After quitting her job as a nanny to be home with her teenage daughter when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Grecia Diaz looked for ways to make money from home. Her grandmother instilled in her the importance of nutrition: “As a ma and wife, I want also my family to have very good products, as natural as possible,” she said.
This led the Brookline resident to start the small business Snackever last October, aided by her husband, Johnny, who also works as an Uber driver and painter. Snackever is an online market for snacks like strawberry rice crispy treats and coconut amaranth wafers, with an emphasis on healthiness and affordability.
The small business, which has buyers from around the country, has found some success but sometimes struggles to find customers. About half of Snackever’s customers are individuals looking for snacks, but the other half consists of businesses looking to stock up on snacks for employees. Because so many businesses have been understaffed or offering remote work, Snackever is missing out on potential customers.
“There are some businesses that have contacted us, and they say, ‘Well, you know, we see a potential for us working with you guys, but we don’t have our employees in the offices yet, so eventually when people come back to the offices, we might order from you,’ and stuff like that,” Johnny Diaz said. “It’s been a little challenging.”
The pandemic has proved challenging for small businesses across the country. Some Pittsburgh-area businesses have permanently closed, while others survived because of financial aid from the federal government. Now, as Pittsburghers teeter between steps toward normalcy brought by the vaccines and concern from the omicron variant, pandemic-era emergency aid is drying up and businesses are still struggling.
The federal government offered programs throughout the pandemic to help businesses, including the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Because much of the emergency aid has expired, small businesses are relying more than ever on the standard help made available by nonprofit and government organizations.
The Diazes in particular have gotten help from The Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation, which connected them to The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, a project of the University of Pittsburgh. The institute assisted them with getting certifications for their business to help lend it credibility.
“If you want to work with government agencies, you need to have certifications … and [the institute] has a lot of connections,” Johnny Diaz said.
The institute’s Small Business Development Center, which offers consultation, workshops and other assistance to Pittsburgh-area small business owners, has been contacted much more frequently since the start of the pandemic, according to the development center’s director Raymond Vargo. The center usually assists 800 clients a year, but in 2020 and 2021, that number nearly doubled.
“Our workload regarding the demand for our services has been astronomical,” Vargo said.
The particular problems faced by small businesses have evolved throughout the pandemic. Early on, small businesses needed to navigate government-mandated closures and other restrictions. In the past six months or so, Vargo said many of the businesses he works with have had difficulties with staffing and changing demands from consumers, such as more desire for online shopping or delivery.
Still, while Vargo has heard from clients who have decided they need to close their businesses entirely, he said it doesn’t appear to be an urgent problem in the area.
“It has been a little bit higher, yes, but it’s not an overwhelming issue that we’re talking to our clients with,” Vargo said. “We have some of them, but it’s not like every fifth call is coming in saying, ‘I want to close my business.’”
Kelly Hunt, director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s [SBA] Pittsburgh District Office, said her office does not have a sense of how many local small businesses have closed.
Hunt noted that many of the pandemic-era aid programs from the federal government have recently ended.
“Most of these programs have been around for close to two years … through the worst part of the pandemic,” Hunt said. “And so, I’m sure that if you asked small businesses, they would say yes, we need more help.”
Pittsburgh’s SBA offers microloans of up to $50,000 for small businesses, a program that preceded the pandemic.
“We like to be the first stop for businesses that are experiencing some trouble,” Hunt said.
Some local nonprofits also provided help during the pandemic, such as the Hill Community Development Corporation [Hill CDC], a group that assists Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Hill CDC’s Hill Tech Society initiative recently gifted Hill District small business owners with technological devices, according to Hill CDC president and CEO Marimba Milliones. About a third of these devices went to artists and other creative types, the rest going to food, retail, personal care and other sectors.
The Diazes sought help outside the region. They received a loan from Kiva, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that crowdfunds loans. The couple hopes to work with more Pittsburgh-based businesses and expand. Though they started their business during the pandemic, they share a similar sentiment to those who have been in businesses for decades.
“We’re hoping things go back to normal as soon as possible,” Johnny Diaz said.
Matt Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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