Diary of a New York Cafe: Getting Coronavirus Relief Is Tough


How the owner of OatMeals, a Greenwich Village hot cereal bar, has been fighting to keep her business alive.


Samantha Stephens realized her longtime dream eight years ago, opening an oatmeal bar in Greenwich Village where customers can build bowls with toppings that range from chia seeds and berries to bacon and poached eggs. Now, coronavirus has left the little company fighting for its life.

Ms. Stephens had methodically prepared to jump into New York’s competitive dining scene, attending culinary school at night while working full-time as an investment bank executive assistant. When she did, she turned an initial loan into a small but solid business, one that pulls in about $45,000 in revenue each month.

But her shop, a 380-square-foot cubby that offers oat-themed pastries and 30 set bowls — among them, “The Hot Date” and “Truffle RisOATto” — has suffered a serious blow amid quarantines. It has forced Ms. Stephens to make tough choices. Her story is one of many but shows why the damage inflicted on businesses today might cast a long shadow on the future of the U.S. economy.

Below is a diary of the decisions she has made, the hurdles along the way, and what lies ahead.

Friday, March 6

“The shop is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, so my staff and I are there by 6:15. We get in early and start cooking the hot oatmeal and baking the fresh oatmeal pastries. We open at 7 a.m. — our main rush is 8:15, 8:30 to 10:30. That’s our big, busy rush. The deliveries start coming in, and we’ve got multiple tablets,” she said, explaining that the devices keep the oatmeal baristas posted on takeout orders, which are very popular. “They all start chirping and buzzing at us.”

Wednesday, March 11

“It all got serious overnight, I heard customers talking about it,” Ms. Stephens said of the virus that was just beginning to spread in New York. Revenues quickly began dropping. “The numbers were down 22 percent from the previous Wednesday; Thursday was 24 percent down. Friday the 13th they were down 65 percent from the previous Friday. That Friday we dropped down to just myself and one other employee — on a morning shift, it’s normally three to four of us. Normally, I’m open until 5 p.m., but it was so dead that we closed at 1 p.m.”

Tuesday, March 17

The city had announced that restaurants could open only for takeout and delivery. “I was testing it out, and that Tuesday, I was down 86 percent. It was costing me more to open my doors than I could bring in, in sales. I really wanted to stay open for the community, I love my regular customers, and they depend on their morning oatmeal.”

“It was myself and one other employee. We worked until 1 p.m., and I told her — let me think about this, I’ll get in touch with you later,” Ms. Stephens said.

It was a major inflection point for a small-business owner who depended on steady revenue but realized the need to control costs. “I was going to order new inventory: my dairy, my fresh fruits. I probably shouldn’t be ordering, who knows what’s going to happen?”

“I had to text my employees and say, ‘hey guys, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I need to take you off the schedule.’ At that point, I thought it was going to be a week or two; I was really hopeful.”

That Wednesday was the first day that OatMeals closed its doors, leaving Ms. Stephens at home, scared and unsure what to do next. She scrambled for anything that could give her a sense of what might happen, reading newspapers, industry newsletters and mailing lists, and New York dining-scene websites.

“I was reading the news, reading any information that was coming in. My vendors and delivery partners were sending out notices. There was a lot of misinformation. There was a lot of confusing information.”

Friday, March 27

After weeks of debate in Washington, President Trump signed a coronavirus relief package, known as the CARES Act, into law. It included funding for small business loans, which are forgivable for firms that keep their employees, and for Economic Injury Disaster Loan advances, which are meant to give small businesses quick access to capital.

“As soon as I heard that the government was somehow going to help — the mention of the CARES Act — I thought, well that’s good. That seemed helpful. When there was a mention of some kind of assistance, especially forgivable assistance.”

Tuesday, March 31

“Very quickly, I realized that there’s no way I’m going to be able to pay what I owe on the store. And there’s no separation between the business and myself, I try to keep the lights on in my apartment and my store,” Ms. Stephens said. She knew she would miss rent on both, a “really scary” reality.

