Hispanic business owners feel economic pressure
By Nicholas C. Stern, Frederick News-Post Monday, 31 January 2011 13:16
Jose Perez, part owner of Frederick’s Cacique, MexiCali Cantina and, most recently, Mariachi restaurants, said that since about October 2007, business has dropped significantly.
By mid-2006, more than a year and a half before government statistics proved the obvious, Jorge Ribas saw symptoms of an economic downturn.
By then, people started to complain about losing their part-time jobs at hotels and fast-food restaurants, he said.
Ribas is president of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has about 400 business members in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Some of those who remained at work had fewer hours to complete more tasks, he said.
Everyone has been affected, but he said the Hispanic community has been hit particularly hard.
Many immigrants to the country often start out with little, including a family support system to help them get started, he said.
They often begin by working two or more part-time jobs, whatever they can get, he said.
"The most vulnerable communities are also invisible to the government," he said.
Restaurants have been a bit more fortunate, i n that only two of 60 in the four-state area have gone under in recent months, Ribas said.
Yet in Frederick, as in locations in the surrounding area, fewer people can afford to eat out or patronize the niche grocery stores that grew along with the Hispanic community.
"It's a cascading effect," he said.
Memberships at the Hispanic Chamber, which opened in 2002, are down, he said. Six businesses out of about 400 in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia have discontinued membership. Others have had trouble paying their dues.
Ribas said he is trying to remain optimistic. But he said he did not foresee a bottom to the nation's economic woes. Troubles of late include continued foreclosures, the closure of auto dealerships and the looming crisis in credit card debt.
"We have faith in this country," he said. "But it's going to take a long time for this economy to change."
Jose Ruiz, a U.S. citizen originally from Guatemala, opened the La Colmenita (Little Beehive) Grocery on Willowdale Drive in Frederick more than four years ago.
He said business has been relatively stable, though he put plans to expand the store on hold.
Last spring, Ruiz spent about $30,000 on equipment and construction costs to open a carryout section.
He said he is waiting for a permit from the city that will allow him to follow through.
Customers visit his store for daily purchases, and on occasion, to send money to loved ones back home, he said.
Remittances in general have continued, though in smaller amounts, he said.
He has also been concerned about the security of his store.
About a month ago, Ruiz said robbers broke into the Colmenita but were scared away by the security system after stealing a few lottery tickets.
Jose Perez, part owner of Frederick 's Cacique, Mexicali Cantina and, most recently, Mariachi restaurants, said that since about October 2007, business has dropped significantly.
Perez, an immigrant from El Salvador, took his first job in the United States as a dishwasher in a restaurant.
Eleven years later, he opened his first business.
At first, Perez, who cut his teeth as a restaurant owner during two difficult years, from 1991 to 1993, thought he was doing something wrong to see such a drop in his customer base.
But soon he realized factors beyond his control were keeping people away.
Concrete and painting workers who used to come in regularly told him they could no longer afford to eat out.
Other restaurants in the I-270 corridor from Rockville to Frederick are switching owners or looking for buyers, he said.
Instead of plans to open more restaurants, Perez has had to lay off about 20 to 25 percent of his staff. Some people moved to bigger cities, while others told him they were returning to their home countries, he said.
He has had to reduce prices on meals from 25 to 50 percent just to keep the restaurants operating. Managers have pitched in on everything from taking orders to taking out the trash, he said.
Other Latino business owners he knows have had to fire staff and take on family members to help them stay open.
Yet his experience surviving economic difficulties in the early 1990s keeps him optimistic.
"It's given me hope if we hang in there, we may be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.