Resilient Neighborhoods: As COVID-19 intensifies, SW Detroit businesses roll up their sleeves

A lot of restaurant owners might be intimidated at the thought of opening a business during a pandemic, but not Nancy Lopez-Diaz and her husband, Ramon "Wicho" Diaz. They're the owners of a new Mexican restaurant called La Palapa del Parian in Southwest Detroit. And, despite all the COVID-19 chaos of this last year, the two of them seem to be doing their best to take everything in stride.

The married couple got their start in the food business about a decade ago, when they first began operating what has become a fleet of local taco trucks. In early 2019, they made the decision to convert a building on Lawndale Street that they'd been using as a commissary into a physical restaurant. The entrepreneurs were just starting preparations for their grand opening in March, when COVID-19 struck Southeast Michigan.

"We were going to open the week before they shut everything down," says Lopez-Diaz. "We closed down for three weeks, [then] we decided to open up for the lockdown for carryout only, just to give people that little idea that we had more to give."

Getting started with carryout allowed La Palapa to start building up its customer base. And doing so also these patrons know that, in addition to the tacos, quesadillas, and burritos the Diazes sold at their taco trucks, their new establishment featured an expanded menu with items like fajitas, enchiladas, and soups.
Sidewalk booths at La Palapa del Parian on Lawndale Street.This summer after Detroit City Council voted to make it easier for restaurants to set up outdoor seating on sidewalks and parking lots, Lopez-Diaz and her husband wasted no time jumping on that opportunity. They contacted a local carpenter, who spent a week designing and carving a series of ornate wooden booths and then installed them within 48 hours of the Diazes getting approval to do so from the city.

"At first we were thinking of setting up outside tables, but I saw pictures of other places that had similar seating and said, 'Why not do this, instead. I mean, we know some woodworkers, so why not?" says Lopez-Diaz.

Running a business during the pandemic has taken some getting used to for the staff at La Palapa. Cooks and other employees have needed to adjust to wearing masks. Servers must be mindful of keeping their distance and not interacting with customers too long. And then there's developments like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Nov. 15 COVID-19 announcement restricting indoor dining for the next three weeks.

So even though the Diazes are pushing forward with their business as much as possible right now, Lopez-Diaz can't help but wish for a swift ending to the pandemic.

"I just really hope we're able to go back to normality pretty soon," she says. "I have a business where you come to eat and socialize, and there are limits to that. So hopefully well get back to what we used to be soon, so people can hang out with friends, enjoy, and not be scared."

A helping hand

While the Diazes definitely have had their work cut out for them launching a restaurant this year, they haven't been completely alone in the efforts. Thankfully, La Palapa and other Southwest Detroit businesses have been getting assistance with things like navigating COVID-19 from the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA).

Founded in 1957 as a coalition of businesses and community stakeholders, SDBA offers local companies a mix of planning, technical assistance, one-on-one coaching, and small business advocacy. Some of its more memorable projects include a facade improvement program and providing bilingual training on subjects like lead abatement and COVID-19 safety. The organization serves a fairly broad expanse of Southwest Detroit, primarily in the 48209, 48210, and 48216 ZIP codes with a special focus on the commercial areas in Mexicantown and along Springwells St. and Vernor Ave. In terms of reach, SBDA communicates with 500 different local businesses on a regular basis.

According to SBDA's President and CEO Robert Dewaelsche, overall commerce in Southwest Detroit is down right now due to the pandemic, though obviously there's a lot of variance among individual companies. "We have not seen that many businesses close, but the vast majority have had to shift gears," he says.

As a result of this general downturn, many local retail outlets have slimmed down hours and are concentrating more on times like evenings and weekends when people are more likely to be out shopping. Finding and keeping frontline work has also been a major challenge over the last several months, especially for local grocery stores and restaurants.

But, while some businesses have struggled, though, others have prospered. Danto Furniture, a retail shop that's been active in Southwest Detroit since 1940, for example, has experienced a surge in sales this year, probably due in part to Art Van closing down.

By and large, though, local companies have been forced to adapt to continually evolving conditions. Pointing to the speed with which La Palapa added sidewalk seating as an example, Bridget Espinosa, a business consultant who works with SBDA, says that flexibility is a trait that's not uncommon with small family-run businesses in Southwest Detroit's diverse immigrant-oriented community.

"Immigrant business owners are unbelievably resilient. They just roll with it," she says. "They don't have a lot of bogged-down procedures in their families to make things happen. They just make decisions very quickly."

Responding to adversity

For Gloria Rosas Baiocco, co-owner of Xochi's Gift Shop in Mexicantown, the pandemic has been a period of great uncertainty.

The gift shop, which specializes in Mexican imports, has deep roots in Southwest Detroit. Launched in 1985 by her father, German Rosas, the shop carries a wide range of items, everything from piñatas and sterling silver to pottery and textiles. Rosas Baiocco took over the business with her mother 12 years ago after her father passed away.

