A Small Business Activist Fights Her Toughest Battle YetCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The owner of Whisk in downtown Brooklyn is taking on the big banks, the tech titans, and COVID-19 repercussions. Published: May 19, 2020
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Hello everyone! I hope this Tuesday is treating you well.
This week, I got to speak with Natasha Amott of Whisk, a beloved kitchenware boutique in downtown Brooklyn. I wrote about Amott last year when she closed two storefronts in two months due to New York’s exorbitant rent and property taxes. Since then, Amott has emerged as a vocal champion for small businesses, forging alliances with the Brooklyn and Manhattan Chambers of Commerce and platforming for change on social media. Knowing her history of advocacy, I was sure she’d have a lot to say about the current climate — and I wasn’t wrong. Keep reading for our conversation on the failures of big banks, the rat race for loan applications, and the fear that keeps her going every day.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Thanks for making the time to chat, I know it’s a crazy time.
I'm going to fold laundry as we talk, because that seems relaxing and I can take care of my big mound at the same time.
I respect the multitasking. I should start doing that! I've been following you on social media and it looks like you are doing everything you can to serve your community.
It’s really hard to find time even for a lunch break. We are so lucky that people are still shopping with us, but it’s not the same level of sales as before. My biggest fear in all of this is that since people are at home and cooking more, they will need all the supplies that you find in a store like Whisk, but they’ll get them on Amazon. That fear is my big push to say to myself and my staff, “Let's do this. Let's make it work as best as we can without killing ourselves, so that we keep Whisk alive as a local business that people can come to.” I will not be overrun by the Amazons or Targets of this world. I’m trying to develop a website business, but it’s been a tough adjustment.
I will not be overrun by the Amazons or Targets of this world.
How much online business were you doing beforehand?
Tiny. We were such a busy foot traffic-y store. But thank God we had a website already: I know of another kitchen store that just had a placeholder site, they weren't selling anything online, and it’s been a lot tougher for them. We also added in-store pickup more than a year ago. We had a lot of problems with the site — it was buggy, it was glitchy, it wasn’t that fast — and we’d been aware since January that we had to build a new one. When this whole thing hit, building a new website was the last thing I thought I had time for. But at a certain point, I said to the one other person who has been working full-time with me, "We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to just go for this." We did it in a week. It was a horrific week of work with barely any sleep, but we did it. Is it perfect? Not yet. But it's so much better than before. And so, that is a success. That's what all of us small business owners are doing: we're like, "What's a little thing to smile about here?"
What has happened with your staff?
We're at about half capacity. I paid people for two full weeks in their last pay period, even if they didn't work, so they had time to get their unemployment insurance applications going. Now there are only two of us working full-time and three people working part-time.
How are the five of you managing?
We're doing what we can. I'm trying to make sure nobody in my little crew goes crazy or gets exhausted. That's the most important thing to me right now.
Are you working out of the store or at home?
I am at the store alongside my few staff who are not furloughed. I'm lucky I don't have to take the subway to get to the office: it’s not even two and a half miles [from home], so I just power walk in and make it work.
How have staff roles changed under your new business model?
We’ve looked at each person's strengths and willingness to do certain things and then carved out roles. For example, Matthew, one of my longtime staff members who handles buying with me, was in charge of e-commerce prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, so now he handles all the online shipments since he knows the system the best. In addition to all the buying, I now place the weekly reorders, which I didn’t used to do. I go into [the store] to receive deliveries, re-sticker, re-stock. I am constantly multitasking, going between my three children and the store, doing what I can to keep it alive.
You used to host in-store demos for things like cookie decorating and cocktail making. Do you plan to bring those events to Instagram Live or Zoom?
It would be fun, but I can't tell you how limited our time is right now. I’ve barely slept in the last month, and I can feel it physically taking a toll on me, because I'm either at the store working or I'm at home working. It's been tough to do any one thing really well, be it a mother or business owner.
It's been tough to do any one thing really well, be it a mother or business owner.
