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‘I don’t need help; I need customers’
Immigrant-owned businesses still face hurdles to flood recovery

Sam Somchit, seen here on Friday, June 28, and his wife Nok own Pho Thai Express restaurant in Montpelier and have faced many challenges since last year’s flooding. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger.
 By Auditi Guha

This story comes to us through a story exchange between The Bridge and VTDigger. It is Part 6 of Downstream, VTDigger’s ten-part series looking at what’s changed — and what hasn’t — one year after catastrophic floods swept through Vermont.

For five months the Somchits have been doling out soups, noodles and dumplings using only hot plates — and then doing all the dishes by hand.

That’s a heavy lift for a restaurant with a full menu of fresh, cooked meals.

All of the kitchen equipment at Pho Thai Express — including the industrial stovetop, commercial freezer, and dishwasher — was ruined when the restaurant flooded last July, and the couple hasn’t had the money to replace it all. 

The Somchits, who immigrated from Thailand in 2001, moved to Vermont with two young children in 2015, opening Pho Thai Express on Montpelier’s Main Street.

Thongjunthou Somchit, who goes by Sam, sighed when asked how they are managing.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt the eatery a heavy blow; then came last July’s flooding, which forced them to shut down for six months. 

On top of having no income during those months, Somchit said business has not returned to pre-flood levels since they reopened. 

Meanwhile, their work has doubled. Not having a commercial freezer means packing and carrying food back and forth from the freezer at their Essex Junction home. And they do it all on their own.

“No employees because no money to pay them,” Somchit, 71, said, speaking slowly in English on an early June afternoon while his wife, Nok, prepped in the kitchen ahead of the evening shift.

Across central Vermont, many immigrant and other marginalized business owners continue to struggle from the devastation one year after the floods wreaked havoc across the state, damaging buildings, inventory, appliances and more. Often with no family or financial safety net to fall back on, this group has faced an uphill road to recovery. Many continue to navigate language barriers and other challenges as they try to rebuild.

Disproportionately Disadvantaged

Melissa Bounty is the executive director of the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation, which has worked with a number of immigrant-owned businesses hit by the floods, pointing them to resources, helping them fill out forms, providing translators, and advocating for them at legislative hearings. While many businesses have been significantly impacted by last year’s flooding, Bounty said, businesses owned by marginalized communities have been hit disproportionately.

She describes such businesses as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. “I don’t love that comparison but they’re an early indicator of things that better-resourced business owners will ultimately show a little bit later in time,” she said.

An economic injury report that Bounty presented to the Legislature this year estimated flood damages of $300 million in central Vermont, “severely affecting the operational viability of businesses throughout the region.” It describes “a sharp decline in business revenue, with some sectors experiencing up to a 50% drop.”

According to the report, business owners who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color — a group that includes a number of immigrants — in central Vermont bear about $30 million of the $147 million in disaster-related debt.

Immigrant business owners often have less access to capital and fewer savings, a shorter credit history and fewer options to borrow money. As a result, Bounty added, they may face higher interest rates than their more resourced neighbors. 

In some cases, cultural barriers discourage them from advocating for themselves or from taking loans. But, for many, the flooding left them with no other option. 

“So they’ve borrowed more as a group than they’re making money to cover and that’s really worrying,” Bounty said.

Besides debt, many of the businesses are also struggling to pay high rents and taxes.

Those are both factors in the recent closure of Rabble-Rouser Chocolate and Craft on Main Street, which, until recently, served up coffee, chocolate, and crafts with a dash of activism. The co-op closed suddenly on June 1, and the large streetfront windows have since been covered with brown paper.

Rauli Fernandez, 50, from Puerto Rico, opened up the popular cafe in 2019 in a sprawling 4,400-square-foot space.

As with Pho Thai Express, the flood destroyed products and equipment, bringing business to a standstill for months, said Fernandez, who estimated damages to the tune of $100,000. Coupled with the Small Business Administration loan he took out after COVID-19 and the rent he owes, the business is almost half a million dollars in debt, he said.

In an interview in early June, Fernandez said he was looking for ways to reopen, including by using crowdfunding. “I’m still trying to figure it out and I don’t want to throw people under the bus but things are taking too long,” he said. 

Employees have begun a fundraiser alleging they are owed more than $17,000 in back wages. ​​Fernandez is also trying to crowdfund. He was reluctant to say more but he did note that he felt BIPOC businesses have been left out of recovery efforts, citing some of the reasons Bounty outlined.

Alexander Rob is the executive director of the Community Capital of Vermont, which helps finance businesses and tried to help the cafe avert closure. “It was sad to see Rabble-Rouser close as they likely had more BIPOC employees than any other business in Montpelier,” he said. 

While every situation is different, Rob noted business owners from marginalized groups face some common issues, such as “overt and subtle racism, being marginalized or not being taken seriously, language and cultural barriers, trauma from past experiences that led to immigration, isolation, and poverty.”

Neighboring businesses Pho Thai Kitchen and KSherpa, a Himalayan eatery that has endured a series of flood-related struggles, are still open, but they remain in a precarious state. 

Canoeists paddle past the flooded KSherpa Dinner House in Montpelier on July 11, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger.

Lessons Learned

On a warm day in early June, a group of people carrying forms visited businesses in downtown Montpelier. The Efficiency Vermont employees were looking to inform businesses about flood recovery rebates that could potentially cover the cost of new equipment. This includes up to 100% of costs back per business on four eligible heat and hot water systems or kitchen equipment such as ovens, freezers, refrigerators, and dishwashers.

