We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nicole to learn more about her and the work she is doing to support immigrant-owned restaurants and small businesses in South Philadelphia’s 9th Street corridor.
Nicole is a Philadelphia native who moved to Spain as a small child, spending most of her youth in the Basque Country. She returned to the U.S. to complete her last year of High School in California, with the intent of returning back to Spain, but after a semester at Santa Monica Community College she knew she would miss the multicultural aspect the U.S. offers and decided to stay, later completing her university degree in English Literature at UCSC.
She arrived in Philadelphia, via New York City where she worked as a translator and web producer. She owned and operated a food business on Girard Avenue for seven years, and some of her entrepreneurial passions include being on the lookout for new opportunities, visual merchandising, and networking.
Pictured: Nicole (second from right) with members of the mutual support subcommittee at Alma de Mar, discussing the plastic bag ban and researching environment friendly containers.
Nicole, please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to TWC.
I was working at the School District of Philadelphia in the Translation Unit of the Office of Family & Community Engagement. A client needed help filling out a form in English. The form was an exit survey for a program she had been involved in at The Welcoming Center. I didn’t know about TWC, but as I was translating the English questions to her in Spanish, I became very interested in the program she had attended and started to ask her about it. She started telling me about the Immigrant Leadership Institute and someone named Manuel Portillo and I thought, “Wow, I’d like to learn more about this organization.”
There was a job posting for the Entrepreneurship program. I decided to apply because I have experience working with immigrants and I have experience starting a small business. I joined the team in 2018.
Please tell us more about your experience starting and operating a small business in Philadelphia.
A lot of family members have their own businesses, like my mother, my father, my grandfather, so it’s in the family line.
After coming to the U.S. and finishing college I worked in the corporate world for a little bit, and then in nonprofits, and then I said the last thing I need to try is opening up my own business.
In 2006, I opened a little shop called Quince that sold food from Spain. At the time it was on 2nd and Girard and that area was part of the American Street Empowerment Zone so there were great financial incentives for opening businesses such as ½ off rent for the first year.
I had a great run. We had the store for about 7 years. I opened another business next door with some friends and customers. It was a consignment shop. We had our own commercial corridor and revitalization moment there before all of the action moved to Frankford Ave.
What I enjoyed the most was the community building aspect – of just knowing the customers, learning about their lives, their jobs, their own businesses, making connections. We used to have art openings, live music, tapas on the sidewalk. A lot of people I know in Philadelphia have been through the business and you realize how important connections are in the success of the business and in every aspect of life, and how it’s helped me with this job at TWC.
Having owned my own business gives me a better understanding of what it is like to be behind the counter, and to be completely overwhelmed by orders coming in, and then be completely discouraged by no one coming in if it’s a rainy day or if it’s a beautiful day. Just not knowing what tomorrow is going to look like, despite all the forecasting and planning and revenue streams you create. I know all the highs and the lows and this gives me more empathy towards business owners.
At TWC, we work with micro enterprises, so maybe 1, 2, or 3 family members who have to wear all different hats at the business. Some of them you enjoy doing more than others and finding that balance between all of the roles that a merchant has to fulfill is something I am familiar with.
Speaking of highs and lows, this past year must have brought a lot of challenges due to the pandemic and Covid-related restrictions on businesses. What have the business owners been doing to mitigate these challenges?
There is not much of an option to close. Everything has just been pared down. For example, a restaurant that might have employed 8-10 people is down to 3 or 4 so everyone is doing more. The owner is now serving tables, doing dishes, delivering orders, instead of having different employees fulfill those different duties.
Which, in speaking to some of the restaurant owners, they have further realized the great importance and value of the employees who have been loyal to them for many years. Because things just get done, and sometimes you forget who does it. It has brought about a greater appreciation for staff.
Small business and restaurant owners have also become really innovative with the time and resources that they have in order to keep the doors open. For example, increasing their deliveries, signing up with 3rd party companies if they weren’t already on those systems. Luckily through Puentes de Salud (a nonprofit in South Philadelphia that TWC partners with), many of the restaurants in the 9th Street corridor in South Philadelphia were able to connect with food contracts for nonprofits offering them a steady weekly income. With all of the uncertainty, this has allowed them to know how much money exactly they can account for, they can prepare for inventory and all of their prep. This has given them steady weekly income.
Connections to opportunities that were offered to everybody have also been essential. But those connections can only be fulfilled if you can fill out an online form in English. So that’s where Puentes de Salud and TWC have become important to facilitate those connections.
I know that business owners were very very sad about having to reduce hours drastically or having to let people go for a few months, but when they had to close businesses for a week many of them split the current inventory among employees so that everyone got something. When they heard of resources, like the food boxes, that different organizations were giving out, they referred their staff members to take advantage of those opportunities.
I think this past year has been a time where community has almost gotten stronger because we are all in it together. It has affected everyone. Those ties and connections for survival items like food have created a tighter network. And this network is all word of mouth – the human element is so important.
