Don’t Surrender, Reinvent: The New Mantra Of Small Biz In Puerto Rico

Just seven months ago, Puerto Rican chef Jose Sanchez opened the restaurant of his dreams: a place where you could feel like you were in Italy one day, and like you were in France the next.

Puerto Rican chef Jose Sanchez inside his restaurant Pera Maraya. “Everything was going perfect,” says Sanchez, 28. “Then the storm hit.”

He served up fusion cuisine and called it Pera Maraya. There was deconstructed ratatouille, caprese salad with octopus. The restaurant in Carolina, east of San Juan, was getting rave reviews: five stars on Yelp, Trip Advisor and Facebook. He spent nearly a decade saving up to open this restaurant, and was overjoyed at how quickly it found success.

“Everything was going perfect,” says Sanchez, 28. “Then the storm hit.”

Hurricane Maria, which blew through Puerto Rico four weeks ago, nearly destroyed his property. The damage was heavy, though still fixable. But he wasn’t prepared for what followed: across the island, there was almost no electricity, no running water, no telecommunications. He laid off his six-person staff and closed up shop.

Electrical wires are exposed inside the restaurant.
Photo Credit: Christina Cala / NPR

Small businesses like Sanchez’s were the backbone of Puerto Rico’s economy. They employed more than 80 percent of all private sector workers in Puerto Rico, according to a 2016 survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

But the big question now is how the economy will possibly recover. Small shops face a mountain of challenges: can they receive emergency aid? Can they repair their storefronts? Will customers ever return?

That all depends on whether owners can se levanta — get up — says Alessandra Correa, a local business leader in San Juan. It’s a phrase that’s been repeated over and over again by Puerto Ricans since the storm hit. “We have to fight,” she says.

“Fight for our businesses, for our employees and our economy. Giving up is not an option.”

That’s why today Sanchez is slinging Styrofoam containers of fried steak and eggs for workers at Correa’s office in San Juan. It’s a far cry from the six-course tasting menu he whipped up at his restaurant. He’s hoping to raise $5,000 to buy a food truck so he can start over.

It was an idea suggested by Correa, who had been a regular at Pera Maraya. She called him up after she saw the restaurant shuttered as she passed by one day. “Where are you?” she asked Sanchez. He was just sitting at home. “You can cook. You’re still alive, right?” She invited him to set the pop-up lunch at her office. “Go ahead,” she says. “Come sell your food here.”

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Correa is the founder of Inprende, a startup that helps entrepreneurs get off the ground. Since the storm forced many small businesses to close, her office has been buzzing with owners who’ve come to seek help on how to get back up and running. It’s advice she usually charges for — but is now giving away for free to anyone who needs it. The place has a hip Silicon Valley feel: a ping pong table, a bright blue shag rug and copies of Harvard Business Review in the waiting area.

Before the hurricane, Sanchez tried to cover up the walls with plywood. It helped salvage the ironwork and glass doors but he has no idea where his patio fence went.
Christina Cala / NPR

While Sanchez was using Correa’s space to host his pop-up lunch, others were using it for WiFi and power from a generator. At one end of the ping pong table was Emmanuel Oquendo, the 24-year-old founder of BrainHi, an app that helps patients book doctors’ appointments through Facebook.

He considers Correa a “personal mentor.” When a big potential client pulled out of buying his product after the hurricane, Correa advised him to dig deep and find the opportunity in Maria. He realized that the lack of cell phone service on the island could make his app more appealing. People still needed to go to the doctor’s, but they couldn’t call and make appointments. They did, however, have access to some WiFi, which meant access to Facebook.

But local business leaders like Correa can only help their peers so much. In times of crisis, the government should be doing even more to provide support and resources to small businesses, says Arnaldo Cruz, director of research and analytics for Foundation for Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that promotes economic development on the island.

The stakes are high. If the island’s small businesses fail, that could mean massive layoffs and unemployment on top of an already disastrous economic situation: billions of dollars in hurricane recovery efforts on top of the island’s pre-existing $74 billion debt crisis.

On Tuesday, the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DEDC) of Puerto Rico hosted a workshop for businesses on how to apply for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration and the Puerto Rico Economic Development Bank. Mostly, how to fill out its very complicated forms.

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Sanchez looks at two air conditioners that blew off the back of the roof.
Christina Cala/NPR

It’s all the help that the government can offer at the moment, says Manuel Laboy, the secretary of the DEDC. “Puerto Rico doesn’t have the resources to inject money into the economy. We don’t have that cash.”

Cruz, who did not attend the meeting, heard from others in the business community that the meeting was not very helpful. To apply for a loan with the Small Business Administration, for example, businesses would need to gather their paperwork. Find a computer and WiFi to fill out forms. Then the office has to evaluate the application. In some cases, that could take up to six to nine months.

“Small businesses don’t have time,” says Cruz. “They’re gonna run out of business in the next couple of weeks.”

That’s why his organization is trying to figure out ways to disburse money right now. They’re distributing up to $5,000 in cash grants to 50 small businesses that show the most promise of making a profit. Restaurants that just need enough money to cover one or two payrolls are good investments – they’re likely to survive after Maria. A gift shop geared to tourists in front of a hotel that just shut down, not so much.

The underlying message of the aid: “Just don’t close. Don’t surrender,” says Cruz.

For Sanchez, the restaurant is gone for now. But it doesn’t mean that he surrendered. After hosting four or five pop-up lunches at Inprende, he almost has the $5,000 he needs for the food truck.

He knows things can’t go back to the way they were before. Since Maria, many of his customers have moved out of Puerto Rico or don’t have the means to pay for a $31 plate of lobster in Manchego cheese sauce. If he ever reopens the restaurant, he’s thinking maybe he’ll cook high quality comfort foods at a lower cost, like the steak and eggs.

He reminds himself what Correa, the entrepreneur, told him: He may have lost everything. But he can still cook.


This feature first appeared in NPR.

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