By Susanne Beck
In the depths of the pandemic, small businesses on the Upper West Side and their supporters turned to crowdsourcing site GoFundMe to help pull them through the worst of it, and give their staffs a lifeline. Now, those who benefited from such campaigns are working to get back to full strength, and are thankful for the bridge of support that enabled them to get to more of a complete restart today.
Cibo y Vino on Broadway near 89th Street was among the first businesses in this neighborhood to call for help. Owner Marjanne Motamedi created The Cibo y Vino Family Fund in mid-March, 2020, hoping to pay her own “family” of workers while they were forced to the sidelines. She set a lofty goal of $75,000 – every GFM campaign must have a target – for her brood of 22. “We looked for any way we could help them,” she says today.
Cibo y Vino Family Fund
Raised to Date: $1,985
Though the campaign didn’t meet its goal, the proceeds helped. She and her partner managed to hold on to more than half the staff through the end of the year. “At the beginning, we were donating food for first responders – fire, police, hospital – so we kept some staff doing that, 2 to 4 times a week.” They also opened outdoor seating as soon as the weather allowed to keep the business limping along. Marjanne gives credit to her landlord, too, who she said was “very decent.” “We talked a lot,” she explains, and he accommodated her as best he could. The first and second rounds of PPP also helped.
Bettola Rock N’ Roll
Raised to Date: $44,110
Link (Campaign is CLOSED)
Other neighborhood restaurants quickly followed suit. On Amsterdam between 79th and 80th Streets, Bettola Rock n’ Roll Kitchen co-owner Giga – Marianna Leszayova made her own appeal in mid-April, including a piece she submitted to the West Side Rag. Giga wanted to do something but her chef and partner, Vlado, was even more adamant: “I feel horrible, people are putting their lives on the line, we got to go back,” he was quoted as saying at the time. They assembled a skeleton crew to cook for first responders and do takeout for the community. And in addition to cooking, Vlado made his own special contribution: tapping into his early rock n’ roll career, he serenaded frontline health care workers at hospitals around town during the nightly 7PM citywide shout out. Giga felt she couldn’t risk opening her doors any further, though, given Vlado’s heart condition. He was too precious to her personally, and professionally, to lose. “I wish we could do more,” she lamented last April, “but we have very limited resources.”
Just a few blocks away, Andrew Loscalzo, owner of Salumeria Rosi (283 Amsterdam) was grateful for his family’s Italian roots in Lombardy and the early warning system they provided about COVID. Regular emails and phone calls from his parents allowed him to be somewhat better prepared than most. “We had kind of a window into what was happening globally,” he says today. “By the time we closed in mid-March, we were already preparing. We didn’t know how long it would last but we certainly knew there was going to be some kind of disruption.”
Raised to Date: $17,181
Like others, Salumeria Rosi stayed open for take-out and delivery only meaning 90% of the staff had to be let go. “We had to barricade the door so that we basically served outside the restaurant. The fear at that moment for our own safety, for our guests’ safety, for everyone’s safety, was way high and I was making decisions around health versus livelihood.”
“I provided lifeline boxes for all of my employees. It was kind of my moment to say goodbye,” Andrew explains now. “Big care packages with sausages and milk and rice and toilet paper and masks – as much as people could carry, we gave them. It was all about keeping in touch with my staff and like okay, we’re family – and we are – let’s stay close.” Two weeks after the mandated shut down, it became clear that business restrictions would continue, leading Andrew to launch his own GoFundMe effort. “It was all for the staff who had been laid off,” he says. The core workers who were still helping with take-out agreed; the others needed the funds far more than they did.
Restaurants weren’t the only neighborhood businesses reaching out through GoFundMe. Shoe repair shops, fitness centers, and a number of hair salons, like Tresses Belle Studio at 527 Columbus Avenue, also looked to the neighborhood and loyal customers for support. Owner Linda Lufi created her relief fund after trying to keep her small salon going with her own money. She tried to pay staff but had to let most of them go. Customers asked how they could help but she was reluctant to lean on others for money. “I never did that before,” Linda remembers now. “Not even when my son had a car accident and became paralyzed.” A friend with a small business persuaded her otherwise.
