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‘Really Crucial’: Harvard Square Women- and Minority-Owned- Businesses Draw On State Grants To Stay Afloat

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As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on small businesses in Harvard Square, many have found themselves relying on supportive patrons and financial support from the state government to stay afloat.

Square businesses were able to apply for government funding through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation in January. The $668 million small business package – which Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 announced in late December 2020 – prioritized women- and minority-owned- businesses.

Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Michael J. “Mike” Kennealy wrote in an email that small businesses make up a “fundamental component” of the Massachusetts economy.

“As the largest program of its kind in the country, these grants are vital to supporting small businesses – especially those in communities and neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19,” he wrote.

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Joanne B. Chang ’91, owner of Flour Bakery and Cafe, said though she received an email confirming a grant, she is still waiting to receive the money. Once she receives the funding, she plans to use it to compensate employees.

Steve Welch, owner of sandwich restaurant Oggi Gourmet, said the funds from the grant had to be used for specific expenses like utilities, inventory, and payroll.

“We got one grant, and it was for your utilities, help with buying your inventory, and your payroll,” he said. “It was small money so we had to focus on using it exactly that way.”

Stephanie C. Nist, co-owner of women’s clothing store Mint Julep, said she was grateful the relief program was rolled out in December, as federal financial assistance from the spring of 2020 had largely been exhausted. She added that the state grants — which Mint Julep used for payroll and rent — provided an extra boost for her business.

“We’ve made it through these past six months and now this is when we need more funding, and it was available, so we were really grateful for that,” Nist said.

The pandemic forced many small businesses to adapt to survive by transitioning to online platforms, increasing social media presence, and sending out hand-delivered packages.

Chang said she had to close down her business for about five weeks before figuring out how it could operate safely. In addition to providing takeout, Flour Bakery and Cafe is increasing its digital presence and encouraging customers to order online.

Nist said Mint Julep has been open for about 17 years and survived the 2008 financial crisis, Hurricane Irene, the Boston Marathon bombing, and now the pandemic. Her boutique thrived on face-to-face interactions with patrons, she said, but during the pandemic she began to hand-deliver packages to local customers.

“I think that everyone was kind of in a state of, ‘What’s happening?’” Nist said. “This was just a way to connect with our customers and our community.”

Shoshanah G. Ramirez, co-owner of Black Sheep Bagel Cafe, said the response from Cambridge residents ever since the cafe opened four years ago has been “wonderful.”

“People are very supportive of women and minority business owners and a lot of people go out of their way to be patrons of these businesses,” she said. “The city itself has lots of amazing resources for us.”

She acknowledged, however, the cafe had to change “a lot” of its business model to stay open during the pandemic.

“Our goal was if we could continue to keep all of our full-time staff employed and be able to help the people that worked for us and not make them have to turn to unemployment, that we would keep the doors open,” she said. “We were successful in that.”

“We didn’t close even for one day of this pandemic,” Ramirez added.

She credited Cambridge city initiatives with helping her business stay afloat.

“Throughout the pandemic, grants from the city of Cambridge were enormously helpful, programs that the city of Cambridge put into place, including contracting with local restaurants to feed the homeless, were enormously helpful,” she said.

Alison L. Fong, co-founder and executive chef of Bon Me, said the pandemic allowed her to “reflect” on her experiences as a minority business owner.

“As a person that is a part of a minority group, there’s always these assumptions that people make of you and you develop defense mechanisms to address them,” she said. “I’m a small, petite woman and people always assume I’m not the boss.”

Fong also said her business expanded to provide meals for people in East Boston and Chinatown.

“We provided thousands of meals over the course of a number of months in the spring and the summer,” she said. “That was great because that gave some hours to employees and we were able to provide meals that were made in a food-safe way.”

Fong said the extra funds through the grant are “crucial” for her business.

“It’s really hard to operate a business when you need revenue coming in and you rely on foot traffic and people coming in the door to purchase your food,” she said. “Having extra funds is really crucial to be able to pay rent and pay our employees.”

Welch said his business has been “fortunate.”

“We have a great landlord, we have good people working here, we got some money to help us move forward,” he said. “I think we are lucky — lucky in a lot of senses.”

—Staff writer Tracy Jiang can be reached at tracy.jiang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @_tracyjiang_.

—Staff writer Davin W. Shi can be reached at davin.shi@thecrimson.com.

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