‘Not camera shy’: Pa. businesses trying to survive make video pitches for emergency aid

Listen 3:55
Philadelphia small business owners make video pleas for forgivable loans from the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund. (Images provided by applicants)

Philadelphia small business owners make video pleas for forgivable loans from the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund. (Images provided by applicants)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

At first the videos seem like they could be auditions for a reality television show.

A shaky camera comes to rest on a business owner sitting in their bar, or salon, or living room. They take a deep breath, and then begin to make their case.

The audience for these recordings is small, but with the right pitch, a business teetering on the edge may be able to survive a few more weeks or months.

“This [section] is usually empty by the time St. Patrick’s day is over. It is stocked full because of the fear,” Angie Vanni says, gesturing at a shelf in her shuttered Irish gift store in Northeast Philadelphia. “We do what we can for our community, but now our community can’t support us.”

“Business is down 70 to 80%, and my bills are piling up,” Thane Wright, owner of Bower Cafe in South Philadelphia, says as a child gurgles in the background. “That’s where I think this grant would really help.”

“Any help would support our instructors, who are independent contractors,” says Bobby Waldron, owner of Top Tier gym in Pittsburgh. “Sorry I’m talking so fast, I’m trying to get this all in.”

“This is going to be our new normal when the government allows us to come back,” West Philadelphia salon owner Sherri Lataé says through a paper face mask and plastic face shield. “So, I am giving it a go.”

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

The videos are part of the application process for the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund: a new, privately funded program providing grants of up to $3,000 to small businesses.

The money is meant to be bridge funding for the state’s smallest enterprises — restaurants, barbershops, salons, gyms — that have struggled to obtain, or find a use for, larger shutdown loans.

The fund’s organizers say the videos help them understand what they can’t judge with numbers alone: the value a business brings to its community beyond providing jobs or paying taxes.

“A lot of these businesses do things to help their community in profound ways you can’t tell in writing,” said co-founder Jeff Brown, who operates a dozen grocery stores in the Philadelphia area. “You have to see the person, and see their business.”

A simpler, quicker option

The Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund was launched in early May by a group of Philadelphia-area business leaders — including Montgomery County’s Jeff Bartos, a former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor — who were frustrated with the emergency small business funding on offer.

“What we were hearing is that larger businesses, those that have support teams with lawyers and accountants, were doing well,” Brown said. “And the very smallest businesses … they were doing really poorly.”

Small business owners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere struggled to get access to the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal government shutdown loan with options for forgiveness. Since then, many business owners that have received the loan have been unable to spend it on their most pressing obligations without fear of violating the program’s guidelines. 

The Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund’s application is slim, and its requirements are simple. Companies have to be based in Pennsylvania and owned by a state resident. They also have to have been in business for a year, and employ between 3 and 30 people. Unlike the PPP, which some approved businesses have waited weeks to receive funding from, the 30 Day Fund usually deposits cash within three days of approving a business.

The fund — which is modeled on a similar program in Virginia — has raised about $300,000 so far from over 100 donors, with donation amounts ranging from $3 to $50,000. It has received over 750 applications from businesses across the state, and has funded about 50 so far, prioritizing those owned by women and underrepresented communities.

Fund organizers ask that businesses who are able to pay the money back do so, as a way to “pay it forward” to other small businesses in need.

Deciding which applications to fund is a difficult and emotional process, said grant co-founder Roger Braunfeld.

“The videos for me, when I watch them, they touch my heart and bring tears to my eyes,” he said. “But then … it motivates me to raise more money.”

‘Super awkward’ to ‘kind of my thing’

Meagan Benz didn’t exactly jump at the chance to make the case for her business on camera. “I hate — I hate — to be on video,” said the 29-year-old co-owner of Crust Vegan Bakery in Philadelphia. “So filming it was super awkward.”

Still, Benz didn’t think twice about applying earlier this month. She and her business partner had pursued about a dozen grant and loan programs by then, but almost all of them either rejected them, or simply didn’t respond.

She applied for the 30 Day Fund on a Thursday. The following Saturday, she got a call letting her know her application had been approved.

Benz said she plans to use her grant money for payroll. Four of the bakery’s eight employees have been unable to obtain unemployment benefits up until this week, she said, so she has kept paying them full-time, even though there is little for them to do.

“That three grand covers a good chunk of a two week pay period,” Benz said. “After hearing ‘no’ from everyone else, it was definitely a bright spot for us.”

Sherri Lataé, 38, has also struggled to get financial assistance since her West Philadelphia salon shut down in mid-March. She was approved for a PPP loan, but hasn’t received the funds yet.

Lataé said the 30 Day Fund grant she recently received is the first cash assistance, besides some crowdfunding she did online, to actually hit her bank account.

“I felt a little more comfortable filling out this application because it wasn’t complicated,” Lataé said.

The business owner is three months behind on rent for her salon — the $3,000 she received will allow her to pay two months of that.

Unlike Benz, Lataé is prolific on social media. She had no problem with the video section of the application.

“I’m not camera shy,” Lataé said. “That’s kind of my thing already.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal