One week ago, Santiago Cuellar was not sure if he’d ever open the Flemington Coffee Shop again.
He had laid off his entire staff, shifted to takeout only, and taken over duties as head chef. Still, profits were slim, and Cuellar had a serious decision to make about the future of his business.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cripple small businesses across the country, many have been faced with similar decisions about their establishments’ future.
“No one’s eating, going out, or spending the way they used to, and it’s only going to get worse,” Cuellar said.
Robin Lapidus, the executive director of the Flemington Community Partnership, painted a similar picture. “Every single small business in our town has been negatively affected by the pandemic. Some have been forced to close. Others are just trying to hang on,” she said.
Located in the Hunterdon Shopping Center off of Route 202, the Flemington Coffee Shop is a quaint and somewhat hidden establishment. They serve a variety of different foods, including traditional diner-style pancakes and eggs, as well as homemade empanadas.
As Cuellar explains, an establishment like this thrives on in-person dining, which isn’t possible right now because of the pandemic. “As I’m thinking, I’m envisioning the future of what this place is transforming to. It used to be a traditional sit-down, which is no more. Changing this place to a takeout and delivery restaurant is difficult,” he said.
Just as things were seeming most bleak, supporters of the coffee shop started a GoFundMe to support the business. As of today, it has raised over $1,400.
Cuellar, a 30 year veteran of the US Army, spoke about what the support meant to him. “To see that people created a GoFundMe page for me, and to see the way other business owners have embraced me and reached out to me was very uplifting,” he said.
At the same time, other signs seemed to point Cuellar in the direction of saving his business. “I heard back from my landlord, who was willing to renegotiate my lease,” he said. “I also received a grant of $1,000. Just as I was about to throw in the towel, I got embraced and loved by the community.”
With community support and a bit more financial backing, Cuellar made the decision to reopen the Flemington Coffee Shop.
Now, with his short term future decided, Cuellar has updated aspects of his business to make it more take-out friendly. “We have implemented GrubHub, UberEats, and DoorDash, as well as putting our entire menu online digitally,” he said. “That is how we’ve been trying to keep up with the pandemic.”
Despite the immediate relief, the Coffee Shop’s long term future remains in question. Cuellar has received little in the form of disaster relief from the government. He also has had to lay off his entire staff, making him take over duties as head chef.
On letting his workers go, Cuellar explained that it was a difficult but necessary decision. “If I’m making between $200 and $300 a day, and I have three or four people working, that would all go on payroll at the end of the day. It’s sad, but this is how you make it through,” he said.
Even with the given circumstances, Cuellar remains in good spirits. “I love cooking and being in the kitchen, so that part isn’t so bad,” he said. But he also understands that the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. “With unemployment where it is, people aren’t going to have the funds to order takeout or delivery. Right now, we just have to hunker down and try and see this thing through.”
This story is not limited to Santiago Cuellar and the Flemington Coffee Shop. Across the country, businesses have faced similar decisions to the one Cuellar did last week. For those that are forced to close, the incomes and livelihoods of the people involved are ruined. But for those like Santiago Cuellar, who saw a sign and have decided to stay open, a long and uncertain road lays ahead.
But for now, Cuellar gets to stay in the kitchen and continue to do what he loves.