The American Nightmare

small cafe

The American Dream is an ideology that has been fueling small businesses and restaurants for years. The idea of succeeding in a nation that cultivates capitalism and encourages entrepreneurship is something desired by many.  But this age-old dream may be more of a nightmare for many mom-and-pop restaurant owners.

The reality of succeeding as a small restaurant in the business world is about as convoluted and confusing as The American Dream is old.  For Jesus Perigrino, owner of O.B. Smoothie Bar and Sub Shop in Ocean Beach, San Diego, The American dream is in every screaming blender, and behind every individual 16 ounce acai smoothie he carefully crafts.

Jesus, or Tony as he is known to almost everyone in the Ocean Beach community, seems to be gaining popularity through his keen ability to create one of O.B.’s more popular fruit smoothie concoctions, the acai bowl. “He’s really popular and so is the smoothie shop, it’s a smaller place but people love it,” says Johnny Gonzalez Manager of Bravo’s Mexican Bistro and Cantina.

And although the locals seem to love this small local hotspot, there are few who actually inquire and discover the origins of this calm and introverted man’s business. “Everyone has a story, we all came from somewhere.  The thing about these small businesses in regard to the American dream is that we base our business on relationships.  We want people to come back so we get to know them, and that’s how we expand. We are real, Tony is real,” said Gonzalez.

Humble beginnings seem to be the common theme between the small mom-and-pop shops like O.B. Smoothie and the various restaurants on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach.  Perigrino has worked in restaurants for quite some time and understands the logistics of small businesses. Tony's Father owns a small taco shop and his brother in-law owns some coffee shops; and though different in kind, they are more than similar in nature.

Both small businesses take big time risks by simply opening their shops every day. More than 50 percent of small businesses, restaurants, and cafés fail within the first two years of opening, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  In 2008 alone, the U.S. Small Business Administration found that 627,200 small businesses opened and a staggering 595,600 shut down. So why take up such a time consuming and financially dangerous task?

“There is a lot of heart and a lot of sacrifice especially if you have kids, like me.” But Tony’s ambition trumps any known statistic. Prior to owning his Ocean Beach smoothie bar he had purchased another smoothie bar in Pacific Beach. “When I opened the one in P.B. the guy who ran it taught me a couple tricks, you know this and that, but he sold it because he didn’t really like it.  He found that it’s more work being your own boss than it is getting a pay check every two or three weeks.

This is one of the many problems new business owners and entrepreneurs face.  The idea of owning your own restaurant seems like a great idea, but the difficulties involved with maintaining a restaurant are often overlooked.

“No other business offers such a stark contrast between the dream of ownership and the reality of the grind. The business model of a restaurant looks deceptively simple on the surface, but it is filled with hidden complexities that are difficult to execute and even more difficult to maintain,” Says Barbara Taylor in New York Times article, “There’s no Business like Restaurant Business.

The current state of the public’s pockets and bank accounts seem nothing short of shallow, as the American dream has morphed into a desperate struggle to stay afloat in a rapidly sinking economy. According to the U.S. Labor department’s 2010 Employment Situation Summary, 95,000 “non-farm” related jobs were lost last year alone.  Owning a business proves to be just as difficult.

“Not everyone thinks about how much money actually goes into making these kinds of businesses work.   There’s electricity, gas, food, employees and a ton of other factors that no one thinks about, and then you have the whole trust thing.  You have to constantly be at your restaurant otherwise things don’t happen. You can’t trust anyone to run it; that’s why we are all family owned and run,” said Gonzalez.

The ability to own your own business and survive is a battle reserved for only the most driven individuals. But each season’s flow of customers seems to fluctuate with the weather. O.B. smoothie claims most of its acai bowl customers in the summer time, and despite the super smoothie-maker’s fearless attitude, the dangers of the small business still prowl among the pockets of Newport Avenue’s various family run restaurants.

“It’s hard for all of us when the weather is bad, no one wants to go out and eat.  The economy is pretty bad right now too. People would rather eat at home and not spend money,” said Gonzalez. 

Cold and rainy weather is only one of the many factors that are putting a damper on the local favorites in O.B. Perhaps one of the more prominent aspects of why mom-and-pop places experience such difficulty is that they lack funding for both marketing and start up capital. The inability to utilize viral marketing, television marketing, etc., as a means of advertisement is all too common among these small shops. Unlike MacDonald’s or larger chain restaurants and corporations, places like O.B. Smoothie don’t have a marketing team to advise them on which kinds of ingredients to use or farms to buy from to make them more successful or more aesthetically pleasing to the customer.

Many business owners look to microloans to assist them.  According to U.S. microfinance support program, there are over 22 million small business owners that are in need of “$35,000 or less in startup capital” and more than half of these business lack any kind of access to financial services.  And because small businesses (restaurants in particular) fall short on income, banks are more hesitant to loan money to entrepreneurs.

Small businesses like Tony’s rely on customer loyalty. “People come back because they like the service, and because we develop a relationship with them.  Tony is the same way; people love him and his food because he isn’t just a guy that runs a shop. He cares, that’s what makes him successful,” said Gonzalez.

Tony does all of his own shopping and marketing.  Usually he goes three times a week and buys in bulk to reduce costs. But it isn’t necessarily the way that small restaurants purchase products that separates the big restaurants from the little guy. “We stick our necks out because we don’t have the government to bail us out if we go bankrupt; that’s it, and no one is going to help you.  But I mean we all stick together here, we work as a unit.” he explained.

Jesus Perigrino will wake up tomorrow morning and go to work like the thousands of others small business owners.   He will serve the locals that come in as well as a handful of tourists. He will slave over a myriad of sweet smelling bananas and set his blender to “liquefy” because he loves his family, because he loves to work, and because he needs “at least three more smoothie shops just to get a brand new Range Rover,” he says jokingly.

For the small business world, success is wedged between two slices of wheat bread, it is in every extra minute spent customizing our orders, and gleaming in the beads of sweat that frequent the foreheads of Jesus Perigrino and those who chose to brave the small business world.


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