Think Out Loud

Downtown Portland business owners say conditions improving, but support still needed

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Feb. 15, 2023 12:35 a.m. Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 10:46 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb. 15

Sita Symonette opened her Black Pearl Acupuncture practice in 2009.  She and her wife Lai-Lani Ovalles co-founded Black Pearl Wellness in July of 2020.

Sita Symonette opened her Black Pearl Acupuncture practice in 2009. She and her wife Lai-Lani Ovalles co-founded Black Pearl Wellness in July of 2020.

cm.focus / Mychal Bohart


Portland small business owners who managed to make it through the pandemic are still facing their fair share of challenges. Sarah Shaoul runs Bricks Need Mortar, a small business support organization. She’s been surveying businesses since the first pandemic shutdown of March 2020, and periodically ever since.

She says too many of those businesses report vandalism and break-ins, adding to the already challenging day-to-day work of serving customers and staying within budget. We talk with Shaoul and two small business proprietors — Peter Cho of Toki and Han Oak and Sita Symonette of Black Pearl Wellness — to hear what the last year has been like for them and how they’re thinking about the future.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Small business owners in Portland who managed to make it through the pandemic are still facing their fair share of challenges right now, from crime and vandalism to fears of a possible recession. We’re going to hear from two owners today. Peter Cho is chef and owner of the restaurants Toki downtown and Han Oak in inner Southeast. Sita Symonette is an acupuncturist and the owner of Black Pearl Wellness and Black Pearl Acupuncture in the Pearl. And Sarah Shaoul joins us as well. She runs Bricks Need Mortar, it’s a small business support organization that’s been surveying business owners since the first shutdown in March of 2020. Welcome to all three of you.

Sarah Shaoul: Thank you.

Sita Symonette: Thank you.

Peter Cho: Thank you.

Miller: Sarah first, what was the idea behind Bricks Need Mortar?

Shaoul: At the beginning of the pandemic, there really was no guidance from any level of government about what the businesses should do, even before there was a stay at home order, people didn’t know, should they mask up? How many customers should they let in at once? So we stepped in to help provide guidance, and then how to continue to stay connected with their customers and to pivot and basically get through, and share all kinds of resources with them as well.

Miller: From the beginning, if I’m not mistaken, you focused on small independent businesses. Why?

Shaoul: That’s correct, and brick and mortar specifically. For one, that’s my background, I spent nearly 30 years as a brick and mortar retailer in Portland. So I knew how challenging it was. And additionally, our brick and mortars are really such an important part of our communities. They really create community here in Portland, and they really are the economic engine for our state. They employ local makers, local creators.

And the other part of that was they were mandated to shut down their doors. But at the same time, they were required by state law, because state law governs leases, to pay rent while being closed. So they faced much greater challenges than a lot of other businesses.

Miller: Peter Cho, we last spoke- I had to look at our files, it’s basically 14 lifetimes ago, July of 2020. Can you remind us what was happening for your, at that point, one business back then? How is it going?

Cho: Boy, that does seem like a long time ago. July 2020, we had shut down and we were probably just doing a few events here and there. But since then we took over the space at 12th and Alder in downtown, and Toki Restaurant opened January of 2021.

Miller: What led to that decision? It’s a bold time. You’re not alone in starting restaurants during the pandemic, there have been some other high profile ones, but it still seems like a bold move. What were you thinking?

Cho: Well, I just knew that downtown would come back. You kind of have to believe in it. And while it was still quite quiet and slow down there, Greg from Downtown Development Group gave us an opportunity to take it over with very little cost, and we just kind of rolled the dice on it. And over this past year it’s been coming back, slowly and steadily. But the last half of last year was great. And so we’re excited about the future with the stuff that’s happening down there. 11 West is a building that’s around the corner from us, the Ritz-Carlton opening down the street. A lot happening.

Miller: But you didn’t just open up a new restaurant in Portland, you did it in downtown Portland, in what was really the epicenter of a lot of Portland’s disruptions. How have you handled that?

