Mind Our Businesses

Stuyvesant students reflect on their favorite local small businesses and offer ways to help these businesses amidst their struggles during the pandemic.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Rachel Chuong

Driving down the streets we call home, there’s an eerie absence as the bustling city life seems to have taken its last breath. Populating the streets are not people, but rather omnipresent “For Rent” or “For Lease” signs draped over empty storefront windows. The remnants of previous businesses can still be seen as the dim lights flicker repeatedly over empty tables and chairs that were once alive. The pandemic’s effects are far-reaching, as small, local businesses that hold special places in our hearts have been hit hard. Some have mustered the strength to survive, withstanding the losses from the pandemic. But many, already vulnerable from the start, were knocked down, succumbing to exorbitant rent fees and other troubling factors caused by the pandemic.

Despite the hurdles, small businesses are in the phase of recovering as sales begin to trickle in. For sophomore Janna Wang, a local favorite is YeDon, a mom-and-pop donkatsu shop on Northern Boulevard, Queens. “They only have one menu item they specialize in, an $11.99 donkatsu platter. For just $12, you get two huge slabs of cutlet, corn, beans, salad, rice shaped into little balls, mini sausages shaped like octopuses, a few slices of orange, mini rice cakes, and a nice little bowl of cream soup,” she described in an e-mail interview. “The donkatsu is really great and authentic, drenched in sauce, crispy on the outside, soft on the outside, which I personally love, but that’s not where all the charm lies.”

Beyond this mouth-watering description, Wang values the subtle, unique details of the business. “Where the appeal really lies is the nostalgia that lies in the small family business. There’s something really homely [about] the fact that it’s family-owned: the child of the owner's drawing or doing homework in the corner on the shop, the cute little pepper shakers so that you can flavor the soup at your own discretion, and the way the menu is hand-written on little posters on the walls,” she said. “If you order the donkatsu to go, they seal the sauce and sides separately in little containers so the rice and meat don’t get soggy.”

Wang understands and emphasizes the importance of supporting local small businesses. Along with YeDon, her dad owns a small business, so she feels the effects firsthand. “Especially in the circumstances we’re in now, it’s so important to support your local businesses so they can keep themselves open. My dad’s small business shut down because of the pandemic, so I know how stressful it is for businesses to wonder how much longer they can sustain themselves,” she stated.

Sophomore Cynthia Chang shared a similar experience at her favorite small business, Hot Peppers, in Bayside, Queens. She enjoys their quesadillas, burrito bowls, and tacos. “It's a walking distance from my home and the prices are much cheaper for much more compared to other chain restaurants like Chipotle and Qdoba,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “My friend was once talking to one of the people who worked there, and they said that they make all their food in the morning, so they don't even use their refrigerator.”

Chang visits the restaurant often with those closest to her. “Going to your local businesses with your friends [and] family makes everything more special. Since quarantine, my friends and I have walked to the restaurant together during our frees and ate […] (socially distanced) in one of our backyards,” she mentioned.

Sophomore Nora Loftus also enjoys visiting her favorite small business with friends. Java Joe, a coffee and tea shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is one of her favorite local businesses. “It is tiny and so cozy, and I love their drinks and seasonal candies and pastries. My go-to order is an iced chai latte and a flake bar, which is a chocolate bar brand from the U.K.,” she described. “My friend and I go almost every Friday, and we bring our chai lattes to the park, and it is always so nice.” Along the way, Loftus and her friends experience funny slip-up moments, but that enriches the experience for them. “Somehow my friends and I always manage to embarrass ourselves there whether it’s tripping and falling in the store, dropping all of our money, or just saying the wrong thing, and we manage to walk out embarrassed. I still love it though,” she said.

Loftus suggests going outside and exploring small businesses to support them. “Instead of ordering online, go out and explore! My favorite places to go in my neighborhood are small businesses because they seem more personal and unique, and it is so fun to discover new ones,” she said.

For junior Debolina Sen Kunda, Al-Aqsa restaurant in Parkchester, Bronx has always held a special place in her heart. “My favorite thing to get there is the mango lassi. It’s my favorite because it’s a place where I can choose from a variety of hot, freshly cooked Bengali dishes and snacks,” Kunda said. “I celebrated my sweet sixteen at that restaurant’s party hall.” This restaurant is another one of many businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. “They are definitely facing a loss because they can’t open up the party hall due to the pandemic. It’s a to-go thing now but luckily, it has managed to stay afloat because it is so popular in our community,” she said.