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Tale Of Three Tallahassee Businesses: Paycheck Protection Program Not Reaching Everyone Who Needs It

Chi Chi stands next to her husband. She's wearing a T-shirt with letters that read, "Cuban AF." Her husband stands next to her. He's wearing a backwards baseball cap and a T-shirt. Behind them is a sign that read's Chi Chi's Cafe.
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Donna (Chi Chi) and Ralph Diez own Chi Chi's Cuban Cafe. After moving to Tallahassee they felt the city lacked authentic Cuban cuisine so they opened their own restaurant.

Another $321 billion will be put into the federal paycheck protection program. It ran out of money in less than two weeks, shutting out many small businesses that needed relief. WFSU reached out to 74 local businesses, and 25 responded. Across the board, people are frustrated, concerned, but also hopeful.

Small business advocacy organizations like the NFIB have said that not many small businesses were able to get dollars from the Paycheck Protection Program. Furthermore, news stories of Shake Shack and the parent of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse getting the money has left some frustrated.

"Outraged, really outraged. Why would [those businesses] even apply? I don't get it," says Donna Diaz, co-owner of Tallahassee Cuban restaurant Chi Chi's Café.

Diaz explains that 50 percent of her customers are students. Now, with the majority of them staying home, it's impacting her business. She depends on the dollars that come in during the spring to pull her through the slow summer months. That cushion isn't there anymore, and she's laid-off employees and cut hours. When Diaz heard about the paycheck protection program, she tried to apply.

"Our bank kept saying we'll let you know when you can submit it. We'll let you know when you can submit it, and then finally, they sent us a thing saying, 'Oh, we're not taking any more applications,'" Diaz says.

When her bank said the program had run out of money, she says, "It was like they had taken the life out of us."

Diaz's bank told her that even if the program gets more money, she's so far down in the queue, it will likely run out again before it reaches her. Still, Diaz says she's fortunate for her loyal customers, some of which have been ordering food every day:

"This is why we show up every day I tell my husband we can't close, you know, I can't give up, plus I'm Cuban, and I'm stubborn."

WFSU News reached out to more than 70 businesses, 25 responded. Of those, 17 tried to apply, and six were approved. Of those six, one business reported that their money was postponed and some hadn't received paperwork or notice on when their money would come. Only two businesses at the time of collecting the feedback had received the payment they needed. One of them is Lofty Pursuits, an ice cream parlor, candy shop, and seller of toys and board games.

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Lofty Pursuits
Greg Cohen, owner of Lofty Pursuits says his business model is changing to delivery now that people can't come into his store.

"When this started, and it was obvious things were changing, I had a company-wide meeting, and I basically said the following: 'Your jobs are safe for now. I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to keep everybody, and we're going to keep you for as many hours as possible, but you no longer have a job description,'" says owner Gregory Cohen.

He explains that his staff is getting cross-trained. Ice cream servers now do delivery and breakfast. In the beginning:

"The breakfast people really didn't know how to assemble a good sundae, and the ice cream people couldn't keep track of orders from a table."

Cohen says that's not the case anymore. Now, he's facing a different concern: He says there isn't much guidance on how to use the loan so that it gets forgiven:

"You know they talk about eight weeks of payroll, but are we talking about eight weeks of paychecks or eight weeks of when they work or when they would have worked."

Cohen says he's following the rules as close to the book as he can, and is now shifting to a delivery model, adding popcorn as a new item people can buy.

Other businesses wanted to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, but couldn't because they thought they didn't qualify. These are sole proprietors like Mika Fowler, an individual artist who owns Sangha press. It's a letterpress studio in Tallahassee's Railroad Square Art Park. He uses antique printing methods to create artwork and wedding invitations.

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Mika Fowler
Mika Fowler has small and large presses that are anywhere from 60 to more than 100 years old. He uses these presses to make letterpress prints like the one pictured here.

"I don't see how I'm ever going to recover the business from this because without people's ability to walk in the shop, say on a First Friday, It's gone, and at 65 years of age, I cannot risk opening the shop. I do enjoy making art, but I don't want it to kill me just yet. That is my biggest concern is that there will never be any reopening for me," Fowler says.

He explains that even if the Railroad Square allows first Fridays to open again, he won't:

"To be open [on] first Friday and have anybody walk in there and bring the virus in it would not only be detrimental to me but detrimental to anyone else that came in my shop."

Fowler says he hasn't made a sale since last first Friday, and no relief money has come in. Now, he's trying to move more of his art online to stay afloat.