Bounty, aware that struggling immigrant business owners likely wouldn’t hear about or be able to leave work to attend a meeting about such rebates, had recommended the walkthrough. She gave the example of a recent resource fair for flood-affected businesses at the Statehouse that only one immigrant business owner attended — no one else knew about it, Bounty said. 

Jen Severidt, an account manager at Efficiency Vermont, estimated that staff visited 17 businesses that day, including six or seven owned by people from marginalized communities. Most of them signed up for the rebates, she said. But the walkthrough was not without some illuminating hiccups.

Rauli had already bought new equipment out-of-pocket, but they weren’t the kinds of purchases the rebate supported, he said, so he missed out.

The Somchits needed new kitchen equipment but they didn’t have the money to buy anything upfront. As they scratched their heads for a solution, a neighboring business owner stepped in.

A restaurant industry veteran, Brian Lewis owns four businesses and has a roster of contacts. Sympathetic to the Somchits’ plight, he first offered to buy the equipment with his credit card. Ultimately they worked out a solution in which a vendor agreed to buy the equipment and apply for the rebates on behalf of Pho Thai Express.

“I know what it’s like to be an owner-operator. You don’t even have time to get your head up,” said Lewis, who owns Filibuster Café and Yellow Mustard downtown.

If all goes according to plan, the Somchits will soon have a fully outfitted kitchen with $16,000 worth of Energy Star appliances fully covered by the rebates.

The experience was an eye-opener for Efficiency Vermont, which has recently expanded funding for flood-ravaged businesses in need of new heating/cooling systems and commercial kitchen equipment.

“One of the things we learned is that the language barrier can be a pretty big one — and we now know what we need in place to respond faster,” Severidt said.

Thanks to Bounty’s insight, they came to businesses with forms translated in four languages and with translators available. They also realized that the information they’ve distributed about their programs is not necessarily reaching everyone who needs it.

Lewis suggested the state has more work to do in helping such businesses navigate the aftermath of any kind of natural disaster, whether that means finding contractors or procuring equipment. The system should be set up “so that the BIPOC community is thought of right away, rather than six months later, as an afterthought or when the businesses are dying or closing,” he said.

The Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation report shared that observation. “The ongoing anxiety and resource scarcity within the business community underscores the urgent need for enhanced support and clarification of available resources,” it stated. “There is a critical demand for additional funding for professional services, including legal, financial, and strategic consultation, to aid businesses in navigating their recovery pathways effectively.”

Sam Somchit, seen here on Friday, June 28, and his wife Nok own Pho Thai Express restaurant in Montpelier and have faced many challenges since last year’s flooding. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger.

An Uncertain Future

Will rebates and other efforts be enough to help struggling immigrant-owned businesses survive? Those working closely with such businesses say it’s an open question. 

Having heard of the problems from Bounty, some at the Statehouse pushed to direct more funds to flood-ravaged BIPOC-owned businesses. 

Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, was among those who supported a $5 million line item to provide flood relief funding in the fiscal 2025 budget. 

The budget directs the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to use the money to open a flood recovery center and administer a grant in coordination with the CVEDC, 20% of which will go to BIPOC business owners. 

“I had heard from others that BIPOC owned businesses had more difficulty accessing the funds available before and some hadn’t received any support,” Perchlik said in an email, adding he “wanted to try and help them from an equity perspective.”

But for some, that additional help is coming too late.

Katie Trautz, executive director of Montpelier Alive, estimates about 10 businesses have closed since the flood in the capital, of which two are immigrant-owned: The Hippie Chickpea and Rabble-Rouser. 

“I am aware that many of our immigrant and marginalized business owners have had a number of challenges that have especially surfaced since the flood,” she said in an email, reiterating the barriers from language to inequitable access to resources.

“For these businesses, more flood recovery resources and ongoing professional help could make a difference in whether these businesses stay open or end up closing,” she said. “We have an increasing amount of BIPOC-owned businesses in Montpelier, and I’d love to see more work done to make our city more inclusive and equitable for all.”

Sam Somchit doesn’t want to discuss closure. The immigrant ethos of working hard and not asking for help or expecting favors runs strongly in him. Meanwhile, his savings and credit cards are depleted and interest rates keep going up, he said.

“I have to have something to do,” he said.

He also has his two children — one in college and another looking for a job — whom he supports. “I need support. We stay together. It’s better. That’s why I’m working hard,” he said.

He had looked into courier delivery as a potential side gig, but the company thought he was too old, he said. 

He is proud of his ability to multitask and said his sons cannot keep up with him at the restaurant, where he easily answers phones, handles bills, calls out orders to his wife, and juggles plates. But it’s not easy, he admitted.

“It’s hard to be a food business in Montpelier. People don’t want to try something new,” he said in an interview in June. But those who do try his food usually love it, he said, and he has some loyal customers in the area.

At 4:45 p.m. the first diners came in — Berlin resident JC Earle and his two daughters. 

“Hello, my friend, long time,” Somchit greeted them. “What do you want today?”

They had just returned from vacation and decided to stop by for their first meal, said Earle, who ordered the khao sui — yellow noodles and vegetables in a curry with chicken. His daughters, ages 9 and 7, pondered the pho options.

Earle declared the Thai eatery “our favorite restaurant in Montpelier.”

Somchit is grateful for his clients, but it’s not enough. With the Statehouse and offices nearby, business should be hopping, he said, but foot traffic has been low. 

To entice customers, the Somchits created a five-item $14.99 menu last month that offers dishes like pad thai, noodle stir fry, and fried rice. They will even throw in a free juice or water, he said. It’s not cost-effective, but they want to be welcoming and are desperate.

“I don’t need help,” he said. “I need customers.”