PCF Extends a Lifeline to Two Local Small Businesses

Owner La Tanya Smith (left) with employee Olivia Butler outside My Place Cafe on January 10, 2022.

In late fall 2021, local social media users were abuzz with distressing news: A beloved local restaurant, Burrito Express on East Washington Boulevard, was struggling and might not make it through 2021. Then, mere weeks later, social media lit up again: My Place Café on Woodbury Avenue and Los Robles had been vandalized – its front door shattered, cash register stolen, and displays damaged. Patrons rallied behind both establishments in the weeks that followed.

The local posts also caught the attention of Pasadena Community Foundation (PCF) staff. Using recent private donations intended to support the local business community, PCF was able to award grants to both restaurants. This assistance follows PCF’s administration of the City of Pasadena’s two COVID-19 Relief Small Business Grant Programs in 2020 and early 2021, which collectively awarded nearly $1 million to 98 Pasadena-area business owners.

Burrito Express: A Neighborhood institution 

Burrito Express has been a neighborhood institution since 1978. Will and Deya Orozco became its owners in 2008 and enjoyed twelve years overseeing the business before the pandemic began. They have lost a significant percentage since then.  Ten employees used to staff Burrito Express along with Will and Deya; now they’re down to 5, with the Orozcos working six days a week for 12 hours a day. “Honestly, 2021 has been harder than 2020,” Deya says. She points specifically to supply chain issues and the wildly increasing costs on critical supplies for their business, like corn oil and lettuce.

One day in November 2021, Deya and Will were shocked to see that a line stretched out their door and to the street. More customers came the next day and the next. “We could not understand what was going on, and then someone explained that people on Facebook had posted about our situation. “It was incredible for us to think that words – just words – brought out this action and love.” With the help of PCF’s grant, their loyal customers, and the Orozcos’ determination, Deya proudly says, “We are alive and here for another day.”

Deya & Will Orozco, owners of Burrito Express, January 10, 2022.

My Place Café: A busy Community hub  

La Tanya Smith is grateful to operate within such an attentive community. Since taking over the café’s ownership in late 2019, she has leveraged that community as a central part of her business model by hosting events like book clubs, art shows, poetry readings, fundraisers, and live music. “If you invite artists to showcase their work on your walls, they’ll tell their friends, word gets out, and more people stop in.” La Tanya is also a part-time teacher at nearby St. Elizabeth School, and that fact has also proven vital to her business model: “The teacher in me likes to connect with everyone. It’s intrinsically who I am.”

La Tanya was heartbroken to discover the café’s theft on the morning of December 21, but her close-knit customers made sure word got out to the community again: Come support the café! The break-in came at the end of another difficult year of pandemic pivots. Paying rent and ensuring payroll for her staff continue to be big worries for her, but she is eager for mid-2022, when she hopes to rent her second-floor space above the café to a yoga instructor, thereby introducing more people to My Place. La Tanya will use the grant from PCF to help cover her insurance deductible and replace the front door, cash register, and broken serving items.

With the world trying to get back to normal, locals might forget the “little guys” in their neighborhoods that have fed them and served as gathering spaces during the various stages of the pandemic. Small businesses in Pasadena continue to struggle mightily with the impacts of COVID. And, as Paul Little, President of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, points out, they are in need of our collective helping hands. “Many are on the brink of closure, and they need customers to sustain them to continue operating into the future. Local grants to small businesses from PCF have been crucial to keeping many of our smaller businesses going. It is startling sometimes how even a small infusion of cash can be a lifeline that keeps a local small business going.”