June 19, 2020 — Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Marvin Taveras owned and operated M&T Grocery, a family business at the center of its community. Located on Broad Street just south of South Providence, the small corner store is nestled among tightly packed triple-decker houses, used tire yards, dry cleaners and a Verizon office building. It is the only source of groceries for miles, and a lifeline for many.
The store carries a little bit of everything. Avocados are piled at the check-out. Milk, eggs, chips, paper towels, pasta and Ensure are stocked next to dish soap, cleaners and laundry detergent. Fresh produce and meats are displayed in tightly packed shelves down narrow aisles. Toilet paper is stacked to the ceiling.
“We have our neighborhood ladies,” said Cassandra Diaz, who works at the store for her father. “I’ll do the shopping for them. We have a lot of our older folks that we’ve been bringing groceries to for years – we just drop it off at their house on our way home.” If M&T didn’t have what her ladies were looking for, Diaz would see if she could find it for them at other stores.
When the Coronavirus hit, M&T Grocery had to shut down despite being considered an essential business. They used the downtime to develop a strategy for reopening. “We tried to stay open initially but our employees weren’t coming in and people were shopping without masks and we just weren’t prepared. It was hectic,” says Diaz. “We all felt at risk and we didn’t want to end up with a much bigger problem.”
The grocery reopened a few weeks later after Plexiglas barriers and hand sanitizing stations were installed. Only two shoppers at a time were allowed in the store. Diaz set up an online shopping system and began to take orders over the phone from more than just her usual dozen or so ladies from the neighborhood.
Reopening presented a financial challenge. Because the store provides fresh fruit, vegetables and quality meat for their community, thousands of dollars in inventory had to be thrown away. Now to restock, they were paying more than pre-COVID prices and adding in delivery charges. They were spending a lot more.
“We were overloaded,” says Diaz. “We lost some of our employees, so I was really busy inside the store, had a new 4-month old baby at home, and we didn’t have the time to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program ourselves. We asked someone to help us and ended up getting $6,000 – it was a help, just not enough.”
Because of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Diaz was able to re-hire two employees, which took a bit of the pressure off. She also reached out to Commerce RI for help. Commerce RI offers a number of programs and recommended applying for one of several grants available through LISC Rhode Island. Diaz applied for the LISC Small Business Relief Grant.
The grant program is part of LISC’s effort to support small businesses across the country, many of which are the backbone of the nation’s economy, and the cornerstone of communities. Many businesses have been forced to close temporarily as a result of the pandemic and have little in reserve to pay for added expenses. This could result in businesses closing and result in a catastrophic loss to not only families but communities as well.
The program was started with $7.5 million seed funding from Verizon and augmented with funding from Sam’s Club, Truist and Lowe’s. The grants target small, minority-owned businesses in under-served communities to help them keep functioning and remain vital facets of their local economies as we go through this challenging period. M&T Grocery applied for the Verizon Small Business Recovery Fund through LISC. So far in the first two rounds, LISC has awarded grants to more than 400 small businesses nationwide and just opened the fourth round for applications on June 11.
“We got the notification that we were awarded $10,000 on May 7,” says Diaz. “I cried. We all started crying. It’s so hard when you’re in the middle of all that uncertainty and you just don’t know if you can stay open or whether you are going to have to close the doors. Something like this is a godsend, and it’s more than the money. It lets you know that you’re not alone and you can make it. It tells me that all this work that I’ve been doing non-stop is not going to be for nothing. It’s a reminder that everything is going to be ok. The first thing we are going to do is to get our bills down to zero so we can start fresh. That’s going to be so much stress off of our heads.”
Regular customers will be relieved to have things get back to normal.
“This week we started deliveries for local customers again,” says Diaz. “One lady calls every day and we make a bag for her of what she needs and then usually one of my kids will run it up to her. Another couple we have will say that they’ve run out of something and we will drop that off. It’s the little things that make a community close knit. Now that we have a little bit of help and we have kids around, we can get the kids to run it up the street. It’s starting to get a little bit easier.”