Due to a streetscaping project on Bagley Street last year, Xochi's had already had a rough year in 2019. But she started this one expecting good things, thanks to the road improvements and new facade she installed with the help of an SBDA-supported matching grant. Then, as with most of us, the pandemic caught her by surprise.
Xochi's Gift Shop on Bagley St."It just knocked our knees out," she says. "The shutdown came at the worst time for us. January and February we were down shopping and purchasing [in Mexico], in March our shipment arrives, and in April and May we plan on sales to pick up for Cinco de Mayo, which is our busiest time of year."

Although it's been a difficult year, Xochi's diverse inventory has been something of a boon for the gift shop. One day a group might come in to buy cowboy outfits, another day a restaurant buyer might purchase a boatload of holiday decorations.

Faced with a major slowdown in sales, Xochi's has encouraged online shopping and offered special deals like a fiesta-in-a-box package for Cinco de Mayo. Thankfully customers have responded positively to these requests and bolstered the business with gift card purchases. As luck would have, there's also been an increased interest from nurseries for the wholesale pottery the shop sells.

Once the lockdown ended, sales began to pick up. The gift shop did steady businesses during the summer and into the early fall. Once Day of the Dead hit, though, sales at Xochi's flattened again. And, although the state's latest COVID-19 restrictions don't directly mention retail businesses, it's still unclear what kind of impact they'll have on holiday shopping.

Despite the uncertainty, Rosas Baiocco hopes local customers will continue to support small businesses like hers.

"If you don't shop at Amazon this week, they're not even going to feel it. If I don't do sales this week, someone's going to suffer," she says. "Please shop at small businesses in your local communities."

Rebuilding from the ashes

Like Xochi's, the Nice Price home goods store also had a difficult time last year. The retail outlet, which is owned and operated by four brothers who grew up in Jordan, suffered a devastating fire last April.

Located on Vernor Avenue, Nice Price was originally set up like an old-time department store, broken up into six different buildings, each with its own specialization like furniture or kitchenware. The blaze destroyed two sections of the complex, an area totaling about half a city block.

"At the time that was our only retail outlet," says co-owner Ahmad Hassan. "So from April 2019 until March of 2020, we were just preparing a replacement store in Dearborn until we could rebuild on Vernor — and then the pandemic happened."

As luck would have it, though, a good deal of the family's inventory was being kept in a warehouse in another part of Southwest Detroit, so much of their stock was still intact.
Nice Price on West Vernor Avenue. When COVID-19 first arrived, they closed down everything for several weeks. After securing PPE, they eventually opened both of their locations, but took care to limit the amount of people entering their buildings to ensure everyone's safety.

"We don't sell groceries, so we were not necessary at first, but you've got to remember restaurants shut down, bars shut down, so kitchenware became in demand," says Hassan. "Believe it or not, we were getting messages through social media, 'Hey, when are you guys going to open?' "

Fortunately, Nice Price has experienced a lot of demand for their products, which are specifically geared toward local Middle Eastern and Latino immigrant communities. Since the early days of the pandemic, business has been very strong for the Nice Price chain, allowing the Hassan family to open two new locations in Hamtramck and west Detroit. They're even planning to restore the buildings they lost last year on West Vernor Avenue, which they hope to have open again by the end of next summer.

Beyond their own company, the family has also been active with Southwest Detroit's Business Improvement District (BID), an organization that resembles a downtown development authority but geared toward a specific neighborhood. Hassan, who serves as the BID's chair, says in the early days of the pandemic they raised money to support struggling local companies. And since that time, members of the BID have worked hand-in-hand with SDBA to help keep the local business community on top of things during the pandemic.

"It's good to have these civil organizations," says Hassan. "They come in handy a lot more than people think, especially in a situation like this. Having the resources and background to help, it's really nice."

Adapting and growing

While existing businesses are doing their best to weather the storm right now, new start-ups are also opening their doors. According to SBDA, four new businesses — including La Palapa and ArteSano Juice & Café Bar on West Vernor — have opened their doors in recent months. What's more, the business association has also met with more than 60 prospective companies and helped 15 entrepreneurs register over the last three months.

Looking toward the future, SBDA recently received funding from Bank of America to help create a new e-commerce platform called Shop Southwest Detroit. The new online service will allow customers to buy online from 25 different local businesses and should be up and ready before Thanksgiving.

The nonprofit is also working to build outdoor dining structures for local restaurants. Funded by a grant from the Hudson Webber Foundation, the structures will be locally fabricated, come with lighting, and be built for year-round use.

As for keeping local businesses up-to-date on developments like the recent COVID-19 restrictions, the nonprofit publishes a regular e-bulletin that reaches 2,000 local business contacts. For her part, Espinosa is keeping a positive attitude and, along with the rest of the team at SBDA, she's doing everything she can to keep local businesses in the loop about what's happening.

"Southwest Detroit is alive and well and everyone is working really hard," she says. "We've been going out and educating the business owners and staff, any time there's been a change in the regulations, we're staying on top of it so everyone has timely access to information."

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

All photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.