Poetry nights at Renton’s Boon Boona Coffee were a lively, boisterous affair that drew together nearly 100 people in the name of storytelling and community. The additional pop-up events that featured cuisines from local and immigrant communities and rotating artists made the Eritrean roastery more than just a coffee shop for its regulars.
“It’s your home as well,” CEO and founder Efrem Fesaha said, as if reciting a mantra.
Now, a month into Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order, the once-lively business is quiet. The expansive shop is closed to visitors as the skeleton crew serves drip coffee to customers from behind a table at the entrance’s door.
Mom-and-pop shops such as Boon Boona Coffee contribute to the small-town feel and local flavor of cities throughout South King County, said Renton Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Diane Dobson. But as the novel coronavirus sweeps the state, threatening the economic survival of those independent businesses that bring vibrancy to downtown corridors in communities like Renton, Burien and Kent, residents fear the area’s unique culture could be lost.
Experts question if the closure of independent businesses, particularly in suburban areas and small cities where homegrown shops and restaurants have been fighting to stay afloat for decades amid competition from national chains and online retailers, could have a profound effect on American society.
“A likely outcome of the pandemic is that there will be a wave of small-business closures that will accelerate a trend of oligopolies in retail that was already happening,” Brookings Institution fellow Tracy Hadden Loh said.
Fesaha compared the potential threat of a big business influx with a “mall experience in a place that is so uniquely diverse.”
“Instead of a Mexican restaurant, [there’s] going to be a Krispy Kreme,” he worried.
Renton has long boasted a diverse community and independent nature because of its history as a coal town and manufacturing hub, said Renton History Museum Director Elizabeth Stewart. “A lot of the jobs are labor-oriented and as a consequence they’ve attracted waves of immigrants all throughout Renton’s history,” Stewart said. The resulting ethnic enclaves created a small-town character that’s persisted even as the city has grown to more than 100,000 residents, Stewart said.
Growing up in West Seattle, Fesaha was drawn to Renton’s multicultural community during visits to his father’s work at Boeing. When he opened his brick-and-mortar shop in January 2019, Eritrean-born Fesaha felt at home next door to Indian, Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants owned by first-generation Americans. He expressed concern for local business owners whose second language is English and might have missed funding opportunities that went by as quickly as “tickets to a Jay Z concert.”
While the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program was designed to help small businesses retain their staff, many small firms have struggled to access those funds: The first round of funding ran out quickly, and much of it went to large companies. A recent Associated Press report found that 94 publicly traded businesses received a total of $365 million in low-interest loans through a loophole in the requirements. As a result, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced Thursday that large enterprises must return the aid by May 7.
Dobson estimates that 90 percent of the Renton Chamber of Commerce members are small-business owners, and many of them didn’t receive federal aid because they didn’t meet the requirements to apply, or funding in the first round ran dry before their applications were processed. As a fifth generation Rentonite who “lives and breathes Renton,” she has been touched by the community support for small businesses through donations, takeout and online orders. But Dobson shares Fesaha’s concern that the pandemic could reshape the area for the worse. The downtown corridor holds an inimitable grit and charm that can’t be “replicated at the corporate level,” Dobson said.
Most of the shops in Kent’s historic district are also closed because of the pandemic. While some continue to operate online, others such as Café on Fourth have temporarily shut down. “It’s a ghost town in the historic area,” Kent Downtown Partnership Executive Director Gaila Gutierrez said. “It will be interesting to see whether these businesses can hang on long enough to stay in business when all of this passes.”
Kevin Grossman, a certified small-business adviser at Green River College, believes Kent’s culture will suffer if only generic chains survive. “The damage will be intense from COVID. We’re already hearing some firms that have thrown in the towel such as Red Wines and 4th St. Cafe. They won’t be the last,” Grossman said.
In Burien, a majority of the independent businesses faced difficulty in applying for federal funding because they were small and lacked a strong relationship with financial institutions, said Chris Craig, Burien’s Economic Development Manager.
Burien salon owner Deanna Teasley applied for funding under the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program to no avail. She’s also unable to receive unemployment benefits because she is the sole proprietor, and she doesn’t file taxes as an employee. Her shop called Lawtiwa Barbersalon, which means friend in Nez Perce, was thriving before the pandemic. But now Teasley is uncertain if her business will stay afloat beyond August if she doesn’t receive financial assistance.
“Because we are more of a bedroom community of Seattle, there’s a lot of mom-and-pop businesses,” said Teasley, adding “maybe that’s why we’re being more impacted than other areas.”
It’s difficult to know how the pandemic could reshape South King County’s culture, as a crisis of this level has not occurred in our lifetimes, said Stewart from the Renton History Museum. While historical documents showed that Renton establishments closed during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, it’s hard to get a sense of how the culture changed.
History does show that Renton has a strong tradition of community cooperation and resilience in the face of disease or natural disasters, such as a 1911 flood that devastated its downtown, Stewart said. Nonprofits and community organizations have long “served as the engines for recovery after any particular disaster,” she added.
The pandemic could usher in a resurgence of chains in suburban areas, but Hadden Loh believes the pandemic’s impact will be indiscriminate of location. One possibility, she said, is that independent stores and restaurants could be more likely to survive than big businesses in the long run because their exposure to risk is smaller than that of national retailers.
She suggests that local jurisdictions prepare a recovery plan for their small businesses now, such as creating live events to drive foot traffic when it’s safe to do so. “Whether you’re an urban or suburban jurisdiction, every government can think locally about the type of main street and economy that they want and to be more proactive than reactive,” Hadden Loh said.
Gutierrez, from Kent, remarked on the sense of community that has persisted throughout the shutdown. Altha’s Louisiana Cajun Seasoning has been providing lunches to kids. The downtown merchants have started a campaign to place encouraging decals on their windows, such as “Kent strong.” She hopes that the pandemic has instilled a renewed appreciation for the area’s small businesses.
“While there’s worry and uncertainty, there’s just as much hope,” Gutierrez said.
Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified Chris Craig as Kent’s Economic Development Manager. He works for the City of Burien.