Sonoma County disasters lead to minigrants for microbusinesses
It all started with a dream of owning a small business.
It led to reaching out to help other small businesses who were going through hard times and trying to survive.
Peter Lopez Jr., the son of a Mexican immigrant who founded NorCal Beer Geeks, started Juncture Tap Room and Lounge in 2017. He did it with the financial help and support of family and friends who believed in him and his vision.
Then came the Sonoma County wildfires, the power outages and finally the pandemic, which forced many businesses to close or reduce the number of customers they could serve.
All of those events especially hurt the little guy, including Peter. He went through most of his savings and the landlord could only give Juncture Taproom a discount on rent for so long.
“There was this perception that the government was taking care of businesses. But they weren’t, not the small businesses,” said Peter’s sister, Sally Lopez, who had invested in the business and teamed with him on the effort. “And some didn’t want to apply, too, because they think there are strings attached. We started thinking of the whole county.”
She added, “I remember talking to Peter, and he said ’If I could just pay the utility bill.’ ”
Peter Lopez talked to his friends and colleagues and heard the same sad story. So he started a GoFundMe account with his $1,200 stimulus check called “For the Love of Rosa,” and his team began reaching out for financial help in order to give out $500 minigrants to microbusinesses.
“It often takes the right words or a small gesture to give someone a reason to keep going,” he said on the group website, smallbusinesshardshipfund.com.
Sally, formerly a community services officer, now works as a federal documents translator. She missed directly helping people, and this gave her back the opportunity to pursue that passion.
With the help of Sally’s daughter, Rachel Evans, they established a nonprofit called Small Business Hardship Fund Sonoma County, appointed a board and began going to government agencies and large businesses for financial assistance. And they decided to include cleaning kits with wipes, masks and sanitizer with the grants.
Walmart and Home Depot donated funds and PPE supplies. A board member who is president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Sonoma County, Alma Magallon, asked for help from the city of Santa Rosa, which sought and received a $500 grant to fund emergency radios for the group.
Small businesses started applying. They ended up “pitching in a few bucks” to fund 10 minigrants. Then they got to deliver a check, some gift cards and a kit to each recipient. “It was amazing hearing their stories,” Sally said.
Among those who benefited from the grants was the Movement Lab, a “family-style” dance studio. Since the pandemic, the studio has been limited to providing Zoom dance classes.
Studio owner Bernadette Alverio-Tonks is now teaching all classes herself on Zoom, because the studio is not bringing in revenue to pay for staff. Others included La de la salon, Bevessfloral and Auto Saver Plus Insurance.
In some cases, businesses used the funds to literally keep the lights on or to pay rent. Teresa Family Childcare used the money to buy tricycles that children could ride outdoors, since they had to transform the day care into an outdoor operation. The salon bought an outdoor canopy with the money.
“The money really helped a lot,” said Bertha Barajas, owner of the Bevess Floral and Event, a family business in Santa Rosa for the past five years. “I had to close my business for two months and it helped pay my PG&E bill.”
Small businesses are starting to recover with the reopening of society following widespread vaccinations, but many are still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. A new report out by the Alignable small business network found that 35% of small business owners in the U.S. are still at risk of closing for good by summer’s end. And 57% say they’ve only achieved half or less of their pre-COVID-19 revenue numbers.
In order to keep helping them, and now to fund wildfire emergency kits made just for small businesses, the nonprofit started holding fundraisers, including a New Year’s dinner for the homeless at the Palms Inn.
Then Sally and Evans got the bright idea to hold a Memorial Day “virtual” 5k and 10k walk-run fundraiser, in which people would pay $25 for a T-shirt, registration and a drawstring bag. The T-shirts, created at a discount, and bags were paid for through a check from Montgomery Village. Evans handled the tech side of things, including creating the website.
“We wanted to encourage people to get out there and hike,” Sally said.
Those who signed up ran or walked on their own and sent in pictures or videos of themselves running or walking wearing the T-shirts. Some didn’t run at all, but donated. They ended up raising nearly $1,700 of their $5,000 goal to fund the scholarships and another worthy cause that Evans founded several years ago, called Sonoma County Dancers United.
Evans, 23, a Rancho Cotate High School valedictorian and UC Berkeley economics graduate, works as a paralegal, but is all about dance.
“Ever since I was 6 — tap, ballet, salsa, you name it,” she said.
Back in high school, she noticed that many children who started learning dance in school couldn’t afford to pay for lessons at a dance studio once school ended. So she held a bake sale.
Later, she realized “no amount of cookies or brownies were going to sustain the goals I had for this organization,” Evans said.
A group called Latino Service Providers, which helps develop young leaders and build awareness about health and wellness, sponsored Dancers United, and it became a nonprofit. She applied for grants and began funding dance studio scholarships and school outreach lessons including for Lawrence E. Jones Middle School children to receive free dance instruction.
After COVID-19 hit, dance studios had to adapt. The free lessons moved online and the nonprofit supported studios that were laying off teachers.
“By providing scholarships to the studios, we contributed to their income,” Evans said.
And Juncture Tap Room and Lounge? The Lopezes are about to mark their fourth anniversary in business.
You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at email@example.com.