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Broken glass, broken dreams: Small businesses ravaged by protests and COVID-19 contemplate an uncertain future

Gannett //June 18, 2020//

Broken glass, broken dreams: Small businesses ravaged by protests and COVID-19 contemplate an uncertain future

Gannett //June 18, 2020//

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Joel Stallworth poses for a portrait in his store, The Small Shop LA, in Downtown Los Angeles. Stallworth's store was one of the dozens of stores across Los Angeles that were looted. (Photo/Harrison Hill/USA Today)

Jessica Guynn
USA Today

Joel Stallworth is smiling in front of his tiny boarded-up shop in downtown Los Angeles. He’s wearing a black T-shirt he designed not long after looters swarmed through the smashed door and carried out armloads of clothing and accessories.

Around a photograph of The Small Shop LA in tatters, red lettering says: “We love y’all. Thanks for the energy.” And that’s his message for every single person who walked out with his merchandise on May 29: “That is not a stolen good. That is a fight for freedom.”

“You can have it and wear it with pride. You can take a picture and post it on Instagram,” Stallworth says. “Stick your head up. You are amazing. These protests are the only reason we got these police officers arrested.”

Five years ago, he opened his 300-square-foot storefront on a historic stretch of downtown Los Angeles carrying streetwear, including his own brand, Lost in LA. One of the most popular T-shirts: “Love Is Energy.”

Watching over him on the wall of his shop is a picture of his grandfather Bishop Lewis Dolphin Stallworth Sr., a police chaplain whose name graces a charter school in Stockton. The picture says: “Go With God.”

The night his store was looted, Stallworth’s phone rang nonstop. This is what he told his worried friends. “Let them do whatever they have to do. Right now I want to focus on lives. Lives over shops. I understand the hurt. Sometimes we gotta go to war for it to be a better day. If they have to burn down my shop to save an unarmed human from being slaughtered in the streets, if this is what it takes, if one person can get saved, then my shop has done its work.”

From coast to coast, small businesses reel

Behind all the broken glass are broken dreams. From a Chinese restaurant in Seattle to a New Jersey liquor store, small businesses have been ravaged by looting following the death of George Floyd in police custody, dealing a second crippling blow to those already reeling from COVID-19.

Years of hard work and life savings were wiped out overnight, putting reopening plans on hold and forcing small businesses to seek relief from insurers or their communities.

The losses have been particularly devastating to minority-owned businesses, which typically don’t have as much cash on hand and aren’t insured against damage during protests. 

These businesses were already being disproportionately harmed by the pandemic, says Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The coronavirus has hit African Americans harder than other groups, with higher mortality rates and greater job losses, a harrowing setback that many fear will deepen existing inequities.

Fairlie’s recent study for the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research shows the number of active business owners in the United States plunged by 3.3 million or 22% from February to April when the coronavirus shut down the economy, the steepest decline on record.

African American businesses fell the most – 41% – followed by Latino business owners 32% and Asian business owners 26%. Damage from looting, Fairlie said, “is going to make things even worse.”

Snapshots of small businesses across America reveal a range of complicated emotions and reactions.

Business owners told USA Today they share protesters’ pain over Floyd, who was laid to rest last week in Houston, and many of them have taken to the streets to make their own voices heard.

They support uprisings across the country that are leading to a much needed and long-deferred national reckoning with police brutality and racial injustice. And they point out that the looting was often not the work of protesters, but outside agitators and opportunists. But as they sweep up shattered pieces of their lives, some say they’ve become needless victims of misplaced anger and senseless destruction.

‘It saddens me that I can’t even be sad about my shop’

What it means to be black in America is something Stallworth knows all too intimately.

He was raised in Stockton, Calif., a city east of San Francisco hard-hit by the 2008 housing crisis that is one of the nation’s most diverse yet suffers from chronic economic and health disparities and racial tensions.

Stallworth, one of 10 children, graduated from California State University Stanislaus. A two-sport athlete, basketball and track, he qualified for the Olympic trials in 2008 and last year was inducted into the California Collegiate Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

He didn’t study fashion, but on his own began making the kind of clothing and hats he longed to wear. People stopped him so many times on the street, his wife persuaded Stallworth to make a career out of it.

“I love people,” Stallworth says. “I try to be as positive as I possibly can.”

A year ago, a white manager of a Nike store in Santa Monica accused him of stealing a $12 basketball he had just purchased for his toddler and called police. Nike later apologized and fired the manager.

Stallworth says he’s been thrown into the backseat of a police cruiser for no reason. His goal is for his 2-year-old son to never know that kind of terror and for Floyd’s young daughter to know the power of her father’s life and legacy.