Cho: Well, we just didn’t believe what was being shown, and what anyone outside of Portland was seeing through the various media coverage of the sort of protests happening downtown. That just wasn’t what was actually going on. And for us to open downtown was to say that we’re supporting all of it, all facets of it. We’re just kind of putting our money where our mouth is too. We just invested in that in the neighborhood to show that this is a neighborhood to believe in.

Miller: Peter, I want to hear a lot more about your experiences, but as I noted Sita Symonette is with us as well, the owner of Black Pearl Wellness and Black Pearl Acupuncture. Can you describe Black Pearl?

Symonette: Yeah, thank you. Black Pearl Wellness is a clinic in the Pearl district that is an integrative complementary medicine clinic. So I have myself where I run my Black Pearl Acupuncture practice out of the clinic, and then we’re also landlords to three other businesses, a chiropractic business, Weightlifting DOC, a naturopathic business, Awaken Natural Medicine, and then another acupuncture/naturopathic business run by a practitioner, Agape Help is the name of their business.

We try to be able to treat people collectively, and offer them an array of modality to be treated.

Miller: How was your business going before March of 2020, in the immediate lead up to the pandemic?

Symonette: It was going great, pretty normally. We hadn’t, my wife and I, bought the clinic, so we were actually about three quarters of the way through the process of buying what’s now Black Pearl Wellness. It was a study business at that point, had been in business for 12 years as an acupuncture, so I had a pretty steady flow of patients, good connections, good networking throughout the city.

Miller: But you were just in the process of becoming not just a healer yourself, an acupuncturist, but a landlord and a larger business owner right when the pandemic hit?

Symonette: Yeah, we were about three quarters of the way through the process when the pandemic hit, and then we had to shut down the clinic for two months. And when we did we opened in May, revamp the way that we practiced. And similar to what your other guest was saying earlier, there were no guidelines. And particularly in my field of complementary medicine, there were lots of recommendations, but nobody came out and was like “these are the guidelines that you need to follow to be able to open safely.”

So there was a lot of work we put in to try to make things as safe as possible. We totally changed the way we practiced. Definitely did all the PPE. We ended up decreasing our hours as practitioners and we weren’t in the clinic at the same time, so we had to decrease the amount of patients we were seeing. It was a pretty big change in the way that we practice, coming back into the clinic.

Miller: With those reductions, and not being able to have the same number of practitioners there or the same number of patients in the course of a day or a week, did it still pencil out? Could you still make it work financially?

Symonette: Well, that’s where the PPP Loan came in for us, and the EDIL, small business loans that really made it possible for us to make it through that particular part of the pandemic, probably for the first year, year and a half before we started to be able to get back to where we were seeing patients in “normal” way again.

Miller: Sarah Shaoul, what kinds of businesses in the end were able to get the most federal support? We just heard about PPP, which is not an industry-specific program from the federal government. But there were some that were more targeted. When looking back now, what industries didn’t fare the worst?

Shaoul: I think it’s really important to note that there are a lot of businesses that didn’t get PPP. Say a hair salon, maybe they rent out their chairs to other hairdressers. Well their hairdressers aren’t employees, so they may not have been eligible for PPP.

Miller: Because that has to do with the classification of people who are somehow paying them. If they’re independent contractors, then they don’t get your paycheck.

Shaoul: Yes, right. And that can also affect the EDIL loans that some people got, which are now coming due actually, and some businesses are really struggling with that. It’s important to note that a lot of restaurants didn’t get the restaurant relief grants. And I do think our personal service providers like Sita’s business and her tenants, and aestheticians, and other personal service providers, there weren’t any targeted programs for those kinds of businesses.

Miller: Unlike, say, music venues, which we talked about last week?


Shaoul: Yeah, the SVOG and the restaurant relief grants were particular for certain industries. And we didn’t see any kind of programs that were directed for personal service or for our retail businesses.

