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Minnesota’s Latino businesses 'hanging in there' despite pandemic and unrest

Researchers say too many business owners didn't receive federal funds designed to help them weather the pandemic

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Business owner Karla Castro owns a Central American market, Autentica Centro Americana, in Oakdale, Minnesota. She, like many other business owners across the state, has faced supply chain issues and been hit hard by the pandemic.
Tim Evans for MPR News
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OAKDALE, Minn. -- Karla Castro owns and operates Autentica Centro Americana and, like many, faced challenges when the pandemic hit.

Her small Oakdale, Minn., market sells food products from Central America, primarily from her native El Salvador. When the pandemic first began, sales were good because people were stocking up, she said.

But then sales dropped as people rarely left their homes, Castro said. Then came the supply chain issues.

“It was difficult to get the products to stock my business. The product is mainly Central American, specifically from El Salvador, (and it) became scarce when the borders closed,” Castro said.

She considered closing her business.

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A report by Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research and the University of Minnesota Extension released in December 2020 showed that 28% of Latino-owned businesses faced a reduction in available supplies.

In addition, Latino business owners often didn’t get the help made available by the government. And Castro was one of those business owners. She said she didn’t make an effort to apply, basing her decision on what she had heard.

“I didn’t look for the appropriate help or go to an organization and ask. I think that is our problem — we don’t seek advice,” she said.

The same report found that Latino businesses weren’t accessing programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan. It said that only 45% of Latino firms reported benefitting from the program.

Castro finally found help through the Latino Economic Development Center after a friend told her about it. And she sought them out for help.

People go to the center for a specific reason, said Rico Duran who works in strategic initiatives at the center. But staff members there go beyond just addressing the one reason and do a complete evaluation with the client.

“We take the time and sit down and go over the history of their business, how they started it, how they came up with that idea, what they’ve done, how the business has been working in terms of sales, in terms of productivity,” Duran said.

Once that is completed, they begin creating resources for them along with a list of possible solutions, Duran said.

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Latino business owner Manuel Rutiaga at his restaurant, Gorditas El Durango, in St. Paul.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Manuel Rutiaga moved his business, Gorditas El Durango, to Plaza del Sol in St. Paul in December. He had previously been on Lake Street in Minneapolis. With his lease set to expire, Rutiaga was looking for a place that was slightly bigger and more affordable. The Latino Economic Development Center helped him find the new location.

He also faced challenges the past couple of years.

“First came the pandemic and it was very, very slow, sales bottomed out,” he said.

Then came the unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

“They came in, they broke the windows. They stole what little cash was in the register, but they destroyed the place. We had a lot of food in the freezer and it all spoiled because they left the freezer door open. We lost a lot of money on food that went bad,” Rutiaga said.

He opened his restaurant at the end of 2019. He said prior to opening it, he didn’t know much about the process. But a friend recommended the Latino Economic Development Center and the classes they offer.

It’s important to learn as much as possible prior to opening a business.

“Before opening a business, you always need to have an assessment; someone with knowledge so that you don’t make a mistake or make an unnecessary expenditure. The reality is that searching for information is one of the most difficult things,” Rutiaga said.

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Despite the difficult times, Duran said they haven’t seen many Latino businesses closing.

“They’re hanging in there. I mean it’s really painful to see that, but they have so much invested that they keep the business open. But they have probably another job or two jobs on the side because they are trying to pay the debt but also they don’t want to lose what they started,” Duran said.

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