How local Black-owned businesses have made it through the pandemic


Photo courtesy of online boutique Sew Forgiven.

by Patrick Doyle, Staff Writer

All small businesses face challenges, but Black-owned businesses often face a unique set of roadblocks as they try and establish their place in a community. Furthermore, it is evident that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for these already struggling businesses to stay afloat.

But in San Diego County, these Black-owned businesses are at the heart of everything we do, whether we realize it or not. Much of the local food we buy, the coffee we drink, or the clothing we purchase comes from Black-owned businesses which make up the soul of our community. Remarkably, many of these local businesses have actually found ways to thrive in this “new normal” we are becoming accustomed to.

For example, take Monique Rousseau who owns and operates Blendees, a smoothie shop located in El Cajon. Her business was forced to shut down for two months due to the pandemic, but she believes it was one of the best things that could have happened to her.

“(The pandemic) gave me the time to look at the business and see what was working and not working without being penalized for not being here during business hours,” she said.

Rousseau believes that since every business was temporarily shut down during the pandemic, it also meant competition was reduced, giving her time to process things and think about the future of Blendees. In the end, she came back stronger, which she thanks in part to her presence on social media.

“I gained a whole new respect for social media after the pandemic,” she said. “I weigh heavily on word of mouth and the reputation I built over the years. But now it’s different; social media is the new word of mouth as far as I’m concerned.”

Rousseau is not alone in this sentiment, either.

Sabrina Thomas, the owner of an online boutique called Sew Forgiven, echoed the role social media has played in keeping her business thriving.

“It’s been a tremendous help for me,” Thomas said. “It allows me to reach out to people and to share with people and not have to be face-to-face.”

Thomas also believes the pandemic was a net benefit to her business.

“With people being at home more, it gave me the opportunity to have more traffic come to my site and more exposure that way,” she said. “The connections that I made through my online store and word of mouth really helped me grow Sew Forgiven to where it is today.”

At a time when many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, and Black-owned businesses are having an especially hard time breaking through, Thomas says she did not want to take advantage of government grants that were available.

“I wanted it to go to someone else that really really needed it,” she said. “People with families, I really feel for them. They should be able to have the same relief as people in higher areas. Corporate would probably receive more money than the small business person, so I really believe that we need to kind of close up that gap a little bit or, a lot.”

Rousseau felt a very similar way on this issue and suggested we change the way we think about who needs government aid the most.

“I think that when we say small businesses, we really need to separate small businesses from smaller businesses,” Rousseau said. “Small businesses are a very vast group. But then there are some smaller businesses that are definitely overlooked when it comes to those types of resources.”

For some, the issue for small businesses goes much deeper than a lack of government grants.

Israel Stanley, the owner of Sunnie’s Mexican Cuisine and Coffee in Ocean Beach, believes the problem lies in businesses being closed at all.

“I think small businesses should be allowed to be open and not have to rely on any government funds,” Stanley said. “I’m 100% certain that all of these businesses would rather be open than have to ask anyone for money.”

Stanley says he is lucky that he began working on his business’s online infrastructure just before the pandemic hit, as it allowed him to hit the ground running when the pandemic demanded such an online presence.

“[The pandemic] has definitely impacted the business,” he said. “But luckily I had strong delivery, takeout, online orders. I’m a very blessed man; my doors are still open. A lot of people I know, their businesses are closed. So I’m a very lucky and blessed man to still have my doors open and thriving, especially in this environment when a lot of people are suffering.”

Like Rousseau and Thomas, Stanley is grateful his business is still operational and attributes some of this to his efforts on social media which keep customers returning.

But despite the obstacles that these business-owners have overcome, it is important to remember that there are a plethora of Black entrepreneurs who have not been so fortunate, and have struggled exponentially more because of the pandemic. In fact, over 40% of Black-owned companies nationwide shut down just between February and April of 2020, according to an August 2020 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Rousseau, Stanley, and Thomas all had advice for aspiring Black business-owners in a time of such uncertainty.

“Sometimes ‘no’ means ‘not yet,’” Rousseau said. “But don’t stop, because there is a way.”

Stanley had some practical advice for young entrepreneurs.

“The biggest thing to be aware of is location, location, location,” Stanley said. “If you have a question mark in your head, walk away. Make sure you are fully capitalized because if you are not you will fail, which is why most businesses fail in the first year because they’re under-capitalized and they’re in the wrong area.”

Thomas wanted it to be clear that perseverance is key.

“I would say not to be afraid, and not to be hard on yourself,” Thomas said. “I would also encourage any Black business-owner just to continue to push, regardless of opposition or anything they may also come up against. If it’s something that you really feel you’re passionate about and what you’re supposed to do, then I would say to pursue it whole-heartedly, because you can’t lose pursuing goals.”

To best support small businesses in your community, research where Black-owned businesses are located near you and support them by getting food, clothing, or services through them instead of an alternative. Little actions like these to show solidarity with Black entrepreneurs can go a long way in setting things right and making sure more Black-owned businesses have an opportunity to thrive in the future.