Black-owned businesses struggle with virus, banks

Angel Humphrey is hopeful her North Avenue spa can recover

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By Michael Romain


Her day spa venue — which hosts princess parties for little girls as young as 2, as well as Quinceañeras and Sweet 16's, along with full spa services like massages for older adults — had secured 14 prom sendoffs.

But the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country in March and business rapidly evaporated. Her spa, deemed non-essential in Gov. J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order, was forced to temporarily shut its doors.

"I had bookings coming in for April and May," said Humphrey. "May was huge for prom. Then four cancellations turned into seven and seven turned into all of them. This really hit us in the gut."

A story on Humphrey's new business, scheduled to run in Austin Weekly News the week Oak Park's stay-at-home order went into effect, was buried in the onslaught of COVID-19 coverage.

When she spoke with Austin Weekly News on May 8, Humphrey's optimism was tinged with a frank assessment of the reality facing her establishment, which she co-founded with her husband, Robert, who owns one of the largest gaming truck enterprises in the Chicago area.

"It's been a struggle to be honest," she said. "Initially, I thought I was going to fold, but I've been able to sustain business. I've had generous customers purchasing small gift cards, which makes a small difference. They don't replace our income, but they show that people care about businesses in the North Avenue district and in Oak Park."

Humphrey said she had hoped to be back open by May 1, but "as the days go by, it gets harder and harder to decide if I'll have to close my doors permanently." Nonetheless, she said she's still hopeful that she'll recover quickly as soon as the business opens back up.

Meanwhile, Humphrey said, she's been offering Zoom etiquette parties and launched a line of Glam Boxes about two weeks ago. The boxes include "glam essentials" for girls and preteens — things like slippers, nail polish, arts-and-crafts materials and glam pink sponges — that customers can order from her store's website.

Although she missed the first round of the federal government's Personal Protection Program funding — which provided small businesses with loans, mainly for payroll expenses — she's currently applying for the second round.

If she can secure some meaningful assistance from the government, she may have entrepreneurs like Stacey Hawkins-Armstrong to thank, at least in part. Like Humphrey, Hawkins-Armstrong is an African-American female entrepreneur. Unlike Humphrey, though, Hawkins-Armstrong is less hopeful about the federal government.

Last month, Hawkins-Armstrong, who owns and manages Sha-Poppin Gourmet Popcorn in nearby Westchester, applied for first-round PPP funding through JP Morgan Chase, where she's banked for 20 years.

Her attempts proved futile. She kept encountering an error message while going through the application process on Chase's online portal.

During an interview last month, Hawkins-Armstrong the error messages "continued for days, several times a day." Eventually, the business owner said she got a call from a Chase Midwest vice president who "was apologetic that my application didn't go through. Her answer was, if I wanted, I could change banks and she'd understand, which was really unacceptable to me. It lets me know that they really don't care."

She ended up applying for a PPP loan through a much smaller institution — Seaway, a division of Self-Help Federal Credit Union — and successfully secured $6,000, though it is much less than she needs.

Meanwhile, Ruth's Chris, a company with annual revenue of $450 million, 5,700 employees and 150 locations across the country received two $10 million PPP loans. The company eventually returned the loans after public outrage.

State Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch (7th), whose district spans parts of River Forest and who represents Hawkins-Armstrong, even created a petition to demand that Chase and other large banks "treat black and brown businesses equitably during the COVID-19 crisis." 

"I'm encouraging folks to boycott big banks until they remove their restrictive policies that keep these funds from small businesses — especially small businesses of color," Welch said last month.

In late April, Hawkins-Armstrong filed a federal class action lawsuit against Chase, alleging that it gave preferential treatment to larger clients like Ruth's Chris, which is also mentioned as a co-defendant in the lawsuit.

Last month, Hawkins-Armstrong said she's hoping more west suburban small business owners who felt like they got stiffed by Chase would reach out to her and join her lawsuit.

Humphrey said she'll take her chances applying for PPP through U.S. Bank, where she has some history, but added that she nonetheless supports Hawkins-Armstrong's effort.

"I actually have to really applaud Stacey for that," Humphrey said. "I think a lot of businesses were in the background really cheering her on. When you award larger corporations and give them priority over small business, which are the heartbeat of Illinois and the country, what does that say about America?"

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