By Joe Dziemianowicz
Opening a small business in New York City, where rents and risks can rise as high as a skyscraper, is no mean feat even under ideal circumstances. COVID-19 exacerbates everything.
Ask Shweta Khare, Jackie Casiano and Myriam Simpierre, entrepreneurs behind an Upper West Side cafe, West Village hair salon and Bedford-Stuyvesant grocery, respectively, which all opened their doors during the pandemic.
They’re making space for guarded optimism as well as setbacks, and recognizing that a key to survival is being able to pivot to a Plan B or C.
“The most important lesson of COVID-19 is learning to adapt,” Simpierre said. “Distribution channels go awry. Prices change. A pandemic happens. Anything can happen. You have to be adaptable.”
Other New Yorkers have learned the same lesson. Partnership for New York City, a business-industry trade group, reviewed public government data and found that 495 new appearance-enhancement businesses — the category covers cosmetology, esthetics, nail specialty, natural hair styling and waxing services — and barber shop licenses were issued in the city in 2020 between March 15 and Sept. 10. That figure is down 45% from 2019 for the same period.
There isn’t enough useful or current public data on new grocers or cafes to see figures on those categories, according to Partnership communications director Natasha Avanessians. But amid a rising toll of closures — Partnership for New York has estimated that a third of the city’s 230,000 small businesses may not reopen due to the virus — newcomers are rays of hope amid the ruins and rubble of the COVID-scorched business landscape.
Sept. 15 marked the one-month anniversary for Gertrude, a snug cafe at 204 W. 96th St., where Khare, 36, an ex-business consultant born in India and raised in Australia, serves coffees and house-baked goods like Anzac biscuits, a popular Aussie treat. The 400-square-foot shop is named for a street in Melbourne lined with small shops. She has one full-time employee and three part-timers.
“The city can feel lonely, especially now,” said Khare, who came to New York from London in 2014 and earned a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology at Columbia University. “People crave a sense of connection. It sounds cliché, but being a place that provides connection is very satisfying. It was my dream to create a space with a sense of community.”
Khare, who lives in the neighborhood with her husband, an economist, and their 17-month-old daughter, spent 2018 looking for a suitable location for her business. She finalized negotiations on a 10-year lease in January. Two months later, as she prepared to open, the virus hit.
Khare considered walking away from the enterprise, concerned about being able to run it responsibly and safely. “As the weeks and months progressed,” she said, “I could see in some ways that the city was learning to live with the virus.”
She’s learned the value of a landlord willing to negotiate. Hers, Schreiber Properties, which owns three adjacent buildings on West 96th Street in Manhattan, was such a landlord. “There was some negotiating, including a 10% reduction and free months,” Sam Schreiber says.
Khare anticipates breaking even for the first month, but she’s not paying herself a salary. “Business is steady,” she says, adding that overhearing a customer say she walked 20 blocks just for her coffee, hit home. “That feels like a success.”