‘A rollercoaster’: Brooklyn’s small businesses still facing challenges despite widespread COVID recovery

Myriam Simpierre inside her Bed-Stuy specialty grocery store, Buy Better Foods.
Photo courtesy of Myriam Simpierre

Two years since COVID-19 first forced the city into lockdown, Brooklyn’s small businesses remain on the rebound, and business owners are continuing to face the impacts of the pandemic.

“It’s been a rollercoaster, for sure,” said Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers. “In the past two years, we’ve seen ups and we’ve seen downs.” 

Speaking with Brooklyn Paper, Peers shed some light on the plight of the small business community and what the borough’s biz-boosting group has been doing to support those still struggling.

While things have been on the upswing since the darkest days of the pandemic, many small businesses saw a slowdown during the past holiday season, due to a surge in the Omicron variant — with 20 percent of owners closing their doors temporarily to wait it out and some 77 percent of businesses seeing a reduction in their holiday sales, according to surveys conducted by Peers and his team. 

On top of that, only 41 percent of businesses reported an increase in year-over-year revenues from 2020 to 2021, according to new figures released by the Chamber on March 16.

And though much of the city has reopened, small businesses have not returned to full normalcy as they face labor shortages, supply chain issues, and overdue back rent with the eviction moratorium recently expiring.

“We still have sectors of the economy experiencing labor shortages,” said Peers, who noted that, despite hiring trending upward, many remain hesitant to return to non-remote work — making it hard to fill roles in certain sectors. “We don’t have enough servers and we don’t have enough early childhood care.”

And those supply chain issues are only expected to worsen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine locking up many resources coming from Europe, the Chamber honcho said.

‘A marathon, not a sprint’

Issues like supply chain and lost revenue aren’t as easy for the Chamber to remedy as other issues, such as understanding the vaccine mandates that businesses were required to abide by. 

Still, the group is continuing to support business owners through its Small Business Resource Network, which offers financing and technical support to local businesses in need, and which has grown significantly over the course of the pandemic.

Brooklyn Alliance Capital, Inc., the financing arm of the chamber, offers low-interest loans to immigrant and minority-owned businesses and low-income small business owners to aid their financial stability and create jobs in the borough.

As of early February, the organization issued over 51 loans through the program, Peers said, totaling just over $447,000.

The Chamber loans don’t require good credit for approval, but instead are character-based — opening many more business owners up to the financial aid — and if the loans stay in good standing, it’ll help their approval odds down the road.

The owner of a Bedford-Stuyvesant health food store who received funding from Brooklyn Alliance Capital said the money helped her launch advertising campaigns for her store — which opened in April 2020 — as she had trouble getting visibility during the pandemic. 

“It helped out a lot in terms of operating expenses and marketing efforts,” said Myriam Simpierre, owner of Buy Better Foods on Kosciuszko Street. “Also, campaign ads which helped with more visibility.”

And while it hasn’t been smooth sailing for many Brooklyn businesses, Peers told Brooklyn Paper that he’s attended more ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the past year than he ever did in his time with the Chamber.

“We’ve lost businesses along the way that have closed permanently,” he said, “but we’ve also seen a lot of new businesses open. The Chamber has done more ribbon-cuttings in the last 12 months than I’ve ever experienced as a Chamber executive.” 

Peers said that shoppers supporting their local businesses — not just once, but regularly — is key to their recovery.

“[Shoppers] have to be intentional,” he said. “The competition isn’t the store down the block anymore, the competition is online.”

Consumers also need to have patience with their local merchants, Peers said, as business owners have little to no say over labor shortages and lack of merchandise.

“We’ve got to be a little patient, and we’ve got to be a little understanding,” he told Brooklyn Paper.

As Brooklyn businesses continue to buoy themselves to the other side of the pandemic, Peers stressed that shop owners should keep the Chamber on speed-dial.

“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” he said, encouraging businesses to utilize everything in their arsenal right now: from takeout and delivery to outdoor dining and the Open Streets program. “If they are barely hanging on, [they should] call us, we will do whatever we can.”