CULINTRO A Community for Restaurant Professionals
Culintro

Recession Challenges Small Businesses

Wayne Sosin, the president of Worksman Cycels in Ozone Park, Queens, is one of the small business owners The New York Times has been tracking during the recession.
 
A butcher and a restaurant owner receive breaks on their rent as their sales continue to dwindle. A bicycle maker shifts to building more food vending carts to sell to people who have lost their jobs. To combat a post-holiday drop in bookings, a tour operator hires a manager of online marketing.

Mouhamad Shami is the owner of Alfanoose, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the financial district.

For a group of small businesses The New York Times has been tracking since October, the persistent recession keeps presenting new challenges. But on the brink of spring, a more hopeful tone was repeatedly struck in recent interviews conducted by Patrick McGeehan, Brent McDonald and Erik Olsen. (One of the businesses, a Saab auto dealer in Rochelle Park, N.J., declined to participate this month.)

Wayne Sosin

Wayne Sosin, 55, the president of Worksman Cycles in Ozone Park, Queens, is trying to shift his company’s product line away from the heavy-duty tricycles it sells to automakers and other big industrial companies. With a trimmed-down staff, Worksman is making more food vending carts for entrepreneurs and delivery bicycles for couriers and restaurants.

We’ve seen a big decline in demand for our product beginning in October, coming off a phenomenal 2008. It all came to a sort of disappointing stop as the economy crashed, because a lot of our customers are the big industrial customers like Chrysler and Ford and G.M. So, certainly, they’re not buying any industrial tricycles from us in this market, nor are their suppliers.

We haven’t gotten the final numbers for February, but I’d say January and February were down about 30 percent in our industrial cycle sales, while the rest of our business is pretty much holding its own. Definitely back in November-December, we had to make adjustments in our employment level and the hours that we work. So it’s been hard. We don’t like to see people working less hours. There’s been no overtime, and there’s been some people laid off.

We’ve seen relatively flat sales in our recreational adult trikes and recreational bicycles. And our food vending cart business has actually seen strong demand. You can get into a business that is relatively inexpensive to start — as little as $3,000 for a cart.

Everybody can picture, back in the Depression, Apple Annie standing on the street and selling her apples. In a way, that might be an extension of what’s happening today. The food vending cart offers someone the opportunity to go out and be entrepreneurial and make a living. So for us, the hot-dog cart might become for us the symbol of this current recession.

The new Yankee Stadium will be outfitted with a lot of our hot-dog carts. It’s great to get an order like that at this time. And certainly, it came at a good time for us. The initial order was for a dozen hot-dog carts, but we think there’s going to be more to follow.

If anyone was asking me what numbers we’re expecting, it would not be a reasonable forecast. I can’t really know at this point. I know we’re going to be down. If we’re not down, it would be a miracle. It’s just a matter of are we going to be down 10 percent or 30 percent.

Ruben Villasante

Ruben Villasante, 47, owns a small contracting firm, V & V Construction, that specializes in painting and home renovations in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. He cut his staff from nine men to three in the second half of 2008. Now, he says, he has just enough business to keep the four of them working.

The new year started kind of slow. March is the month when everybody starts thinking about what they’re going to do with the house, so we’re getting a lot of calls. But a lot less than last year, about 50 percent less than last year or the year before, even.

When you get calls, it’s, ‘We’re looking at doing something. We’re getting prices.’ They’re not in a big hurry, and they’re more careful about what they’re doing. They’re just waiting. It’s, ‘Thank you for the quote. We’ll call you in two weeks.’ They’ll keep me in mind. Nothing definitive.

There’s less ambition and probably more maintenance than home improvement, just to keep the house in good shape. They won’t go into redoing a whole floor, or a new kitchen or a new bathroom. We’re probably going to be busy with maintenance, painting and windows.  

Michael Menna owns Menna's Quality Meats and Salumeria in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx.

Michael Menna

Michael Menna, 46, is the owner of Menna’s Quality Meats and Salumeria, his family’s 50-year-old meat market in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. He has had to reduce the hours of his small staff and bring his wife in to help a few days a week. With sales down after the holidays, he managed to persuade Con Edison to accept lower monthly payments and his landlord not to raise the rent.

I’m feeling a little optimistic because I feel as though we got through the toughest months. So if we’re able to withstand these last couple months that have been pretty lousy, I feel optimistic that we’re going to push forward and get to some good times.

I’m not really sure if we hit bottom yet. I’m hoping we did. Like I said, I feel as though there are days where I’m very optimistic, where I feel as though it’s starting to come back, which is a good sign, We’ll have a day and say, ‘Wow, this is where we’re supposed to be.’ But it’s not consistent enough yet. The next day will be off.

