Nestled on the corner of West Merrick Road and Ormonde Boulevard, Pretty Toni’s Cafe would be bustling with customers who are looking for a bit of soul during their Sunday brunches. Once stepping into the cafe, you were greeted with jazz playing in the background and tables filled with dish fried chicken and red velvet waffles, fried eggs with bacon and more favorites before the pandemic struck New York.
Despite opening up for outdoor dining and indoor dining at 50% capacity in Long Island on June 10 and June 24, respectively, food businesses have struggled to stay afloat as not all customers feel confident enough to walk inside after thousands have gotten sick and lost their jobs in Nassau and Suffolk County.
Several studies and experts on Long Island have said that the pandemic had a greater mortality rate in minority communities where economic disparities heightened the impacts of COVID-19. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a brief that found a 56% drop in Black-owned businesses between February and May, a closing rate that is almost three times that of white-owned businesses, during the state shutdown in response to the outbreak.
Some restaurant owners, including Toni Clifton at Pretty Toni’s Cafe, which has been open since January 2009, decided to run with just take-out service.
“We are down 85% in sales,” Clifton said. “We were even sitting, trying to think of how we are going to overcome all of this.”
As part of a family-run business, Clifton is the chef and her husband, Gary Clifton, is the host and waiter, while their two daughters baked desserts and helped their parents with other responsibilities in the restaurant. Because of the financial impact the outbreak has had on their business, Clifton said that it has been just her and her husband who are working at Pretty Toni’s Cafe.
“We couldn’t get the PPP loan or grants, so we’ve kind of just been left on our own to try to figure it out,” she said.
Since the cafe is located in the west end of Valley Stream, which is more of a residential area, the Village of Valley Stream does not allow storefront outdoor dining for businesses in the area as they allowed for those in the business district, Clinton said.
“Those businesses were afforded more opportunities to keep staying in business,” she said.
Since her husband suffered from cancer last year, they made the difficult decision to not operate with indoor dining where he could be placing himself at risk, serving customers in close proximity.
“We can’t afford to get sick,” Clifton said. “If one of us gets sick, we’re done.”
Being partnered with delivery companies, like DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and ezCater, have helped in pushing the business forward, she said.
“We don’t know what’s going on especially with the second wave,” Clifton said. “We would love to open back up, but we don’t know what the ramifications will be.”
Staying true to her motto, “If you want it, I can make it,” Toyisha Bethea-Rizo launched Chef Toy Catering in 2015 to carry on her passion for cooking that she has had since the age of 10.
“I’ve been cooking for my teachers since I was 14-years-old, and it ended up being my purpose in life,” Bethea-Rizo said. “I have these signature buffalo chicken rolls that people go crazy for and rasta pasta, which I’ve made everyday for the last six years.”
Since there are many customers who prefer to not dine in during this time, a lot of families decide to get their food catered, Bethea-Rizo said. “The pandemic hasn’t been that bad on business.”
Though the biggest challenge the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to Bethea-Rizo is how it hindered her goal to open a restaurant.
“I prayed about letting go of fear because fear has a lot to do with things as far as trying to open up a business,” she said. “You are not sure if you’re going to get the same clientele or if people will come out and support you, but I am happy with the support that I do have right now.”
From Southampton, Hampton Bays to Riverhead, owner of King of Cones, Jonathan Pressley, is on the go in his ice cream truck from 10 in the morning to 8:30 at night selling ice cream seven days a week.
“I began working for Mr. Softee around six years ago, and I fell in love with it,” Pressley said. “I fell in love with being the neighborhood superhero.”
After doing more research about running his own ice cream truck business, Pressley said that he saved his money and bought a truck of his own a year ago. Designing the truck and rebranding the business became a project of its own, he said.
Running an ice cream truck during the midst of the coronavirus outbreak brought challenges of its own for Pressley who was starting his business for the first summer season.
“When the pandemic hit, I was kind of sitting with my fingers crossed, just waiting for the governor to say that I could go out and start making money,” Pressley said. “It was a long process once the phases were opened up to allow ice cream trucks to operate.”
Another issue he faced was when trying to get documentation of approval to run his business after town halls were closed and registering the ice cream truck at the DMV.
“I’m hoping that there are plans in order [in the future] so that businesses like myself won’t suffer so much,” he said.
With customers being nervous to buy ice cream like they used to, Pressley said that it’s been a hard year to operate in such little time.
“I’m just thankful to do it all,” Pressley said. “I’m thankful to have the opportunity to serve. I’m in a truck all day and I have kids running up to me, loving me.”
Chef B, a name she proudly embraces after being called Mrs. B by the children she taught and cared for in her home country of Trinidad, continued to work with children in Kidsworld in Brooklyn before opening Chef B’s Restaurant in Valley Stream eight years ago.
“When I came here, everyone said ‘good luck,’ because every business that started never lasts more than maybe a good two months, three months, sometimes six months,” she said.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck New York, Chef B said that one of the primary reasons for remaining open was to provide food for first responders and medical workers during late hours.
“Every day, after this, I leave here nothing earlier than 2:30 a.m. and would be back here by 5 a.m.,” she said.
Chef B said that she applied to several government assistance programs including the disaster loan program but received no stimulus checks thus far.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the Small Business Administration (SBA) did not distribute Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aid in the hardest hit areas. The brief notes that racial disparities in bank relationships prior to the coronavirus pandemic lessened the access to credit in communities of color during a time when it is needed most.
“I have to give credit to my children because it’s a family-owned business, and they don’t get any salary,” she said, “Whatever little they had, they contributed towards the business.”
The ultimate goal for Chef B is to open a drive-thru, so that she could boost business while ensuring the safety of her and her family during this time.
“I would say to run on,” said Chef B. “Fate pulled me through because I always believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”