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Monday, April 6, 2020
News Business As coronavirus fears spread, Milpitas small businesses struggle to keep the lights...

As coronavirus fears spread, Milpitas small businesses struggle to keep the lights on

Come to Taqueria Las Vegas around lunchtime most days and you can—or could—expect to find yourself standing outside the door due to its long line for Mexican food. It’s a pattern coowner Francisco Rodriguez has perfected since opening his restaurant in 2005.

Over the past week, though, business has grinded to a near halt. The surrounding business parking lot has gone quiet. The line still goes out the door, though…but only because the waiting customers are forced to stand at least six feet apart from one another.

The scene is a new normal since the coronavirus pandemic began, forcing the state to ban eating inside restaurants for the weeks to come.

 As the days pass and foot traffic dwindles, Rodriguez wonders if he’ll have money to pay his workers, much less enough left over to pay the building’s rent.

“It’s hard,” said Rodriguez. “We’ve had to cut our staff hours. We still pay them, though. But sometimes, like on our last payroll, there’s nothing left for me.”

Small businesses have been greatly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but the local food-service industry has been hit particularly hard. Restaurants are only allowed to service take-out orders due to a state mandate. Some restaurants that can’t justify shorter hours and a smaller clientele have shuttered completely.

But even if Rodriguez hasn’t closed his doors, he’s been forced to make significant changes. One of the few Milpitas restaurants known for being open late at night, Taqueria Las Vegas has decided to close earlier to save money.

“We’re not in trouble yet,” said Rodriguez. “For us, as long as this shutdown of business isn’t prolonged. We have lines of credit.” 

The stay-at-home order, however, has no definitive end date according to the state, leaving lengthy restaurant shutdowns a possibility. That could force some restaurants to lay off their workers, as owners’ emergency funds dry up.

“There are 13 employees that work with us, and each of them supports their own family,” Rodriguez said. “I’m very concerned about that.”

Keeping the lights on becomes even harder if you haven’t built up a decade-and-a-half’s worth of loyal followers. Jerry Wang, an ex-Marine turned entrepreneur, is the owner of Celsius Ice Cream, a Thai-style ice cream and boba shop that opened in 2018. Although Wang has quickly built a social media following among teens and young people—who make up most of his clientele—the shelter-in-place restrictions have reduced his business by 25 percent.

“It’s a huge drop,” said Wang. “We’re scaling back. We want to stay open and we’re going to stay open for as long as we can.”

Still, the software developer turned ice cream experimenter has been forced to cut an hour of operation each night.

He’s feeling the pinch behind the cash register, too: The vast majority of his workers are teens and adults under 30. Most of them live with their parents, which helps to cushion the financial blow of them working less. But the same can’t be said of Wang.

“When you have such young workers, it’s often up to the parents to decide if they work or not,” Wang said. “And a lot of their parents are understandably worried about their children working.”

In the meantime, Wang said he has some federal government money saved up from a veterans small business fund, but if the coronavirus shutdown reaches past three weeks, that money won’t be enough.

The local economy was acutely on the minds of Milpitas councilmembers Tuesday night as they met by conference call. But during the meeting, the council narrowly rejected a plan, proposed by Councilmember Carmen Montano, to move $100,000 from the city’s general fund to the oversight of the city’s Economic Development and Trade Commission. 

The money presumably would have been used to aid small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, reflecting similar emergency moves by the cities of San Jose and San Francisco

Instead, the council voted to form a new economic development subcommittee headed by councilmembers Karina Dominguez and Montano, devised to provide relief for local business owners.

For Wang, the approved proposal serves as a “non-answer” for restaurateurs seeking relief.

“We donate and support schools like Rancho, Sinnott, and Piedmont High School,” said Wang, who has also regularly donated boba drinks to first responders and healthcare workers at their workplaces since the local pandemic began.

“The community has been supportive from day one, but we still might end up losing the business,” he continued. “[Tuesday’s] vote is putting a damper in our management’s mood.”

Dominguez, who voted in favor of the original $100,000 plan, still hopes to deliver for business owners.

“I bring the same commitment I’ve always had supporting small businesses,” said Dominguez in a follow-up interview with The Beat. “I want them to know we’re with them. I’m excited that we will get to work together on this subcommittee to help with the needs they’re experiencing.”

The newly-formed subcommittee hasn’t yet met, and it’s still unclear what city officials have in store to aid local food-service workers.

Wang relies on his positive attitude, having pledged to post memes, songs, and movie recommendations on his store’s Instagram page to help his customers keep a happy mood.

He does have one bit of advice for those wondering if his business will eventually be OK:

“If you want to support us, you can buy gift cards,” Wang said. “It’s like buying something from us and we get all the money. And you can come back to buy something later.”

He added, “Every little bit helps.”

Rodriguez, who caught wind of the council’s decision through residents, hopes for relief to come soon. For now, he remains hopeful, though he does admit his optimism can be blinding:

“I’m trying to stay positive,” said Rodriguez. “It’s like I have tunnel vision. But I’m hoping there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Lloyd Alaban
Lloyd Alaban is a reporter who has lived in Milpitas his entire life. He has a BA in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz and a MS in Journalism & Mass Communications from San Jose State University. He has written for publications such as AsianWeek, realtor.com, Work+Money, SpareFoot, Uni Watch and San Jose Inside. He’s also worked at tech companies like Yahoo! and Google, and has subbed at every public school in Milpitas — except Pomeroy. In his spare time, he likes playing anything that has to do with trivia (especially watching Jeopardy!), running, drinking beer, reading, and playing with his Siberian Husky.
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