by Ronnie Estoque
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country abruptly in March of last year, many worried what the impact on local small businesses would be.
Small businesses in South Seattle had to adjust and pivot their business models to weather the brunt of the pandemic, and many of them found unwavering support from the local community.
Columbia City’s QueenCare, which is owned by Monika Mathews, provides self-care products that are made with natural ingredients that have healing properties. The business was born out of four recipes that were given to Mathews from a mentor that she met during her nonprofit work at the Life Enrichment Group, which worked towards supporting the economic development of students of color in Rainier Beach.
“We want people to indulge in self-care practices that really support optimal health … we want to uplift those who are most vulnerable amongst us,” Mathews said.
Mathews has owned her business since 2015 and has always had a big focus on mental health.
“During 2020, you know, we were faced with two pandemics, right: COVID and, also, the exposure of the pandemic of racism that many African American and other People of Color have known existed … but the murder of George Floyd really brought to the spotlight, the Black experience,” Mathews said. “And what came along with that was an enormous amount of will around the importance of economically supporting Black businesses.”
Her sales have skyrocketed in the past year, and Matthews emphasized that the community’s response to the George Floyd police killing and injustice in the criminal legal system against BIPOC played a role.
She recently has secured her second store location in the Central District and has seen her products shipped to people across the nation. Hand sanitizers and hand soaps have contributed to a significant portion of her sales during the pandemic.
Mathews said that it’s encouraging because “… we know that sometimes commercial rents are super unaffordable, especially in King County, especially in Seattle, for small Black businesses that are just starting off.”
She also credits three organizations for supporting her business towards expanding into a second location: Urban Impact and their Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program; Ventures, a nonprofit that helped secure subsidized rent; and the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which provided funds to hire more staff.
“To be able to open a business in Columbia City is personal for me. Because in watching the changes, I felt like it was important to still have representation from the African American community and, in a business capacity, a place where the community can still come and feel welcomed,” Mathews said.
Mathews moved to the Central District from the Midwest over 22 years ago. For her, being able to reestablish QueenCare in a neighborhood that used to be predominately Black is a big step in fighting against gentrification.
“To fast forward, you know, all of these years and to be able to have a location there [Central District], it’s more than just about QueenCare, it’s about our community. And it’s about revitalizing that area that was predominantly Black back then and reviving Black Wall Street,” Mathews said.
Support from the local community has played a huge role in preserving other BIPOC businesses in South Seattle during the pandemic, including The Stonehouse Café, a Filipino family-owned restaurant owned by Max Heigh. According to Heigh, his family obtained the property for the restaurant located on Rainier Avenue in 2009 and have since transformed it into a budding space for the local community to gather. His family has been in the restaurant industry since 2004 and also owns Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max.
“When we first got going and opened the restaurant, it was a restaurant that had hostesses, servers, bartenders … we really had to scale backwards for a number of reasons, because we couldn’t afford to keep on so much staff in the beginning [of the pandemic],” Heigh said.
According to Heigh, the first few months of the pandemic taught him the importance of adaptability. Some days he would have a few orders, and others were extremely busy. Eventually their business also invested in increasing their ability to provide high quality takeout orders, by purchasing high quality boxes, bags, and lids to keep customers satisfied with their food. This past summer, Heigh was able to host various events outdoors that allowed the community to gather while providing lively music from local DJs such as DJ Miguel Rockwell.
“You know, our industry unfortunately got hit probably the hardest during this pandemic,” Heigh said. “Their [community] support is everything to us, you know, if it wasn’t for them, I mean, we wouldn’t have been able to carry through.”
Heigh is grateful for that outpouring in community support that his business has received and acknowledges that the pandemic has affected restaurants across Seattle.
“So going forward, we’re planning on doing monthly events for the youth. We want to do some intimate things, you know, with smaller groups, cooking classes … we really have like a roster of items that we intend on doing and very community oriented,” Heigh said.
The Stonehouse Café is also working on adding Filipino breakfast menu options in the next few months and is looking forward to incorporating more of their heritage throughout their items. Heigh is grateful for the diversity of food options in South Seattle and believes it makes it a unique place.
“I think emphasis on the South Seattle area is very needed … a lot of rich flavors that come through this area, you know, it’s so diverse, you know, from the Southeast Asian businesses, African businesses, Latino businesses, and everything in between,” Heigh said.
Two legacy restaurants from Beacon Hill that will be returning to the neighborhood are Baja Bistro and Kusina Filipina’s offspring, Chebogz. They both will be splitting a 3,500-square-foot commercial space that will be located at the street level of the Colina Apartments.
“We’ve been working together to support their coming back to the neighborhood into a new space,” said Angela Castañeda, director of the Beacon Business Alliance [BBA]. “It was a relationship building process with the developer over the years.”
Similarly, to QueenCare, CheBogz was also able to secure financial support to open the restaurant through funding from the Rainier Valley Community Development fund.
In addition to their own efforts, small South End businesses have been supported by local organizations in Seattle that focus on business development and sustainability. Castañeda has been actively engaging with small business owners across Seattle through the Essential Southeast Seattle collective (ESES). The group formed in March of last year and consists of five community-based organizations (CBO) including the BBA, Mt. Baker Hub Alliance, MLK Business Association, Rainier Avenue Business Coalition, and Rainier Beach Merchants Association.
“It’s not just the developer, it’s also the city and funding and all these other relationships that matter,” Castañeda said. “The focus here is to combat displacement, and retain the sense of community, retain these legacy businesses.
Despite the challenges the pandemic posed, these BIPOC business owners that have maintained their businesses in South Seattle through the support of community members that value their products, food, and contributions to supporting the overall health of the community.
Ronnie Estoque is a South Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. You can keep up with his work by checking out his website.
📸 Featured Image: From left to right: Max Heigh, mother LeeAnn Subelbia, and brother Robbie Heigh. Photo courtesy of Max Heigh.
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