Miller: Did that have an effect that’s visible now? Were those kinds of businesses that were less likely to get targeted support were they also less likely to survive?

Shaoul: Absolutely. And I would say, looking around at our city, our small business community is so incredibly resilient. It’s amazing what they’ve been through, and that so many of them are still here, or opening up other locations. It’s just incredible, and it should be really inspiring for our community.

Miller: I noted at the beginning that one of the things you’ve done repeatedly over the last few years through Bricks Need Mortar is to survey small business owners, to find out how they’re doing and what their current concerns or challenges are. What stood out to you in the most recent findings?

Shaoul: Yeah, we have a survey that’s currently open, but I can share some data from it. It’s going to be closing shortly. We have a good enough data set where I can share.

I think one of the most alarming things is in the last 12 months, we asked how many businesses had been broken into. 80% of our small businesses have been broken into in the last 12 months.

Miller: How many people responded to that?

Shaoul: We have 113 businesses that have responded to the survey. We did the same survey a year ago with about the same number of respondents, and a year ago the number was 63%. So this kind of crime on businesses is definitely rising.

Miller: What did you hear from those business owners about what that’s meant to them?

Shaoul: We just share that they’ve made it this far. They’ve made it through all these crazy challenges, from worker shortages to supply chain issues. And this is something completely out of their control, and it’s pretty demoralizing. It makes it very challenging for business owners who are dealing with an environment- if you have to come into work, and you’re all excited about your work day, but then you’re dealing with a broken window and an insurance claim, if you’re gonna go through insurance, it really messes with your mojo, so to speak. And it’s also just very costly.

Miller: Peter Cho, have you had to deal with break ins or vandalism at either of your restaurants?

Cho: Yeah, at Toki we have, so you can add me to the list. Probably a handful of times over the past couple of years. And yeah, the demoralizing part of it is throughout the week we work really hard, and the profits are gone, and windows smashed. A lot of that also isn’t even like a break in to steal anything, they’re just going by and smashing windows. They’re not even coming in to take anything. It’s especially frustrating.

Miller: We just heard from Sarah, almost in passing, that some business owners may deal with insurance claims or they may not. How do you make that decision, whether or not to even report this to try to get that reimbursed?

Cho: The cost, I think it’s like $2,000. It depends on the damage too, because you have big big large glass windows that are two-paned, those are expensive and they can get covered. But little ones, it’s not even worth it because the policy won’t cover it. So just call somebody in and they put up plywood and we kind of move on.

Miller: Sita, what about you? Have you had to deal with either vandalism or break ins at your businesses?

Symonette: We have not had to, in the last three years, deal with any break ins. Maybe about five years ago or so we did have our door, which is a window, smashed and the clinic was broken into. But luckily not since then. Some vandalism. Part of our clinic’s mission is to be a space for BIPOC and the Queer community to feel safe to come get complementary health care. And so we have Black Lives Matter signs, we have like a Pride flag out front, and there’s been a bit of vandalism a couple of times along those themes of people writing on our windows. But it’s been able to be taken off fairly quickly.

But then there’s just the worry. You hear about this being a small business owner. You just never know what you’re going to come into, so it’s just having that worry is also not great.

Miller: What are the biggest issues that you think about now or that keep you up at night as a small business owner?

Symonette: I think right now it’s the inflation. The potential - I don’t know if it’s been officially said we’re in a recession or not. The costs going up to be able to run the clinic is probably what I worry about currently. Also, being a healthcare facility, there’s COVID and the different strains that come through, and you hope that that doesn’t happen again.

Miller: Have you seen an increase in interest in your services because of the pandemic and all of the shocks to our lives?