“I emailed the landlords, and said, ‘Hey, I had to close on the 18th, and I’m going to get right back on track, but I’m not going to be able to pay in April,” she said. She was hoping for understanding, but what she got was a form email from her store landlord reminding her of her obligation to pay the $6,300 monthly rent, and suggesting that she check in with her insurance. She did. “Insurance is not going to cover this.”

Saturday, April 4

“The Economic Injury Disaster Loan was the one I knew I could apply for,” she said. The loan program, which offers businesses low-interest working capital, had newly been expanded and made to include $10,000 grants. “The reason that I wasn’t able to submit right away is that the site kept changing,” she said, and it required lots of information that she did not have handy.

“I reached out to my accountant, I needed a couple of details. One day, on April 4, I went through it and I had finally gotten to the point where it was like OK you can submit. I submitted, and I never received an ‘application submitted’ email.”

“I’m just glad I took a screenshot.”

TUESDAY, April 7

Ms. Stephens, worried that she would not get loans, set up a GoFundMe page, asking for donations to cover her costs. “I tried to be very honest and say this money would go to my rent, my utilities and my employees,” she said. She got some backlash for that, because other restaurants in the area were doing GoFundMe campaigns that they said were exclusively dedicated to supporting employees. She thought she should be as upfront as possible. “We have to have a store to return to, and to do that, I have to pay the rent.”

The effort has raised nearly $6,000 of its $25,000 goal, largely from small donations of $25 or $50.

Wednesday, April 8

“Around the same time, I was reading about the Paycheck Protection Program and realizing that it could be partially forgivable, so I should definitely try to get it. I thought it was also through the government — I didn’t realize it was through a bank.”

“Then I read that banks were only lending to their customers. I bank with Chase, so I thought I had to go with Chase,” but it took days for the application to open on the bank’s website. Trish Wexler, a spokeswoman for the company, said that a simple form was posted April 3 and a full application went live April 6.

“Finally, after a few days, they said they were able to start taking applications, so then I did apply through Chase.”

Sunday, April 12

Ms. Stephens received a confirmation that she had applied for government help four days after submitting the Paycheck Protection application (Ms. Wexler said that Chase’s system did not actually register the application until April 11). It left her feeling uncertain, with no real information about if or when a reprieve might come. “I didn’t get any additional detail — it just says ‘soon.’ I don’t know what soon means.”

THURSDAY, April 16

The initial $349 billion that Congress allocated for the CARES Act programs ran out on April 16. Ms. Stephens had yet to hear back — nor had any money appeared in her bank. Even though she knew the funding had been exhausted, she thought that she must have gotten across the line before that happened.

“I was hopeful, because I have a relationship with Chase, that I would have a foot in the door.”

Friday, April 17

The email from Chase Business Banking came on Friday, as Ms. Stephens sat on the couch, her laptop propped up next to her. The funds had run dry before her application had made it through.

“We understand that many of you are disappointed,” the email read.

The letdowns and stress have left her in tears, she said.

“It’s panic and worry, and it’s fear,” she said. “But overall a bit of numbness right now because this is all so weird.”

Tuesday, April 21

Ms. Stephens relocated to Florida, where her long-distance boyfriend has a house, after closing her shop so that she wouldn’t have to wait out the shutdown alone in New York. Now, she’s eager for any sign that she can return and reopen.

She never heard back about the first application, but that program is also out of cash. If she is approved for money after Congress adds more funds to the program — as is expected later this week — she’ll use it for missed payments and wages. If she doesn’t receive some help, she doesn’t see how she will manage after two months of missing her shop rent.

“It’s really hard to imagine; I don’t even want to think about it,” she said of losing the shop. At the same time, “It’s going to be impossible if we don’t get some assistance.”

She keeps in touch with her 11 employees, some of whom have applied for unemployment insurance.

“The vibe is good. They’re excited to get back to OatMeals and do what we do best,” she said.

But “they’re panicking too — everybody has their own bills to pay.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.



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