Other business owners have dipped into their savings to keep their doors open and thankfully some grant money is coming in, but it is very small in comparison to what larger businesses with better connections have gotten.
I’m assuming the online forms you talk about are to apply for city, state, and federal grants. Is the City providing any of this information in multiple languages?
There have been flyers in Spanish. So, you could read what you need to be eligible for the grants, what documents are required, but then the actual application is in English and only online.
I’ve heard from others in the entrepreneurship field that even for English speakers, sometimes the technical terminology isn’t understandable. For example, the term “Upload.” It doesn’t mean anything to some people. Upload what? How? How do I get it into the computer? So, there is also a digital literacy component to accessing these grants that needs to be addressed.
It’s great that this help is available, but to be equitable, it must be accessible.
The City has relied on organizations such as TWC and several other technical assistance providers that have multi-lingual staff members but may not have the accounting or financial expertise necessary for some of these applications. This can be very stressful and should only be a stop-gap measure as more sustainable, long-term solutions are developed.
Nicole, can we back up and hear about the work that’s been happening with small businesses and restaurants in South Philadelphia?
This all began in the Spring of 2020 when I met someone from Puentes de Salud who had been supporting restaurant owners to fulfill contracts for food delivery with nonprofits in the city.
At that point we (TWC) had just finished our last business training course which started in person in Oxford Circle and ended up online through Zoom. I decided that helping existing businesses would take priority over opening new businesses.
Having connections to many businesses in the same geographic area in South Philadelphia and the strong partnership with Puentes de Salud, just really gave me access. It took a few months to go visit them, and introduce myself and tell them what I do, and to find work that we could do together. The idea of the outdoor sidewalk permits came about because of the heavy COVID-related restrictions on indoor dining capacity. So we started working on the permits and once a couple of the “streeteries” went up, it was easier for me to get engaged with other merchants because it was something physical and tangible that I could say that I had been involved with that and if you think it would be beneficial to your business, I can help you with getting the permit.
And then the group of merchants started getting together. The first in-person meeting was in October of 2020. We convened 12-14 business we were working with to be part of a focus group that the City was having for their entrepreneurship ecosystem study.
The City wanted to look at the entrepreneurship ecosystem and understand where the gaps were – what things are working and what things are not working. So we convened 12-14 merchants to this meeting, and I was just there as a note taker and someone else was doing the interpretation.
There was someone there from a consulting firm that was hired by the City to conduct this study. And they asked the questions, we interpreted, we took notes, and we submitted the notes to the consulting firm.
But at the end of the meeting there was an energy in the room that called for action. Because as the merchants said, so many times people come and they ask us questions and do their little research and do their study and this might be a thesis for university or whatever it is, and then . . . . NOTHING happens.
Right? So though they came and they gave their time, and I think the consulting firm actually came with gift cards, I think it was $75 gift cards, as a demonstration that we appreciate your time, you are stepping away from your business, so here is a token of gratitude.
But besides the gift card, there was this shared feeling of “We are going this rough pandemic, we are receiving no help, and all we get are questions, so what now?”
There was a moment of realization by the group of merchants that they all have the same shared interests and the same shared challenges, and that they were experts of their own experiences and could find solutions together. They asked themselves “What can we do as a group to support ourselves and one another?”
We (TWC and Puentes de Salud) felt responsible for coming up with a solution because we had invited the merchants to the focus group meeting so we worked together to identify some of their specific challenges to begin addressing.
A couple of the challenges they identified were having no access to the financial relief from the state and federal level and no connection to loans. Even though there are CDFIs, it just has never worked for most small merchants, the collateral requirements are too high, there is no trust in continuity and in the relationship between merchants and CDFIs, no one is meeting each other in the middle. I have an offering, but I am not walking in your direction. There is a lot of work to be done in that area.
And another challenge was if we don’t have access to loans, how are we ever going to buy commercial properties, which was everyone’s dream. Because one of the questions that the consultants asked during the focus group was “How do you see the future of your business?”
And many of the merchants realized that buying a commercial property is a great asset, it allows you to think in the long-term because you have the security of owning the space, it is an investment for possible retirement funds, or something to pass along to your children. But it is an almost unattainable goal.
So, there was definitely talk about inequalities when it comes to accessing relief funds or loans.
That is what we took, and they said they very are tired of hearing about the grant and loan opportunities that they did not qualify for. So our main job became to search for these opportunities and really make sure that they were able to apply for them- so we were only presenting good fits for the group. And that has been a lot of the work with the group. That is the work I have been supporting them with.
The group of merchants on their own decided they wanted to formalize and become a nonprofit. They saw the great importance of having this group of merchants become a formalized association because that will bring the group to a whole other level of formality, of structure, of recognition, of visibility, of greater representation. It will be a nonprofit so they will have access to write their own grants for the work they want to do.
