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How Three Van Nuys Businesses Survived the Pandemic's Devastation

Nestor Lobo, owner of Retro Xpress Bicycles in Van Nuys, stands in front of his work station.
Nestor Lobo, owner of Retro Xpress Bicycles in Van Nuys, stands in front of his work station. | Itxy Quintanilla/LAist
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The following article was originally published June 22, 2021, and was republished through a collaboration with LAist and KPCC.

Story by Itxy Quintanilla

When COVID-19 cases surged last winter, Van Nuys was among the five San Fernando Valley neighborhoods with the highest infection rates. Along its main drag, business owners have felt the effects.

Van Nuys Boulevard is a study in contrasts. Lined with restaurants, car dealerships and a swap meet, it looked as busy as ever in late May. But if you look past the blur of cars and buses zooming along the street, you'll notice boarded up businesses and stores that've been barred shut. For the establishments that survived, it has been a struggle.

The interior of Salvadorian restaurant El Cafetal on Van Nuys Boulevard.
The interior of Salvadorian restaurant El Cafetal on Van Nuys Boulevard. | Itxy Quintanilla/LAist

Struggling to Make Ends Meet

For Veronica Andrade, co-owner of Salvadoran restaurant El Cafetal, operating her business during the pandemic has been an epic challenge. She says it felt like a bomb had exploded the day Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020.

"It was very difficult for us, the owners, not knowing how we were going to support [our employees], knowing that they have families to support and we have families, too," Andrade says.

El Cafetal has been operating for more than a decade and, according to Andrade, sales plummeted by almost 95%. At the start of the pandemic, only she and her husband were working at the restaurant and they were bringing in only $100 to $200 per day.

"Who are we going to pay with that, if we don’t make enough for rent, for bills, much less enough to pay for an employee? It was really hard," she says.

Receiving financial help from the federal government was an uphill climb.

Andrade says El Cafetal didn't qualify for the first round of loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program for a variety of reasons. Among them, she didn’t have an account with Bank of America, which processed many of the small business loans.

In 2021, thanks to some help from her bookkeeper, Andrade says El Cafetal received a PPP loan. It allowed her and her husband to rehire employees and purchase products for the restaurant.

Navigating customer expectations and workplace safety during the pandemic has also been tricky.

Andrade says many of her regulars were initially bothered by the restaurant's takeout only policy. When El Cafetal opened its patio for outdoor dining, many customers didn't want to eat outside.

Echoing the stories of many other restaurant owners who had trouble enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing, Andrade says, "A lot of people didn't want to follow the rules. They'd get bothered by us, and would treat employees badly because they’d ask them to wear masks."

Storefronts on Van Nuys Boulevard shut down during the pandemic.
Storefronts on Van Nuys Boulevard shut down during the pandemic. | Itxy Quintanilla/LAist

The Ups and Downs of Being an 'Essential Business'

About a block South of El Cafetal, on the corner of Victory and Van Nuys Blvd., you'll find Retro Xpress Bicycles. Like Andrade, owner Nestor Lobo felt as though March 2020 was a cataclysm. "At the beginning, I thought it was the end of the world," he says.

Lobo closed his doors to the public but when he got word that bicycle shops had been classified as "essential businesses" by Los Angeles County, he reopened —with modifications. He maintained shorter hours and kept the front door closed but the threat of the virus remained.

"Going to work and exposing yourself to a type of virus that you don't know what kind of effect is gonna do in your body, it was like, like a lottery game. You're going to work and putting your life at risk. Even though we were disinfecting and cleaning, it was very, very, very difficult. I got sick [with COVID-19], and we had to close the shop for a few days," Lobo says.

Still, Lobo is grateful he hasn't had to shut down his longstanding shop. He says business picked up as restrictions relaxed and more people decided to take up cycling during the pandemic.

The intersection of Van Nuys and Victory boulevards in Van Nuys, California.
The intersection of Van Nuys and Victory boulevards in Van Nuys, California. | Itxy Quintanilla/LAist

Bad Timing

Next door to Retro Xpress Bicycles, at Baleadas Y Mas, a relatively new Honduran restaurant, owner Lorena McCollum shares a different story.

"We signed the lease for this place on... I believe it was March 5th, 2020. Then obviously, a few weeks later, the whole world was shut down," McCollum says.

Like Andrade, McCollum struggled to secure financial aid for her restaurant. "We have not qualified because we don't have a longstanding history. So it's been really hard on us and we're pretty much behind with rent. We're just not making it," McCollum says.

Up until now, McCollum says her restaurant has been earning just enough through take out orders and outdoor dining to pay the chef and overhead.

"I am praying and hoping that, you know, everyone's getting vaccinated and people are not so afraid to go out. I do see a difference. We're just taking it day by day," she says.

Back at El Cafetal, as upbeat songs by Selena and Los Ángeles Azules play in the background, Andrade reflects on the past year: "I think we’re returning to normalcy, little by little."

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