But thinking in a more optimistic way, I did just get a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan, which will allow me to bring people back on payroll. I haven't received the money yet, but one of my next tasks is to figure out a plan: How many staff can I bring back now, and what would they do? In theory, I could be doing more door-side deliveries, but I don’t feel comfortable doing that, and I don’t know how many people I have furloughed want to be riding the subway. So my goal is to try and get people working again, but from home, on things like what you just suggested [virtual cookware demos]. There's certainly a lot of stuff I do at one in the morning that I could be passing off to somebody.
There's been a lot of grief in the small business community over who's getting PPP relief and the difficulty of getting it. Were you surprised that you did?
Yeah, but let me say that I got it only in the second round, after I spoke out quite a bit to my bank, HSBC. The first time I applied, I submitted my application less than 24 hours after HSBC opened up its portal. The night before the money ran out, I got an email at 8:52 PM from HSBC saying, "We need you to make a decision: take a slightly lower amount and we'll immediately approve it, or provide documentation to say why you want it to be X amount." It was the difference of $200 or $300, it was so minimal I was like, "Of course I’ll take it.” I gave the approval, and then I woke up in the morning and heard that all the money had run out. I spent 24 hours talking with HSBC to confirm yay or nay, would I get that loan? I didn't.
What I said to my small advocacy circle, including folks at the Brooklyn and Manhattan Chambers of Commerce, is that my bank failed me. And I don't think it was just HSBC: we now have heard enough stories to know that it wasn't just one bank. The problem is that these big banks didn't have a transparent process: they had no way to say this is where you are in the queue, this is the status of your application, we need this document from you now. To make it worse, as I communicated to senior staff at HSBC that I eventually got through to after a lot of complaining, is that the communication I was getting was from my banking manager, who had zero role to play in the loan application process. He's a lovely guy, I don't mean to say anything negative about him. [My frustration concerns] the process at the bank that meant that the person interacting with me had no accurate information.
When the second round opened up, I got my approval the same day I applied. I don't know if it's because I got so upset with the process — and made it known— that they said, "Oh, we're going to have to make sure we pay attention to this application." I worry that there are other folks out there who didn't have the time or the ability to make the fuss [that I did], and that their application got overlooked.
Have you spoken with other small business owners in your community about the PPP?
In my little area, it's mostly food, so they're still open. I’m quite involved with the Brooklyn Chamber, and I've been trying to reach out to them. I'm also on the small business group committee of the Manhattan Chamber, and there is such a mix of stories. But there are many commonalities at the same time.
What are some of those commonalities?
How opaque the process was. And it wasn't just the PPP. The city came out very early on with grants for super small businesses and then loans for slightly larger businesses. But even accessing those was difficult. And so much of this is a race, right? I'm doing laundry at the same time as talking to you. Multitasking is what we [small business owners] are all doing. It is really hard to have the luxury of time to just sit at your computer and craft emails and put in these loan applications.
When it comes to those city loan and grant programs, nothing is ill-intentioned. But it's the little things, like for the loan program, you needed to have a credit report included with your credit score, which I could not get. There are three agencies that you can get it from, and I tried every single one. They all said the same thing [to me]: “You have to mail in a request and then we will mail you back.” I'm like, that is going to take maybe five weeks, that doesn’t work. I got stuck very early on in the process, and I didn’t have the time to call other services and say, "Hey, is there some workaround here?"
How do you see the pandemic impacting the cookware industry once things open up again?
One thing that could come out of it is that people discover they actually enjoy cooking. There was a guy picking up an order at the store yesterday, and he said, "I've never cooked before." I asked him if he was nervous about it, and he said, "No, I’m loving it.” I think there's going to be more ideas and innovation in the cookware industry, with people spending so much more time at home discovering what they like to do.
How do you conceive of your role right now in the community as a cookware boutique?
Beyond being responsive to what people want and thoughtful about how we're promoting products, I am most concerned about Whisk's role in how things get back to normal in the retail community. I worry that there isn't a chain of dialogue from those on top down to people like myself.
I don't know if other small business people would understand this emotion, and I'm dying for more time to think this through, but I feel that there is a sense of pity being leveled out, as if to say, "Oh, the poor small businesses." I understand it, but I’m not comfortable in this pity. Maybe it's just my personality, I'm much more inclined to focus on making decisions rather than pity.
How to help:
Until next time,