Asia Society at Home
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HOUSTON, April 2, 2021 — As part of its COVID-19: New Realities webcast series, Asia Society Texas Center hosted a program on small businesses during the pandemic, welcoming Minh Nguyen, owner of Vietnamese restaurant Café TH; Quynh Nguyen, co-owner of Gloss Nail Bar; and Tim Jeffcoat, director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Houston, in conversation with Chris Tomlinson, business columnist with the Houston Chronicle. They discussed the challenges faced by the small businesses in the past year as a result of the pandemic, what helped them succeed, and hopes for the future.
Effects of the pandemic on small businesses
After noting that the onset of the pandemic observably caused many small businesses to shutter, Tomlinson invited the small business owners to share their personal experiences over the past year. Both Quynh Nguyen and Minh Nguyen said their biggest fear at the beginning of the pandemic was what the lockdowns and restrictions would mean for their businesses and employees.
Quynh Nguyen shared that the beginning of the pandemic was like “maneuvering through uncharted waters,” referring to the uncertainty in how local, state, and, federal authorities would handle the pandemic and how her business would be affected. She said she was still able to meet her business targets for the year because, despite taking customers at a lower capacity than normal, Gloss Nail Bar was able to serve a larger number of people due to the volume of bookings. The salon also adapted by creating and selling do-it-yourself nail kits for customers to enjoy at home, which generated additional revenue.
Minh Nguyen said that he confronted similar uncertainties about his business at the beginning of the pandemic at Café TH. He explained that costs went up and revenue went down due to less demand, leading him to cut his own salary to ensure his employees would still be paid and to add new preorder deliveries to the menu to generate revenue. While it was difficult at first, he said he drew on his experience from the financial crisis from 2008–2009 to adapt his business to the current circumstances and was able to make it through with the support of his customers, some of whom he noted generously contributed money to keep the café going.
Role of the Small Business Administration
During the pandemic, many small businesses – including Gloss Nail Bar and Café TH – were able to benefit from programs such as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans offered by the Small Business Administration (SBA). Jeffcoat offered his analysis of the status of small businesses during the pandemic, noting that the businesses most affected by the pandemic were the ones that rely on a density of customers, such as bars, restaurants, and gyms. Additionally, he said that businesses that were part of the larger supply chain sustaining other businesses like restaurants, for example, were also affected.
Jeffcoat indicated that throughout the pandemic, the SBA has been offering programs such as the PPP and the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan to help keep small businesses running. Under the new presidential administration, he said that the SBA’s opportunities to support small businesses have expanded with the arrival of initiatives such as the Restaurant Revitalization Act. However, Jeffcoat explained that the biggest challenge remains in spreading awareness of these programs to as many small businesses as possible, so they know what help is available. To that end, he said that although the SBA has been hosting a high volume of virtual events and participating in other webinars, the language barriers that exist among Houston’s diverse business community continue to be an issue to access. This is being addressed through webinars being hosted in multiple languages and resources that are offered in over 30 languages.
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Looking forward to the future
Throughout the past year of the pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment has been a growing issue alongside the health and economic crises. Though both Quynh Nguyen and Minh Nguyen said they were disheartened by the reports of Asian individuals and businesses that have been targeted, neither had personally experienced any physical threats to themselves or their staff.
Both small business owners expressed optimism for the future as economic conditions have improved since the beginning of the pandemic and as businesses have adapted. Though Texas has officially “reopened” to allow businesses to resume full capacity, Quynh Nguyen acknowledged that uncertainty still remains as to what the future will bring, noting that “scaling a business during these times is very difficult.” She emphasized the importance of the ability to adapt to the given circumstances.
Minh Nguyen agreed but also stressed caution in moving forward as pandemic-related restrictions lift, encouraging continued social distancing and mask-wearing. “My outlook for 2021 is to play it cautiously,” he said. “I’m going to go month by month.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
About Asia Society at Home
We are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.
About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.