Symonette: Yeah, absolutely, for a number of reasons. One, people having a different outlook on their health and wanting to be more proactive about it, seeking out more ways for healing. Also, I’ve seen a huge increase in people wanting to come in specifically to get treated for stress and anxiety and depression. Stress was always something that I would see pretty regularly for people, but it was kind of always a secondary thing to like their low back pain or whatever else we would be treating. But in the last three years, it has more and more consistently come up as one of the primary things people want help for and treatment for, and then referrals to other practitioners to also help with it.

And then I think lastly, there’s been a decrease in acupuncturists around the area, especially in the last three years, especially the beginning of the pandemic. I was getting emails from patients saying that acupuncture is either no longer in business or has left, moved away, and also acupuncture practices saying “hey, can I refer people to you because I’m closing my practice.” So that’s been another reason to see more people.

Miller: Peter, do you think that the restaurant industry has fundamentally changed? Or is it more a question of trying, in fits and starts, to go back to what it was?

Cho: I think it has. But I can’t even count the ways. But in the end, we’re just trying to create a space to welcome guests to come and have a nice meal. So I guess it hasn’t really? I mean the truth is, it hasn’t really deterred us from doing something new. We’re announcing a new restaurant that we’re opening this year, and we have another bar space that we’re going to do. For us, things are still looking bright, and we can’t help but try and get out of the past three years with a positive sort of note.

Miller: It seems like full steam ahead! Plans for a third restaurant and another bar space.

Cho: Well, I guess that’s the thing that has changed is that opportunities are coming up for people who want to grow. Even the downtown space was an opportunity we just couldn’t say no to because of the support that the landlords are giving us.

Miller: And each of these spaces it’s made possible because some other existing restaurant has closed up shop?

Cho: Exactly.

Miller: So that’s another way to look at it, these are opportunities for you that, the flip side, is somebody else’s dream, perhaps, or business that’s no longer there.

What would make the biggest difference for you from a policy standpoint or from the city standpoint, what would you most like to see going forward?

Cho: Well the PPP and the RRF, we were fortunate to receive both of that. And the EDIL loan helped as well. So during the early periods of COVID, we basically operated as a non-profit, or we were actually losing quite a bit of money. So I think looking forward to next year, we’ve used it all up, there’s probably no more of those resources coming. I think there’s another shoe to drop. I think a lot of other restaurants have spent it all and maybe I haven’t been able to recover their businesses as well.

But I think there’s still things that could be helpful. We’re paying permit fees for our sidewalk seating. And I understand that that’s something that the city probably needs to start doing again because that was waived for the first couple of years, but those are just extended costs of doing business. For us, it’s a space that allows traffic to come, and a space for us to activate that neighborhood. So I think it’s something that’s positive for downtown. We could use a little help in keeping that space active.

Miller: Sarah Shaoul, when you look broadly at the responses you’ve gotten to the most recent survey or earlier ones, what’s the most common request that you get from business owners in terms of what they would like to see specifically from the city?

Shaoul: I want to say that it’s really important to note that these businesses have so much compassion. And we understand that these problems are really complex. I mean homelessness is a serious problem. We need to take care of people that are living on the streets, we need to make sure they’re housed. That’s not an easy problem to solve. There’s also some crazy drugs out there that have people behaving in ways- we’ve always had homelessness here and drug impacted people, but not like today. So we know that their problems are really complex.

But what we keep hearing over and over is that these small businesses don’t feel seen or heard by our public leaders. Emails go unanswered, it’s nearly impossible to get meetings with commissioners. And they feel forgotten. They feel like there’s talk of recovery when some businesses are still trying to recover. And like I said, they’re really a resilient bunch, and they just need an environment in which they can operate safely. I think the first place to start would be to make sure that businesses aren’t getting broken into night after night.

Miller: Sarah, Sita and Peter, thanks very much. Sita Symonette is an acupuncturist and the owner of Black Pearl Wellness. Peter Cho is a chef and owner of the restaurants, Toki and Han Oak. And Sarah Shaoul runs Bricks Need Mortar. They joined us to talk about the challenges that small business owners in Portland are facing right now.

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