“It saddens me that I can’t even be sad about my shop. But I am thinking about the little girl who will never see her dad physically again. How can I go to her and say: ‘Hey, they messed up my shop which I have insurance on.’ How can I go to her and say: ‘I’m mad,’” Stallworth says. “I don’t want her to ever read an article that says the guy at The Small Shop LA is complaining about this after the police stuck his knee on her father’s neck. It doesn’t make me feel right. I can replace everything that was stolen and, if I can’t, who cares?”

A GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $13,000. Stallworth says he will use the funds, not to rebuild, but to “move up.”

“I don’t want to go back to the old ways,” he says. “Why rebuild something that was never for us?”

One morning following the uprisings, Stallworth woke up crying, a mixture of grief at the state of the world and joy at the outpouring of support from the Los Angeles community.

“This right here,” he says, “is going to elevate humanity. We don’t have to look at this as a bad thing as far as the looters. We don’t have to ostracize looters. I don’t 100% agree with them, but people are out here looting because of a black life, because of a human life, because of a good person’s life, a person who will never see his child again.”

The real looters? “The people who are supposed to protect the law. The looters are the people who stuck their knee down on a man’s neck.”

‘All we do is serve Chinese food’

Under a bright red awning in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District is one of the city’s popular dim sum joints. A colorful mural on the plywood covering the front window shows the cityscape with the message: “We’re open!” Above is a “Black Lives Matter” sign.

In the kitchen, steam rises from pots. Cooks chop ginger, scallions, Chinese broccoli and green beans at a fevered pace. The aroma of pork and shrimp dumplings fills the restaurant as the phone rings with order after order. Not a single ray of sunlight peeks through the boarded-up windows.

The Jade Garden restaurant in Seattle's International District was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic then a robbery after George Floyd protests. (Photo/Eric Chan)

“It’s pretty much like a war zone,” says Eric Chan whose family swung open the doors to Jade Garden nearly two decades ago. They’ve been open every day since. But never before have the days been quite this hard or quite this long.

First the coronavirus outbreak that originated in China fueled age-old prejudices against those of Chinese ancestry, hurting business. Then the extended shutdown vaporized 95% of Jade Garden’s sales. Ongoing social distancing regulations have put the restaurant’s future at risk. Even now that Jade Garden is permitted to operate at 25% capacity, such a small restaurant, with just 18 tables, means Chan can only seat diners at four tables.

“This is crippling us,” he says. “We are taking it month by month.”

For up to 14 hours a day, Chan, the first in his family to go to college, has struggled to pay the mortgage and keep afloat the restaurant that is his extended family’s only income.

Jade Garden used to have a staff of 40. Even with a takeout business up and running, employees earning more on unemployment from the safety of their homes decided not to risk returning to work, so Chan’s mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, aunt and best friend from college have pitched in to help the cooks in the kitchen.

The pandemic pressures keep piling up. Higher food costs are taking a bigger bite out of meager margins. Chan even ran out of soy sauce packets and to-go boxes.

At the end of March, someone cracked a window trying to break into Jade Garden, setting him back $2,000. Rather than risking another break-in, Chan paid $1,500 to board up all the windows.

Then late on the night of May 31 following peaceful protests, a small group ripped the plywood off the windows, stole money from the cash register and ransacked the restaurant in what Chan believes was the work of a small band of thieves using the protests as cover.

“What happened to George Floyd was disgusting. I feel so terrible. We are not turning a blind eye. Here in the Asian community, we see what’s going on,” Chan says. “What’s happening is a revolution. But what’s happening with the revolution, you have opportunists who want to take advantage of this for their own personal gain. That’s really hard. It makes me sad and speechless.”

Chan and his family started cleaning up the debris after midnight and finished up around 4 a.m., one hour before their workday began. A friend started a GoFundMe campaign.

“We are just trying to hold ourselves together, but obviously there are less fortunate businesses right now that are being hit even harder than us,” Chan says. “What they are going through, I can’t even imagine. Closing up shop permanently is just devastating.”

‘My heart breaks for my fellow business owners’

A stream of haunting images and words on social media about Floyd’s death shook Raleigh native Megan George Cain while she was holding her newborn son.

Looters broke the front window of Megan George Cain's store, The Zen Succulent, in Raleigh. (Photo/Allie Mullin Photography/The Zen Succulent)“I am a first-time mother. Knowing that my black son, my African American son, could potentially meet that same fate, hit me like a wave, hit me like a tsunami,” she says. “Because, even though I’m African American, it’s a whole other story when you have the future in your hands and you see how that future can be taken away so viciously.”

The past few months had already been difficult for The Zen Succulent, her plant and gift shop.

Growing up, her parents’ home overflowed with lush green houseplants – the foyer had a 20-foot palm tree, long vines trailed from the kitchen to the den, the backyard had ferns and hosta plants – and her chore was caring for them all. “I learned to care for something other than myself,” she says.

