Microgrant Program Supports Small Business Owners

Bob Ota and nephew Warren Utsunomiya outside Johnny’s Sport Shop, which has operated in the same location on Lincoln Avenue for 70 years. Warren helps manage the store now and will oversee operations when Bob retires.

Fifty-nine small business owners in Pasadena recently learned they have been selected to receive funding through the City of Pasadena 2021 Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant program. Pasadena Community Foundation was selected to administer the entire program following its success in overseeing a similar partnership with the city last summer. The grants will assist some of the city’s most impacted “microbusinesses” with five or fewer employees and limited household income. With 129 applicants, the grant program had a strong turnout and ultimately provided grants of $7,500 in reimbursable funds to each of the 59 selected small businesses.

PCF staff members visited three of the grantees in early March to hear stories of their losses during the last year and learn how the grants will assist their businesses. All three are also legacy businesses – those that have served Pasadena customers for decades in the same location and contribute character and history to the business landscape. The pandemic threatened the survival of these businesses, which serve important roles in their immediate neighborhoods.

A Barber and a Mentor on North Fair Oaks Avenue

Luther Walker, owner/operator of Luke Walker’s Barber Shop for 46 years, is a pillar in his community and known for his decades of mentoring young hairstylists to gain job skills – a role that led State Senator Anthony Portantino to award Luther the 2018 CA Senate Certificate of Recognition, Senate District 25, Small Business of the Year. The months-long shutdown of the personal service sector not only meant losing revenue, it also meant losing connections with his loyal clientele and apprentices. Patricia Walker, Luther’s daughter who assists with the business, says the grant will allow them to catch up on back-ordered products and bills, bringing her dad a sense of relief, as well as a renewed energy to bring his treasured customers back in the door.

Luther Walker, pictured here with client Nery Rossell, has owned Luke Walker’s Barber Shop since 1975. It has operated in its North Fair Oaks Avenue location since 1999.

Longtime Standby on Lincoln Avenue 

For Johnny’s Sport Shop on North Lincoln Avenue, a third-generation family business that specializes in fishing tackle, the pandemic shut down happened at an especially bad time: April and May are the beginning of fishing season. Owner Bob Ota says that closure coupled and ongoing anxiety about the virus led to a 50% decline in sales throughout 2020.

However, the store also experienced a silver lining of sorts: Locals turned to his shop to help endure long stay-at-home orders. “Fishing allows people to be outdoors, and especially now, a chance to get away, relax, and be socially distanced in nature. Established customers and even some new ones were happy we reopened and could offer that opportunity.” The Small Business Grant will help Bob recover lost wages and keep his 70-year-old establishment open for new generations of fishing enthusiasts.

Community Hub on Colorado Boulevard 

At Andy’s Coffee Shop on East Colorado Blvd., owner Yesenia Ramirez summed up the heart of this grant program: “It’s not just the financial help, it shows that somebody is paying attention to us and recognizes what we as small business owners are going through.” Andy’s opened in 1960, and Yesenia took over ownership 15 years ago.

Her restaurant is a longstanding community hub, one that customers have pitched in to help save during the pandemic. They built plexiglass shields to protect her staff, helped her learn the ropes of digital food delivery platforms, and regularly patronize her Dinner List. Yesenia says, “their support means everything to us, and now, with this grant, I can continue to bring good food to the people who have taken care of us.”

Yesenia Ramirez outside Andy’s Coffee Shop. She cut her staff to three employees in the last year: Her daughter, a cook, and herself. She was recently able to bring back one dishwasher.