Tresses Belle Hair Salon
Raised to Date: $17,177
Link (Campaign is CLOSED)
“PPP didn’t work because my business is based on 1099’s with independent contractors. It was very sad.” A small business loan came through in May or June, but Linda says it didn’t really cover much of anything. She was already in substantial debt. With no income to speak of, she had to cover monthly rent of $7,000 plus electricity, and insurance and taxes and water.
Entertainment venues also made their pitch. Jon Borromeo, Programming Chief of Staff at comedy club StandUpNY at 236 West 78th Street, opened a GoFundMe site in late March, 2020. Fortunately, rent was not his issue. “Even pre-pandemic, the Zellers have been amazing landlords,” he crows about the family that owns the club’s facilities. Instead, he wanted to support his tip-dependent staff. “They needed cash in hand, and we had no idea if the $600 the government had promised was going to come through.” With that, he made his best pitch: “They [the staff] haven’t asked for much,” his solicitation read. Then with professionally appropriate levity, he added: “In the meantime, anything you can do will help for groceries, cleaning supplies, rent, weed, booze, whatever.”
Raised to Date: $7,495
Borromeo raised over $7,500, shy of his goal of $10K for his staff of six. “We had regulars from the Upper West Side which was great – they were amazing – as well as a couple of big name celebrities who stayed anonymous.”
GoFundMe ended up being a financial flotation device through for many storefronts on the Upper West Side. Still, most will say it was about much more than the money. The campaigns provided emotional support, with affirmations of love and loyalty. Customers and generous neighbors behaved like family. Linda Lufi, Tresses Salon owner, says she was blown away by the generosity of her clients. “They were amazing – just amazing,” she marvels. While her debt load remains heavy – close to $80K as of last month – she managed to raise more than $17K through her fund and keep her doors open. “Amazing,” she says again, before gesturing toward the empty chairs. “Now I just need to fill these.”
Andrew Loscalzo at Salumeria Rosi brought in a similar amount. “We have built a very loyal and loving community of followers,” he says by way of explanation. And with a deep sense of gratitude, he adds “that was huge.” What surprised him though was when regulars thanked him. “A lot of people have come to us and told us how much we helped them.” Simply by staying open, he and his staff created a sense of normalcy that was hard to come by elsewhere.
Not everyone has been so lucky, however. Down in Lincoln Center, Molly Sherb did her best to save one of her local favorites, 70-year old Old John’s Luncheonette at 148 West 67th Street. But despite well surpassing the GFM goal of $5,000 (the campaign generated over $8,700 in funding), the restaurant was forced to close late last year (new ownership promises an imminent rebirth). Maggie Murphy did the same on behalf of one of her go-to spots, Pier 72, taking in almost $10,000 in donations for the waitstaff before that location closed. The list, sadly goes on, with dozens of restaurants and other small businesses succumbing to the financial disruption of COVID over the last 12 months.
Challenges remain for those who consider themselves fortunate to have reopened at all. Rents are still relatively high, utilities aren’t cheap and foot traffic is still down in many areas. According to a recent report from the US Postal Service, three Upper West Side zip codes were among the top four, nationally, in “moving from” requests since last March.
Still, most small business owners in the neighborhood say there have been some bright spots to the past year. StandUp NY, for one, has managed to develop an entirely new line of business during COVID — pop-up outdoor programming in major markets around the US — and a far-reaching brand name to match, thanks to a revelation that club owner Dani Zoldan had one day while working under a tree in Sheep’s Meadow. All these people are here, he thought, so why not entertain them? Hundreds of outdoor shows later, including more than a few on the subway, StandUpNY is on a roll. Shows have also reopened indoors and some staff members are back full-time (“we’re all scrubbing toilets and that sort of thing. I come from the hospitality industry, so I’m used to it,” Borromeo chuckles. The Programming Chief of Staff also says he is more optimistic than ever. “We are determined to keep laughter alive.”
Another upside: most business owners are buoyed by the fact that their relationships are stronger than ever, between owners and staff, staff and customers, customers and businesses. The sense of community has deepened. And for many, there is a renewed sense of purpose, too, like for Cibo y Vino owner Marjanne Motamedi.“We are in the hospitality business,” she says. “It’s in our blood stream. This is why we come to work every day. To put a smile on even one person’s face,” she says, trailing off in thought. “That is just so important.”