What began as a passion project in 2012 with her mom Margaret George, a research scientist who moonlights as a terrarium artist, has blossomed into a thriving small business with two airy brick-and-mortar locations and an e-commerce site, tilled by revived interest in custom terrariums, mini-gardens that bring the outdoors in and can turn anyone into an amateur horticulturist. In 2016, Cain was even asked to create a living wall installation with faux succulents and preserved mosses set in native North Carolina hardwood for HGTV.

During COVID-19, she temporarily closed the storefronts in downtown Durham and Raleigh, furloughing most of her employees and making deliveries to people’s doorsteps. With the economy restarting, she was busy restocking The Zen Succulent and preparing to reopen her stores when streets filled with protesters.

In the early morning hours Sunday, as she was breastfeeding her son, her phone rang. The Raleigh store had been broken into. Cain woke her husband and together they watched a remote video feed.

“You are seeing what’s happening but feeling so helpless. There is nothing we can do. We can’t run out there and stop them,” she says. “The protesters had all gone home. This was a rowdy group that went from street to street breaking things for the sake of breaking things.”

At daybreak, Cain gingerly stepped through broken glass into her store. Alcohol soaked paper goods and plants, her “living inventory.” Pots lay shattered on the floor. An installation by a local artist was torn to pieces. The cash register and purchase order system were broken, laptops stolen.

“You are seeing all of this as you walk by our sign that says, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she says. “All that hard work going down the drain, your heart sinks. You quickly try to remember that no one was hurt and all of these things can be replaced.”

Looters broke the front window of Megan George Cain's store, The Zen Succulent, in Raleigh. (Photo/Allie Mullin Photography/The Zen Succulent)Within an hour the community showed up. Hundreds of people converged on the block, offering to help her and other business owners. Messages flooded her Facebook and Instagram accounts and pinged her phone.

An online fundraiser by a concerned community member quickly raised more than $8,000. Cain says she’ll use the funds to support other small businesses. “It makes your heart so full,” she says.

Still, the aftershocks keep coming. Ahead are difficult conversations with her insurance company and her landlord. In the meantime, just to replace the 15-by-15-foot double-pane window — which used to lure passersby with glimpses of artfully curated plants and goods — will set her back $16,000, more than what she pays in rent for a majority of the year.

“If I have to pay that expense, I am going to have to cut back on other things, and that’s just for the glass, not even counting the inventory,” she says.

She’s far from the only one facing a long road back.

“As a black business owner, my heart breaks for my fellow business owners,” Cain says. “As a black business owner as well, I feel for the people that thought this was a way to be heard, that their voice was so stifled that they had to go into the streets and riot and burn things and break things because their heart is broken like mine.”

‘We lost our livelihood, George Floyd lost his life’

Kacey White and Charles Stotts collectively spent four decades cooking and working in other people’s restaurants before realizing their dream in 2016 of opening their own.

Stotts, a Minneapolis native, had longed to move back to the Twin Cities after 17 years. “It really was the only thing we talked about for years,” White says.

Kacey White and Charles Stotts lost the building that housed their restaurant Town Talk Diner & Gastropub after the Minneapolis Police Department precinct 150 yards away was set ablaze during protests. (Photo/Kacey White and Charles Stotts)A marquee, itself a registered historical landmark, lit up the entryway to the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub, a 1940s-era greasy spoon diner that the husband-and-wife team transformed into a modern eatery serving a seasonal menu from the bounty of local farmers.

Regulars used to fight over who got to sit on the original diner stools. Stotts and White greeted every guest from the semi-open kitchen as they whipped up handmade pastas, BBQ ribs and a seven vegetable coconut forbidden rice dessert. House rules? “Come early. Stay late. Eat better. Be happy.”

“I can still hear the joyous sound of guests filling the dining room on a Friday night or the faces of pure pleasure when guests took their first bite of our cast iron skillet pancake or johnnycake on a Sunday morning,” White says.

The restaurant, which was 150 yards from the 3rd Precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis Police Department, took years to build and two days to destroy.

The first night, windows were smashed. The bar, stocked with local spirits, house-made bitters and a large collection of wine, was emptied. Hand-painted banquettes blown off the wall. Pillows scorched.

Stotts and White waded through ankle-deep water still pouring from the sprinkler system into the 50-seat dining room filled with cast iron and wood tables.

“Fortunately, there wasn’t much damage in the kitchen and it appeared that, while it would take some time, we would be able to repair all the damage,” White recalls.

The restoration company ordered new windows and Stotts and White boarded up the restaurant. Already weary from months of holding their business together with curbside pickup and takeout, they joined the early evening protests outside.

“Everything about it felt to me like that night was the bad night and this was where Minneapolis would start to turn the corner,” Stotts says.

