SBA Financing Helps Business Owners Build Community in South LA
Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace grew up in Los Angeles. It’s home, with all the emotional attachments, history and sense of permanence conjured. Home is where commitment has deeps roots.
So it saddened Joe and Celia to watch the exodus of national grocery stores and other retailers from South L.A. 25 years ago after riots left what seemed like unhealable community wounds. Dozens of small businesses vanished, too.
“What was left was a food desert,” said Celia, Joe’s wife and entrepreneurial partner for the last two decades. “Fresh, healthy, affordable food was hard to come by.”
Entrepreneurism and Compassion Combine for Unique Idea
Then just a few years ago, the areas adjacent to downtown L.A., long ignored by mainstream developers, started to experience a commercial renaissance, spearheaded by community-based small business owners, especially black entrepreneurs. Joe and Celia decided they had something to give. The time was right to put their own brand on the South L.A. neighborhood and contribute to the community’s comeback.
“Joe is a big-picture guy with a great work ethic and a lot of charisma,” said Celia. “He felt driven to invest in his old neighborhood and bring new leadership.
“More than anything, we wanted to bring the community together,” Celia continued, recalling a kitchen brainstorm with Joe about products and services they might create. “We knew coffee was a daily ritual for people, so we landed on the idea of a cafe that could be a hub for connection, culture and healthy food.”
Early last year, the couple leased a peach-colored eye-sore of a building on South Western and began the metamorphosis into the South L.A. Cafe. A substantial injection of capital was needed for the transformation so Joe and Celia went in search of funding at the L.A. Small Business Summit.
“We were looking for a true community partner, a lender that understood what we were trying to achieve,” said Celia.
Finding a Mission-Driven Lending Partner
Browsing by the many summit exhibition tables, the couple met Marsel Watts, a senior business advisor with CDC Small Business Finance (CDC). As a mission-driven, non-profit lender, CDC was a compelling match for their funding needs.
Joe and Celia had already developed a business plan, so Marsel helped them with critical income projections and guided them through the application process to get an SBA Community Advantage loan. By August, the financing was approved, setting the Ward-Wallaces on their journey to buy equipment, complete tenant improvements in the café and hire employees.
In November, South L.A. Cafe opened its doors to the community and strung together four straight months with modest profits. Local residents enjoyed the healthy food as well as the workshops, issue panels and game nights the cafe regularly hosted. Encouraged by the community response but noticing a growing need for fresh food in the neighborhood, Joe and Celia launched a complementary grocery business next door.
Then the pandemic came crashing down. The two nimble entrepreneurs refused to yield. Joe and Celia reduced their staff to just themselves and one barista. They put out an SOS to the cafe’s 32,000 Instagram followers to help them keep the doors open and sponsor boxes of groceries for neighbors in need.
Emergency Loans Bridge the Gap
Additionally, they knocked on the door of CDC Small Business Finance once again. They connected with CDC loan officer Noe Castillo, who helped them apply first for an SBA Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan and then a Covid-19 emergency microloan for needed working capital. They got approval for both loans.
At the start of the pandemic, Celia said they pivoted more to the grocery side of the business to meet the essential needs of the community. Buoyed by community support, they are entering the 27th week of their South LA Grocery Giveaway. With small and large donations they are able to feed 150 families fresh groceries every week for free.”
“When COVID-19 struck, we doubled down on our community because that’s the heart of our business model and mission,” said Celia. “We have every confidence we’ll rebound strong out of this current crisis and continue to serve this neighborhood.”
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