Banking on small business
By Rafael Romero
Paula Vargas arrived from Ecuador to the U.S. in 2002, at age 17, and immediately went to work in the restaurant industry. Putting in 16-hour days at a Mexican restaurant in Connecticut, she dreamed of owning her own place. In 2009, Paula finally put together $50,000 to open her restaurant in the very competitive New York market. During her travel through Mexico to the U.S., Paula developed a deep love for Mexican food. However, she added an Ecuadorian twist to the menu. She opened the first El Coyote in Jackson Heights in the borough of Queens. After six years she opened the second El Coyote in the more upscale Forest Hills neighborhood.
She steered the growth of these two restaurants with the hard work and dedication that the restaurant business demands. Few days off, no vacations, and plenty of staff issues to stay on top of. However, somehow she also found time to start her own family, with two boys, a ten year old and a one year old. With time, both of her restaurants developed a loyal following, especially with the sizable Latino populations in Queens. Her Jackson Heights location has a 70% Latino customer base, and in Forest Hills it’s 50%.
Everything was moving the way it should have for her thriving business after 15 years. From El Coyote's first year revenues of approximately $50,000, in February 2020 both El Coyote locations were generating $45,000 in weekly revenue and employed 59 people. Then the bottom fell completely away with the explosion of COVID-19 in New York City. Queens saw one of the highest death tolls, where by mid-April the pandemic had killed nearly 2,000. Queens had become one of the epicenters of the pandemic, with 32,749 confirmed cases.
Paula then got word that her father and brother, who live in Philadelphia, had both contracted the virus. They both survived, but she spent quite a bit of time looking after her father until he was better. By this time, both restaurants had to be closed as part of Governor Cuomo’s lockdown. Paula did not know what her next steps would be. As she looked at how to save her two restaurants, she recalled that the branch manager at her neighborhood Chase Bank, Virginie Drouillard, had tried to get her to fill out an application for the government sponsored Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Paula had been so consumed with her father and brother’s battle with the virus that she had not been able to think about anything else.
When she finally visited with Virginie at the bank, she found the process to apply daunting as she processed the complexity of saving her business. To hear Paula tell it, she firmly believes Virginie was her “banking angel” sent to help her stay in business. Virginie worked with her nights, on weekends, at times with an interpreter, to assure her loan documents were completed properly and on time. Chase quickly approved El Coyote for two SBA PPP loans, one for each location. One PPP loan was for $141,000 and the other for $147,000. Both El Coyote locations were closed for two months, and upon getting the loans, she could not wait to get her 59 employees back to work.
Michael Ortiz, Chase Business Banking Area Manager, observed that “Paula represents the amazing resiliency, hard work, and dedication which make small business owners successful.” Virginie added, “Paula’s passion, warmth, love for her family, plus her involvement with the local community is just remarkable. It was a pleasure to work with her to secure these loans for El Coyote.”
As of May 8, JPMorgan Chase has announced that the bank has funded more than $30 billion to roughly 250,000 small businesses – more than any other participating lender,
under the PPP since its inception, helping to support 3 million employees nationwide.
Even as she navigated saving her business, while her restaurants were closed to regular customers, Paula Vargas began working with Esperanza New York, a nonprofit organization for at-risk inner city youth. She committed El Coyote to donate free meals at both restaurants for Esperanza clients during this pandemic. It looks like banking angels know which small businesses to visit.