During the pandemic the community networks became tighter and have given them more time and greater union to come together. Now more than ever they are not seeing themselves as competitors but as members of the same team – “La unión hace la fuerza.” United we are stronger.
Video: A video to say ‘thank you’, created by the South Philly Mexican Business COVID Relief Fund, supported by TWC and Puentes de Salud.
Whatever happened with the study that the City commissioned?
The study is not out yet, but we received an email from the consulting firm last week stating that the study will be published soon and asking if we could reconvene the merchants. We wrote them an email asking them what they have to offer.
Nicole, what I’m hearing is the power of collective voices and how that is louder and has more gravity so that the “powers that be” may listen more. The importance of organizing, finding commonality and coming together and finding that voice to make change happen is a lesson that I am drawing here. Instead of competing, let’s find what we can all come together for and make some kind of change for all of us to benefit from.
Yes. What I forgot to mention is that it’s important for the group to relay that contributions of immigrant owned businesses are great for economic reasons, for community building reasons, and that is part of the recognition that they would like to achieve by unifying their voices. This is also the goal as well as sharing their cultural traditions via food, or crafts and arts like Eva from Chocolate. To see immigrants as people offering, not people asking.
Many of the changes that have happened in that neighborhood I think the contributions of these business from 20 years on until now have been outstanding. I mean there was nothing south of Washington Avenue. Everything was abandoned dilapidated, dirty, dark at night, not an appealing place.
Try to buy a house around there now. It’s ridiculous. All of the prices have shot up and all of sudden what’s happening is the neighborhood around it has become very affluent. And those that were part of bringing the corridor back to life have done well for themselves, but they have not received the recognition of bringing life back to the neighborhood as much as they should.
And that includes the Asian population more along Washington Avenue with all the restaurants and all of the stores.
It’s just such a cool place, 9th street, it’s such a world. It’s older immigrant generations like the Italians and now the Mexicans coming in and Vietnamese.
And you feel like you are in another world if you spend a day there. It’s a very unique set up.
Yes! I love those little corridors and malls you can go in. It’s like I’m in Southeast Asia. It’s like traveling without really traveling or needing to get on a plane.
When I was living in New York City, my mother told me, “You have to come down to Philadelphia, I found this great place called the Italian Market.”
And the idea of people selling their goods on the street resonated with us because in Spain you have these open-air markets like that too. The first time I went to the Italian Market it was winter and the vendors had these metal barrels with fire inside and everything was so tight, and the bus was going by. There was so much humanity. You really felt like you were surrounded by people doing their own thing that is very different from you. It was almost overwhelming to the senses. And I think it’s a very unique experience that you don’t see that much in the United States. You do feel like you are in another place. Since we (TWC) are an immigrant-centered organization we should recommend to our readers to visit the area, especially if you want to experience the immigrant community.
What needs to be done to support the success of immigrant small business owners in Philadelphia?
Language access is definitely important. We are not doing enough in this area. We need to be building better bridges between the merchants and the City. People in offices working 9 to 5 are not a good fit to support merchants who are working 7 days a week from 8 am to 8 PM. Even sometimes they have workshops and I look at the hours and I think, “Why is this happening right before dinner service or lunch service?”
We really need to put ourselves in the merchants’ shoes and design services and workshops form their point of view, not what has been done in the past or what comfortably works for us.
How can we, the average person, support local restaurants and small business owners?
Go to the businesses and support them by having lunch or dinner. Take pictures and post on your social media to promote the restaurants. Speak to your friends and neighbors about the great experience you had at the restaurants. Most people find new restaurants by word of mouth. Be actively engaged in promoting the businesses. Also, engage with the owners. They always seem to make an effort to meet and greet you and to have you come back. Become more comfortable with creating those relationships.
I like the idea of partnering with the smaller, lesser-known restaurants to cater work lunches and other events. Now that companies are going back to their offices, more could consider going outside of Center City and thinking about all the restaurants in the neighborhoods.
The problem with consumers, is that we all want convenience. We want to just cross the street and pay with a credit card, or not event go out of the office. Pay with a credit card and have it delivered. This convenience is really going to affect diversity. Because the businesses and restaurants that can afford the high rent in Center City lack diversity.
We need to become more active and responsible as consumers with our purchases and how we spend our money. If we truly want to support diversity, we have to make an effort and not go back to convenience.
Because of the pandemic we have been retrained to do things different ways out of fear. We are going to take all the convenient methods of bringing food to our homes and purchasing clothes through delivery with us after the pandemic. I fear this is going to stay with us and we are going to stop visiting local stores as much as we used to. I hope we are able to think about what we are doing to support the local economy because Amazon has enough, the other big chains stores have enough.
And when you shop locally and eat locally, you will have the wonderful experience of meeting the entrepreneurs!
Thank you so much for your time, Nicole! Thank you for your hard work, your dedication, and all your skills and talents that you bring to TWC.