Portable generators save the day for Loíza St. small biz
For Puerto Rico’s small business sector, left in the dark post Hurricane Irma, the key to returning to near normalcy was having a portable power generator.
This high-in-demand piece of equipment proved crucial for establishments on the Loíza Street corridor to spring back into action while businesses unable to secure one, either because of the cost or the sudden shortage of generators, were left behind.
One business, a money transfer company named RIA, was forced to import a Kipor KDE 6700T generator all the way from California to resume providing its financial services, said one of its employees.
Leasing a generator made it possible for sports bar Tantalo, the newest addition to Loíza Street, to get the place up and running in time for its weekend inauguration.
Gemileo, an incense and fashion purveyor, which just recently opened a wine cellar on its premise, reopened Friday thanks to a borrowed generator.
And the owner of Restaurant Agarrate Catalina got a break when after an extensive search he tracked down a generator in a Condado restaurant that no longer needed it since power was back on.
Catalina reopened Thursday. Cost of leasing the generator: $1,300 for one week, diesel fuel not included.
The importance of a generator
Hurricane Irma may have merely sideswiped Puerto Rico in its destructive path across the Caribbean but caused considerable damage, especially to the island’s already fragile power grid.
Although the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority set to work quickly to restore electricity, many areas still remain in the dark. A local newspaper reported on Saturday that 5 percent of PREPA’s clients do not have electricity yet.
For businesses, having a power generator on hand meant the difference between staying shut or open. Proof of this was amply in evidence on Loíza street this past week.
While many businesses remained closed, some still boarded up for protection, others went back to work.
These included business with ground-floor locales that kept their doors open and carried on despite no electricity (Island Finance, among them) or businesses lucky enough to own, rent, buy or otherwise get hold of a portable generator.
At Farmacia Americana, supervisor Carlos Mesa said the pharmacy has its own generator and was back in business the day after Hurricane Irma struck.
Within a few hours of opening, batteries, small propane bottles, candles, lanterns and water were sold out.
“Everything is ok except we have no electricity,” Mesa said ruefully on Friday.
Double Cake’s generator allowed staff to fulfill orders and bake a reduced amount of cupcakes for its second store in Paseo Caribe that has no kitchen. The Loíza Street store did not reopen until Saturday, when power came back.
Pinky’s and Domino’s also were open though not operating at full steam. Pinky’s Honda fuel-powered, 3000-watt generator kept the popular eatery’s refrigerator running and enabled cook Emanuel Berrios to whip up a few basics.
Maribel Santiago, manager of Domino’s Loíza Street outlet, said the company has several generators that are rotated among outlets as the need arises which allowed reopening but with a shorter day schedule due to safety considerations from the lack of street lighting.
Also, she was working with a reduced staff which concerned her because part-timers unable to work don’t get paid and this is sure to impact their family finances, she said.
Domino’s take-out business has been slow since reopening, according to Santiago who assumed that people have less money in their pockets these days or simply don’t know that the outlet is open again.
For businesses without a generator, finding one in the days following the hurricane turned into a quest as arduous, possibly, as seeking the Holy Grail.
At Areyto, a new restaurant that opened a week before Irma, co-owner Javier Nieves said it took a long search to locate the two generators he finally found at Tool and Equipment Center in Río Piedras.
The cost of the equipment came to $2,600, which would require financing, he said.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration has estimated Irma-related damages at around $1 billion. Losses for Loíza Street businesses depend on the type of business, according to hardware store owner José Benitez whose Ferretería Madrid is typically the first stop for anyone making repairs in the area.
“My merchandise is dry goods, restaurants are the ones that are suffering,” said Benitez who was able to keep his store open thanks to a trusty generator.
For Agarrate Catalina, the hurricane proved very costly indeed. Romano said he lost thousands of dollars worth of food and many more thousands in lost business during the 10 days he was closed.
The hurricane also caused physical damages to some of the restaurant’s equipment, including an air conditioner, three freezers and three refrigerators.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, generators clearly saved the day and they even became part of the conversation at a meeting that Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel A. Laboy Rivera held Friday with Loíza Street merchants to learn about their hurricane-related needs and the area’s problems which include street safety and lack of parking. Laboy informed attendees about the various government programs available to hurricane-struck businesses, including financing options through the Economic Development Bank for the purchase of costly generators.
“Small and mid-sized businesses are the bedrock of Puerto Rico’s economic development and we are going to support them totally,” Laboy said, assuring merchants that their requests for help would be channeled to the appropriate agency.
Picking up the pieces
Despite businesses incurring heavy losses and the mostly gloomy weather this past week, the mood across Loíza Street is one of picking up the pieces and recouping lost ground.
Geronimo Guevara, president of the Loíza Street Association, a trade group that represents the 180 to 200 businesses located on this popular commercial strip though only 32 of them are currently active in the organization, pointed to the upcoming celebration on Oct. 1 of the Fiestas de la Calle Loíza, a yearly event that draws crowds to the area to shop, listen to live music and participate in communal activities.
This time around, he said, plans include closing a longer stretch of Loíza Street to traffic so as to integrate more businesses into the event, now in its fifth year.
Meanwhile, newcomer businesses were not letting the lack of power change any of their plans.
Nieves, whose Areyto occupies the former Cocinando Suave, said he planned to reopen the restaurant on Sunday, “with or without power.”
At Tantalo, workers on Friday were busy putting the finishing touches. The glitzy sports bar, a sizable investment the owners declined to divulge, features nine TV screens, cosy sofas, an impressively long bar counter and colorful graphics, including a handsome abstract mural gracing the exterior walls that had to be painted twice because of vandalism.
The bar, which takes up a large space partly occupied at one time by a fast food operator, will employ 25 people and operate from late afternoon until 2 a.m.
“There is no specific moment to begin a business,” said entrepreneur Victor Ithursarry Merino, a partner in other Loíza Street establishments including Piola and Grass, when asked about the seemingly unfavorable timing for the opening.
“It’s a question of giving it your all and working,” he said.
On Saturday, power returned to several more blocks, including Tantalo’s side of the street. There was still work to be done, including setting up the lights above the bar’s entrance. Ithursarry said Tantalo would open against all odds.
And so it did later in the day.