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Kensington business owners on pandemic recovery: ‘Things are getting better slowly, but we have a long way to go’

kensington business owners pandemic
Tawfiq, co-owner of Darkar City Boutique, looks out at Kensington Avenue from the entrance of his business, on October 29, 2021. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

For the past four years, Sonny Heff and his wife have run the Kensington Mini Mart, a corner store across the street from SEPTA’s Huntingdon Station. Before the pandemic, Heff said he and his wife had developed relationships with their customers and improved their services by adding hot food.  

“We were growing,” Heff said. “Then the pandemic hit, and immediately the business just died.”

Following the March 2020 closures of non-essential businesses in Philadelphia, business owners faced a number of challenges including loss of revenue, safety restrictions, staffing shortages, and temporary or permanent closures. From March to May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted about 17,500 small businesses in Philadelphia — nearly 63% of all small businesses — across multiple industries, according to a June 2020 report from the City’s Office of the Controller.

In response, government assistance and grants were distributed to small business owners dealing with the economic impact of the pandemic. The City of Philadelphia gave more than $13 million in loans, small grants, and micro grants to small business owners as part of the City’s Small Business Relief Fund, but the program ended in May 2020 due to limited resources, according to the Office of the Controller’s report. 

Heff, the co-owner of the Kensington Mini Mart, described his experience with city interventions as complicated. 

“There were a lot of programs we applied for and a lot of grants. Unfortunately, my business doesn’t employ that many employees; therefore, we weren’t a priority,” Heff said.

In April 2021, Heff told Kensington Voice that the mini mart was slowly recovering from the economic impact it faced last year. 

“We have a long way to go to get back to where the revenue was before the pandemic, but at least now, things are not getting worse as far as sales go,” Heff added.

kensington business owners pandemic
Kensington businesses along Kensington Avenue near Clearfield Street in Kensington. (Photo by Khysir Carter)

Now, nearly 20 months after non-essential businesses were required to close, small businesses in Philadelphia and across the state are still experiencing the impact. 

The U.S. Census Small Business Pulse Survey, a weekly online questionnaire for small business owners, measures changing business conditions due to the pandemic. Recent data shows that fewer businesses are reporting a large negative effect from the pandemic compared to early 2020. Right now, the majority of businesses are reporting a moderate negative effect. Other responses include little or no effect, moderate positive effect, and large positive effect. 

According to the Small Business Pulse Survey Data for the week of Oct. 11 to 17, the pandemic had a “large negative effect” on 25.2% of small businesses in Pennsylvania that responded to the weekly survey. At 43.9%, more businesses reported a moderate negative effect that week. Nationally, the average percentage of businesses feeling a large or moderate negative effect was 23.3% and 43.2%, respectively. 

In the combined Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) of Philadelphia, PA, Camden, NJ, and Wilmington, DE, the percentage of small businesses that reported a large negative effect from the pandemic was 25.9%, according to the survey data for the week of Oct. 11 to 17. However, 39.7% of small businesses reported a moderate negative effect from the pandemic that week.

While this data helps to understand the impact of the pandemic, numbers can’t tell the full story. To get a better perspective of what small businesses owners have experienced during the pandemic, Kensington Voice spoke to 11 business owners throughout the neighborhood from April to September 2021.  

If you’re interested in sharing your experience as a small business owner during the pandemic, send an email to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section.

Are you a small business owner in need of support? New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) has a list of resources available on their website.


Editors: Khysir Carter, Jillian Bauer-Reese, Solmaira Valerio, Zari Tarazona / Designer: Henry Savage

Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

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