At the Jesús Grocery Store on 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue on Friday, five customers at a time visited the bodega. Some rushed to use the ATM before catching a SEPTA bus, or they waited to pay for cheesesteaks, home fries, and other comfort foods prepared at the store. Others purchased cleaning products and toilet paper.

Francisco Peralta, 45, owns the store and has been serving a predominantly African American community in North Philadelphia for the last four years. He said Friday’s brisk business was the first time he’d seen such activity in recent days.

“Either people got paid or the weather seems appealing [to go out], but if things continue as we’ve seen, I’ll have to close the store in two weeks,” he said of the previous dramatic drop in business.

It’s been just over a week since the City of Philadelphia issued the stay-at-home order that instructed nonessential businesses to shut down and banned large gatherings. Under these guidelines, supermarkets and bodegas such as Peralta’s are considered “life-sustaining” businesses, offering food and other essential services.

But some North Philly corner-store owners fear the outbreak could put them out of business, at least temporarily. They expressed concern about the health risks their employees face and the economic toll the pandemic is having on their customers who face job loss and no income.

Peralta said sales at his store have dropped 50% in the last two weeks. Despite its location, where two SEPTA bus routes stop, he worries that reduced store hours, the shuttered Dobbins Technical High School across the street, and the large drop in the use of public transportation will not allow him to pay his four employees and his bills. He owes $767 a week on his bodega’s mortgage, and pays each employee an average of $130 for a 12-hour day. That’s in addition to his other bills and the cost of merchandise.

“If we don’t have access to loans that guarantee our sustainability during this crisis, most bodegas will soon be out of business,” he said, wearing gloves and a mask as he stood behind the counter.

Bodega owner Francisco Peralta, outside his store at 2201 W. Lehigh Ave.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Bodega owner Francisco Peralta, outside his store at 2201 W. Lehigh Ave.

He said having customers follow social distancing rules has been a challenge. Some don’t respect the guidelines and get into disputes with other customers and employees. To keep things clean, he said, his workers wipe refrigerator doors and surfaces every 30 minutes with disinfectants.

Similar steps have been taken by Enerolina Meléndez, 48, who has been the owner of the Rodríguez Grocery on Ninth and Cumberland Streets for the last 22 years. She said that some bodegas in North Philadelphia have already temporarily closed after going from an average of $3,000 a day in sales to $500. In addition to health and economic concerns, she said, mom-and-pop store owners in the neighborhood are already seeing a rise in cost of some products from wholesale outlets. Others fear a potential increase in criminal activity as residents run out of money.

“The pandemic just overflowed the cup,” she said of the challenges of running a small business and now dealing with the coronavirus.

Considered a veteran business leader in the North Philadelphia bodega community, Meléndez said store owners who currently pay both rent or a mortgage on a home and their store are severely affected by the pandemic.

Locals estimate there are 1,100 bodegas in Philadelphia, 75% owned by the Dominican community.

According to Biz2Credit’s annual report, the average revenue of Latino-owned small businesses nationwide, including bodegas, increased to $479,413 in 2019 from $327,189 in 2018.

On March 23, the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) launched the COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund, a $9 million program that offers new grants and zero-interest loans for small businesses affected by the coronavirus.

The relief fund program features three tiers, one a micro-enterprise grant that offers $5,000 to businesses with less than $500,000 in annual revenue.

Jimmy Durán, former program director for the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said most Latino-owned businesses fall into this tier of the fund, which he said does not meet businesses needs. He said bodega owners across the city may need more than $20,000 each to cover monthly expenses.

“The program is not addressing the problem," he said, "because there is no way this amount will get businesses out of this unprecedented economic hole.”

Durán said business owners can also apply for Economic Injury Disaster Relief Loans, and now have the option to apply for the Small Business Paycheck Protection Plan approved Friday by the federal government.

The challenge, Durán said, is to get Latino small business owners to take advantage of these programs.

“We need technical assistance in Spanish," he said. "People who can digest sophisticated language into something more conversational to be able to help business owners apply for relief while they are in shock and taking care of business and family.”

Meléndez said she receives calls daily from bodega owners who need guidance on relief efforts or how to run a store during these circumstances. She said most corner-store owners aren’t web-savvy and need help filling out online applications.

“We are waiting for the moment we can see them face-to-face and help them go through the procedures," she said, "but by that time, it will be too late.”