Commentary: Save small businesses with your small gesture

The shops that make your town yours need patronage to make it through the coronavirus shutdown.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

After 30 years, they couldn’t let Tito go. Everyone loves Tito.

And Armando, the pizza maker, they couldn’t let him go, he’s got the technique down to perfection.

But every day, Mike Juliano has to make some wrenching decisions if he’s going to pull his family restaurant through this. How do you go from 20 employees to five full time? Whom do you keep?

“It’s been 43 years,” Juliano said, after another exhausting day at Rocco’s Italian Restaurant in suburban McLean, Virginia. “I’ve been busing tables here since I was 8 years old. This can’t be the end. No way.”

He’s the third generation of Juliano men with the middle name Rocco to run the family-style Italian restaurant. Nonna’s recipes from the old country, established with their life savings in 1977, the whole American Dream story.

And the past few years have been rough for Rocco’s. The glitzy, glam shopping universe growing nearby is offering of-the-moment restaurants that have little to do with Rocco’s sturdy baked ziti and red-checkered tabletops.

“The margins have been running a little thin anyways. We’ve been fighting all these corporate places, it’s hard to survive,” said Juliano, who launched a GoFundMe fundraiser, as scores of businesses have, to try to pay his employees. “And for this to happen.”

It’s the story of small businesses across America, particularly restaurants, salons, barbers, drycleaners, cobblers, bookstores.

Those places that have been around forever — the joint that hosted the soccer team victory party, grad night dinner with the grandparents — are in peril. The black-owned barber shop that has been an anchor in a community. The immigrant restaurant named for the year they made it to America.

And what about the I’ve-always-wanted-to places: the indie bookstore opened by someone who took a leap off the corporate treadmill, the coffee house opened by someone leaving the churn of politics, the mead brewery opened by a home brewer who finally thought the kids were old enough for him to pursue his dream.

It’s an American economic and cultural tragedy waiting to happen. And it simply can’t. And I believe it won’t. Here’s why.

“I honestly am humbled by how much people love us,” Juliano said. “I thought they hated us. You know, not hated. But all the competition, and business was going down. But now? The tips we’re getting when people pick up food and the memories they’re telling us about. It’s really humbling.”

While they wait for federal, state and local aid packages that could save them, small businesses are pivoting, scraping, retooling and working to survive this brutal spring.

And maybe, the soul-searching of how-can-I-help Americans who’ve been seduced by shiny places and sleek chains will see the power they have to save an important piece of our communities. The small business owners are continuing to inspire us with that American spirit we say we love.

Let’s go back to Maryland Meadworks. I know the family through hockey, and watched Ken Carter and Rumi Matsuyama work to open their little place in suburban Hyattsville, Maryland, offering honey brew and jazz nights. How would a business this young survive a complete shutdown, just as they were getting their legs under them?

Meet the MeadMaiden. After finishing her workday, Carter’s wife gets on her bike and delivers growlers of mead to customers across Hyattsville. I love this.

Another one of my favorites is my little nerd paradise on Capitol Hill called Labyrinth Game Shop. When Kathleen Donahue first opened it 10 years ago, I was delighted to have a place to take my young kids for games and puzzles. But honestly, I thought she was out of her mind, starting a specialty business like this in the Amazon era.

And she pivoted quickly to do more than stack games on her shelves. She created a gaming universe, hiring game geeks who knew everything about the crazy array of games she had. She created game camps and sent her game geeks to run after-school programs in local schools (my younger son was a proud participant.) She held game nights at her store, hosted birthday parties. Not long ago, when we were there to buy a gift for someone, she busted through the wall to expand her store into the space next door.

And now, this.

When the coronavirus began shutting the city down, Labyrinth provided curbside game pickup. A perfect business plan for quarantine! Because really, who’s going to survive if all you’ve got is Monopoly and Risk?

But then, another blow. Labyrinth had to shutdown the curbside delivery, once D.C. ordered all nonessential businesses to close up.

“I feel like my life has completely changed in the span of 30 days,” she wrote on her Facebook page. When we talked, she was gathering the old tax documents she has to submit to get small business government assistance.

“The all encompassing fear and stress that has become a daily norm is overwhelming,” she said. “I’m scared for my family, my friends, my customers, and mostly my employees. I’m tired and depressed. On Thursday, I had to basically close down my business that I’ve worked every day for the last 10 years to build. I am hopeful that we will make it through, but it doesn’t help the knot I have in my stomach or the tension in my back and shoulders.”

I told her how important her business has been to our family and I bought a gift card. She’s going to start virtual gaming sessions, she’s encouraging folks to sign up for summer camps, and trying to start delivering games to customers. She’s pivoting, yet again.

This is how she will survive, how Rocco’s will survive, how all small businesses buffeted by wars and recessions and terrorist attacks and fads and fickle customers have survived.

Order in from a local place, buy a gift card, call them and tell them how much they’ve meant to you. Our lives wouldn’t be the same without them.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts. Follow her on Twitter @petulad.

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