of black-owned businesses across the country closed between February and April 2020, compared to 17% of white businesses.

“A common problem that I saw in most black businesses that failed was the lack of proper accounting and bookkeeping,” Strickland said. “Businesses weren’t able to apply for PPP loans because they weren’t taking care of their books. “

In response to the issue, Strickland said his association had partnered with the local government to provide a grant program to businesses in need of help. The program targeted solo entrepreneurs such as barbers, beauticians and other small business owners, he said.

“We have helped raise and distribute over a million dollars to local businesses that have been greatly affected,” he said.

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