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Sept. 23, 2020, 11:26 a.m. EDT

Pandemic startups: These N.Y. entrepreneurs did the unthinkable during COVID-19

A look at three New Yorkers that braved lockdowns and a crumbling economy to launch their businesses

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By Joe Dziemianowicz

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Couture Cutz, a hair salon at 242 W. 10th St. in Manhattan’s West Village, marks Jackie Casiano’s first business venture in New York City. “Thirty years ago I had a restaurant in Pennsylvania,” said Casiano, 57, who signed a five-year lease on a shop on a leafy stretch that’s also home to Housing Works and a police station. 

While driving around the city in May, Casiano saw a For Rent sign in the shop window. Rent negotiations took a month and a half. “Finally, he said, ‘Tell me what is comfortable for you,’” Casiano recalls.

“My son, Edwin, cuts and colors hair,” she said. “He has a talent in his hands.” The eldest of her five kids, he brings a clientele from years of cutting and styling at Astor Place, she adds.

Digging into savings, Casiano spent about $4,000 to construct the space for two stylists and two barbers. Opening day was July 15. “The first three weeks were ‘oh my God’ busy,” she says. “People were so ready to have their hair professionally done.” Like a rapidly receding hairline, traffic thinned dramatically in August, a time when New Yorkers always flee the heat. “I didn’t see the walk-ins. It was scary.” Business has picked up in September. 

Casiano, who’s not drawing a salary yet, says she is there seven days a week. She sweeps the sidewalk and puts out bowls of water for neighborhood dogs. “I talk to everybody,” she said. “The neighborhood has embraced us. I hope and pray it works out.”

Simpierre, 46, who was born in Haiti and grew up in the U.S., spent five years planning for her small business. “My goal has always been to open a market to cater to the needs of the community and to show that healthy food is accessible,” she said.

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Buy Better Foods, her market for organic groceries, bulk foods and herbs, and supplements at 372 Kosciuszko St. in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, opened in April — about nine months after signing a 10-year-lease. “I was supposed to open in March, but I delayed it a month.” She was deemed an essential business.

Between July 2019 to March 2020, Simpierre, whose studies at Baruch College included entrepreneurship, created her 900-square-foot space. “Stores tend to be cluttered,” she said. “This is an open space where you can see clearly.” An SBA loan helped her realize her vision.

Her rent, one of the two biggest expenses along with inventory, “is decent. Everything is about negotiations,” she said.

Early on it was difficult for her to get products that went to larger stores first. “I felt the severity quickly,” she said. “Because I was new and unknown there were delays. Having good relationships with distributors and local vendors is invaluable.”

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Simpierre, who has two part-time staffers, sped up plans to introduce third-party shopping. “I had to introduce online ordering for Mercato.com,” she said. It was not in the plan in the beginning. I had to do that quickly to increase business.”

Five months after opening, Simpierre has been able to draw salary. “I’m married. I have a wife and two children,” she said, adding that every entrepreneur’s situation is unique. 

On Sept. 10, a store window was broken and the shop was burglarized. A GoFundMe campaign launched then to raise $3,500 to replace the glass and install security gates has exceeded its goal. “We plan to recover quickly and come back stronger,” Simpierre notes at the fund site. 

“It’s week by week,” she says. “I’m optimistic because of the support.” 

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