Instead, the precinct was set ablaze and, by dawn when the smoke cleared, all that remained of the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub was rubble. Among the ashes were handwritten books of recipes painstakingly collected over decades. Stotts and White wept over the ruined business, joined by neighborhood regulars.

“Charles and I were the only kitchen crew, we were the prep cooks, the pastry chefs, the line cooks, the dishwashers, the chefs, the accountants, sometimes the bussers, bartenders, servers, even the plumbers,” White says. “We loved our restaurant and the family we built there.”

Clayborn Turbeville, who started a GoFundMe for the couple, says his friends never took time off, not for their birthdays or wedding anniversary. Yet, the morning after the restaurant burned to the ground, when Turbeville railed at how unfair it was, Stotts told him: “We lost our livelihood and our dream, George Floyd lost his life. I wish I could have been there to stand up for him, to stand up for what’s right. We will rebuild.’”

“That’s the type of person Chuck is,” Turbeville says.

The funds will go toward opening a new neighborhood establishment in Minneapolis. Today the restaurant’s website bears this message: “Praying for the Family of George Floyd, Minneapolis — St. Paul, and all the southern neighborhoods, particularly Longfellow.”

“Our goal is to keep cooking. That’s what we know,” White says. “It’s a difficult situation for the community here and in other cities right now. While the destruction of things is painful, the destruction of people’s lives is so much more painful. Everything is really raw and sensitive for everybody right now.”

And the marquee sign? “What was left of it, we donated to the Science Museum of Minnesota for their race exhibit,” White says.

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next’

Amin Arias left his native Dominican Republic by himself when he was 16 for Trenton, N.J., where his brother worked at a mini mart grocery store.

Three years later, he and his brother bought the mini mart and they ran it together for the next 14 years. In 2013, Arias sold his half of the business and used the money to buy Tony’s Liquors, a 2,500-square-foot liquor store on East Hanover Street in downtown Trenton.

Tony's Liquors, owned by Amin Arias, was looted during the protests May 31. (Photo/Latino Merchant Association of New Jersey)A key reason for the move: Arias wanted his business to be in a safer neighborhood. The store, located just two blocks from Trenton City Hall, should be much safer to operate, he reasoned. “It was in the center of the city,” Arias said. “I thought it’d be more secure.”

Arias, who is vice president of the Latino Merchant Association of New Jersey, was working at his store on May 31 when protesters began amassing downtown. He handed out bags of chips and bottles of cold water to protesters and even took a photo with them. At around 7 p.m., he closed the shop and headed home.

Later that evening, he began getting calls from employees who live in an apartment above the liquor store: People were trying to break in. He opened an app on his phone that’s connected to security cameras at the store and saw streams of people running in and out with armfuls of bottles and merchandise.

“It changed my life,” Arias said of those initial grainy images on his phone. “Everything I had worked so hard for was just being taken away.”

A local resident on the scene was filming the looting on his Facebook Live page and Arias saw more people pillaging his store. He also saw Carl, the 67-year-old employee who helps with stocking and lives nearby, confronting looters. Arias sped toward his store to help out. By the time he got there, however, the police had chased away the looters.

What he saw made his heart sink: The front rollaway security door had been ripped from its hinges. Shelves were emptied. Bottles were smashed in jagged heaps on the floor. Someone had tried to set fire to the store in two place

Overall, looters took more than $350,000 worth of liquor and cash from the store. Arias said his insurance may cover up to $80,000, likely less. In his seven years owning the liquor store, he hadn’t had even a single robbery. Now, his store laid in ruins.

“All my efforts — 16 years to now — in the garbage,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The merchant association he belongs to started a GoFundMe page to raise money for Arias and other businesses that were damaged.

At home, Arias has trouble sleeping at night and his 9-year-old daughter worries every time he leaves the house.

Amin Arias hands out free meals to customers of his liquor store in Trenton, N.J. (Photo/Latino Merchant Association of New Jersey)Starting last month, the merchant association has handed out 3,000 hot meals to help people affected by the coronavirus. In the looting videos, Arias spotted a few of the people he helped with meals pillaging his store.

“It breaks your heart,” he said. “The question is: Why? It’s just very hard.”

Trenton has a thriving Latino business community. According to a 2019 report from the New Jersey Policy Perspective think tank, immigrants own a higher share of Main Street businesses in New Jersey than in any other state other than California, generating about $1 billion in economic activity every year.

Sixty of the 100 or so businesses which suffered damage in downtown Trenton belong to the Latino Merchant Association of New Jersey, according to its president Manuel Hernandez says.

“All Latinos, we feel their pain,” he says of the protesters. “We go through the same thing, day in and day out. We know there have to be some changes in the way that the police approach minorities. But our mom-and-pop stores should never be looted. We are always helping out the community.”

Ricky Jervis for USA Today contributed to this story.