A lot of people are still looking for work. I still hear that. A lot of customers, their husbands are in construction, they haven’t worked in months. So it’s definitely still playing out for a lot of my customers. If they want credit, I’ll give it to them. Sometimes when it gets out of hand, I have to kind of stop and just put a limit on it.

Prices have been a little more stable. As soon as the weather breaks, your middle meat will probably go up, your steaks and stuff like that will start going up because of barbecue season. Lamb will start going up because of Easter. It’s a big holiday for us. They’ll still buy their roast, their leg of lamb. They didn’t really cut back for Christmas; let’s hope they don’t cut back for Easter.

We cut back hours and everybody’s been very patient. Whenever I feel that I could give them more hours that week because we have some busy days ahead of us, I do. And people are grateful for that.

I don’t think we’re going to get back to where we were a couple years ago, but I’m hoping to get to a struggle-free year. I think it’s going to take a few more months, but I feel as if there’s been some optimism in the last few weeks, and hopefully the package that the president put together is going to play out and help us all.

You work a lot of hours and sometimes you don’t take a salary, so it’s definitely a wear. It definitely wears you down.

Georgette Blau

Georgette Blau, 34, is president of On Location Tours in Midtown Manhattan, which gives bus tours of New York locations from popular movies and television shows like “Sex and the City,” “Gossip Girl” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” Though sales slumped after the holidays, they have begun to pick up again, Ms. Blau said. She was confident enough to hire a full-time online marketing director this month, but has cut back on ads that have not yielded enough sales and canceled plans to attend two trade shows this year.

I do get worried for our full-time staff. I think they are getting the message that they have to work hard. I’ve been hearing reports of a payroll tax increase. They should be doing the opposite. We’re hiring; we should be getting some kind of credit for hiring someone.

Mouhamad Shami

Mouhamad Shami, 54, the owner of Alfanoose, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Maiden Lane in the financial district, says he would have had to move to a smaller space if his landlord had not reduced his rent for six months. As orders from financial workers have dwindled, he has steadily pared down his staff and is paying only the interest on his debts.

We take it just day by day. One day we have fairly good day and the second day you don’t know. Before, it was pretty consistent Monday through Thursday. At dinner, we used to get orders from companies. Now we can’t tell.

Before they used to work overtime, and at night, they used to order for a group of people. Now, we don’t have that. If we do get a group order, it’s a small group order. It’s not more than $50, $60 an order.

It’s not worth it really sometimes, even, to take these small orders. But in these days, I’m taking anything, just to get the delivery guys going on deliveries to make some money.

My day is longer. I work harder. I work the lunchtime here and then when I finish the lunchtime, I go upstairs and I work in the kitchen doing more preparation, which I didn’t have to do before this all started. The same thing with my wife. My wife, she is helping me more. My son, whenever he gets a chance, he comes down and helps me. So actually we are working harder and making less.

The landlord, he cut down the rent for me. He told me that he would drop the rent for six months, but I’d have to pay it back at the end of the year. So, I told him I can’t do it. He said don’t worry. We’ll see after the first six months expire how things are. If the economy starts to recover, then I’ll go back to my old rent. If not, then we’ll talk about it. If it wasn’t for him with this offer, I’d have to relocate to a smaller place, and it would have been an aggravation for me and more stressful.

I don’t do any changes in my recipes. On quality, I don’t cut corners. Customers, they put their trust in me. I live for that reputation, and that means a lot to me because I want to be remembered that way. That somebody from Lebanese descent, he was in the financial district, he was honest and he served us from his heart, not just to get his living and he didn’t care.

As usual, we had a phenomenal end of year, the last 10 days up to Jan. 4. That’s always our best week of the year. A lot of the people we spoke with said, “Yeah, it’s a recession, but we really love New York at New Year’s.”

But it goes from the best time of the year to the worst time of the year, literally, in a two-week period. The rest of January and into February was pretty rough. It was a really, really fearful time for us.

I feel much better since the beginning of March. I’ve been more optimistic because the numbers I’ve seen have been more like 2007. As long as we’re staying at those numbers, we’re O.K. I feel like a lot of people waited until March to book. Once March hit, it’s been consistent.

One thing that’s definitely down from last year is the private tours, private customized limo tours. Last year, we were doing three a weekend; now we’re lucky if we do one or two a weekend. For “Sex and the City,” groups of 9 or 10 girls on a bachelorette tour would definitely have taken a limo, and now they’re riding the buses. They save around $100 a head.