New year, same pandemic, and Luis Patiño is doing what he can. Which is everything he can.
"I am super-grateful that I am able to wake up every single day and do what I love — cutting vegetables and washing dishes," said Patiño, who owns Café Racer Kitchen in Minneapolis.
Like so many small-business people, Patiño adapted to the rolling catastrophes of 2020. He changed his business model, he innovated, he applied for every grant and grabbed at every lifeline his community tossed him. He had rent to pay, he had payroll to meet, he had food to put on your table. He had vegetables to chop.
"The amount of vegetables I have to cut is the hope I have," Patiño said. "I hope that I sell this much food. I hope that I can put out this much product."
As COVID-19 endangered his staff, his customers and the business he'd built up from a food truck, Patiño tried everything. He lined up a contract to make school lunches for local charter schools; he shifted his business to carryout; he offered heat-and-eat meals so people could fill their ovens with pulled pork, arepas or sweet fried plantains. The comfort foods of Patiño's native Colombia, comforting his hometown of Minneapolis.
When Hennepin County threw him a lifeline, he grabbed it. Since May, the county has given out more than $46 million in grants — backed by CARES Act dollars and state pandemic relief funds — to help more than 4,600 small businesses and nonprofits hurt by the shutdowns, recession and unrest of the past year. Last week, the county began sifting through 3,700 applications for a fifth round of small-business aid.
Nearly half the county's aid so far has gone to minority-owned businesses. It was a conscious decision by a community with a glaring racial wealth gap — and an ugly history of discrimination, racial covenants and ramming highways through Black business districts.
Only 10% of Hennepin County's businesses are minority-owned. Hennepin County was going to save as many as it could.
"The pandemic is already disproportionately affecting communities of color from a health perspective," said Patricia Fitzgerald, community and economic development manager for Hennepin County Housing and Economic Development. "We needed to be extremely intentional to make sure these relief funds would be targeted equitably."
There are small-business relief programs like this at the federal, state and local levels, and all of it helps. Shopping locally helps. Ordering a meal helps. Wearing a mask. Buying a gift card.
Every business you save saves others. Restaurants, gyms, arts organizations, dry cleaners. These grants helped mom-and-pop shops pay landlords, pay workers, pay vendors, keep the lights on.
Most small businesses have enough cash reserves to carry them for about two weeks. Minnesota's first pandemic shutdown order was 43 weeks ago. Businesses shut down and scaled back to save the community. The community owes them.
"Small businesses are the backbone of our economy," Fitzgerald said. "Ninety-six percent of Hennepin County businesses have fewer than 100 employees."
As the community gave to Café Racer, Patiño gave back. The restaurant has a longstanding tradition of offering free meals to anyone who needs one. In the pandemic, the restaurant's Breaking Bread program transformed into a meals-on-wheels operation, with volunteers delivering to those in need.
He misses the days when he could offer free plates in his restaurant — free to someone hungry and in need, and free to the customer next to them, so they can share a meal together. Getting Minnesotans to accept a free meal was always tough, Patiño found. This is a place where people cut the last brownie into smaller and smaller pieces, just so there's something left if someone hungrier comes along.
"Minnesotans think they're taking it from someone else," Patiño said. "When in reality, what I need you to do is just sit there and just break bread with another person. It's not a gift of a free meal. The gift is just taking commerce out of it."
The pandemic took shared meals in crowded restaurants away from us. But we haven't lost what matters most.
"The things that matter are your family and friends and sharing food with them," said Patiño. "Anything more complicated than that, you have made it up."
Back at Café Racer, Patiño cuts his vegetables at the start of each workday, and hopes for dirty dishes at the end.
"The dishes represent the actual completion of being able to provide food for my community. Good, healthy, nourishing food," he said. "How lucky we are to serve the purpose that we serve."
For more information about Café Racer and its Breaking Bread free meal program, visitcaferacermn.com.
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