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The Sunshine Economy: How a Baker, Banker and Bartender are Navigating the Pandemic Economy

Baker, Banker. Bartender 01.jpg
Leslie Ovalle
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Pilar Guzman Zavala with Half Moon Empanadas, American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin, and bartender Kesha Scott.

Since September, the Sunshine Economy has been following how a baker, banker and bartender have been finding their way through the pandemic economy for themselves and their businesses.

Kesha Scott was working behind the bar at an Italian restaurant in Boynton Beach when she learned the entire state was reopening — including bars and restaurants.

"During the shift, my manager came up and said something like, 'We're about to add all the chairs,' So we added all the chairs back," she said at the time. "It's exciting to see how it goes."

That was in late September. A few weeks later, Scott and her boyfriend decided to leave South Florida and return to Austin, Texas.

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Pilar Guzman Zavala and her family had COVID-19 in June. She, her husband and their two young kids recovered. She had spent the springtime working to ensure her business, Half Moon Empanadas, survived the pandemic closures.

"As an entrepreneur, you are always thinking, 'What is it that I'm not seeing? What are the risks? What are the things that I could anticipate?'" she said in September.

But no business could have anticipated the speed and breadth of the economic changes because of the public health crisis brought on by the coronavirus. The economy came to a sudden stop in the spring as workers were sent home, travel was shut down, companies cut jobs, consumers stayed away and restrictions were put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

"I think we were all just kind of in disbelief. 'Is this really happening?' I think it took a little while to kind of sink in," said American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin three months ago. "It's a different world that we're in right now."

Each week since September the Sunshine Economy has been following how this banker, baker and bartender have been navigating through the pandemic economy.

"We have not seen anything like this before," said Martin in November. "There's a stress that we haven't experienced before, both personally and even professionally. I'm trying to go on with life, but it is it feels very strange."

Zavala described the past three months as a "crazy time," but she has focused on "feeling good with myself."

Scott said she and her boyfriend have been "just trying our best to be optimistic."

Each week since September the Sunshine Economy has been following how this banker, baker and bartender have been navigating through the pandemic economy.

SEPTEMBER

Bartender

Kesha Scott moved to Palm Beach County about two years ago for a job. She had more than 20 years experience in the restaurant business in Texas. She moved in South Florida for a job as a restaurant hiring manager and trainer. January and February were normal months, but then COVID-19 hit.

On March 20 she was furloughed. On Cinco de Mayo she was laid off. But she didn't sit around.

"I kind of just took that time to do some personal development," she said.

She took online classes and was certified as a nutrition coach and personal trainer by the end of the month.

"As much as I love being in the hospitality business, I just don't see it being what we all miss," said Scott in late September, noting that she considered herself lucky to be able to have the time to earn the new skills. "Now I have both of them. I'm just ready to hit the ground running and set myself up for 2021."

She was back working — this time at a different restaurant. And her 2021 won't include living in South Florida.

Banker

By September, the regional unemployment rate was improving from the sharp spike from the spring. Yet it remained far higher than the low jobless rate that South Florida began 2020 with.

"In January, I think that we were all so optimistic because all the numbers for Florida and South Florida were strong. We had people moving in, businesses were growing. People were really saying, 'Hey, 2020 is going to be a great year in South Florida,'" said American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin.

That came to an abrupt end in March as businesses were ordered closed and people were told to stay home in the effort to slow the spread of the virus. American National Bank focuses on commercial real estate landing. Martin said to took awhile for the shutdown and slowdown "to sink in."

An alphabet soup of programs from the federal government were launched within weeks to provide financial lifelines to Americans and businesses. Martin's bank was involved with Paycheck Protection Program loans, helping arrange hundreds of the loans to businesses, providing tens of millions of dollars.

These were forgivable loans, provided companies used the money in appropriate ways — mostly to pay employee wages. By September, Martin was getting anxious about the Small Business Administration releasing the rules and process to get the loans forgiven.

Baker

Pilar Guzman Zavala had battled COVID-19 and figured out how to keep her company going by September. Half Moon Empanadas had more than a dozen outlets at the beginning of the year with almost 100 employees. But when tourism shut down, and college campuses, most of the stores were closed.

It meant pivoting plans. She thought she'd be working toward scaling the company nationally in 2020. Instead, her kitchen on East 79th Street in Miami moved to provide meals to seniors in Miami-Dade County under a county contract.

"We had to rent trucks. We had to learn about logistics and timing and how you package the meals in a way that they [don't] spill," Zavala said.

It also meant focusing more on digital sales and delivery.

"I guess COVID brought the urgency for us to focus on that more," she said.

The company went almost two months with no revenue. By September, sales had returned, but less than before the pandemic. Still, she was able to keep her employees.

"I have a long-term view. I want to be able to pass this crisis the next six months, hopefully, and still have a company," she said. "For me, this is a strategy to sustain the business."

In September, Zavala already was looking to return to the future she envisioned for her business.

OCTOBER

Bartender

Kesha Scott_03.jpeg
Leslie Ovalle
Kesha Scott was a bartender and server at a Boynton Beach restaurant.

Two week after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Florida to be in Phase 3 reopening, Kesha Scott was tending bar at the Italian restaurant where she worked in Boynton Beach. Capacity restrictions had been lifted.

"It's been a little worse than before," she said at the time.

This was the time when President Donald Trump tested positive for the virus and spent three nights in the hospital.

"I think with opening at full capacity, it's done two things; it's either kept people who were coming in because of the distancing away — because they're afraid of too many people — and it's bringing in people who just really have absolutely no awareness for others."

The election was in full tilt at this time and Scott was working in the president's adopted home county. The second presidential debate scheduled for Miami had been cancelled and mask wearing had become partisan shorthand. Her years in the hospitality industry told her she had "no choice but to keep good spirits about it" or else put her tips at risk.

"I just hope that it gets better," she said. "But it's all kind of on pins and needles at the moment."

By late October, Scott and her boyfriend had come to a decision about their future in South Florida. They were going to leave. The decision was driven partly by the higher cost of living here compared to where they moved from, and where they are headed back to — Austin, Texas.

"When I left Texas initially to take the job. I said to myself, 'This is either going to work out or it's not, but if I don't do it, I'll just be sitting here wondering what would have happened if I did do it?' So that's why we decided to take the leap and take the job and relocate here. And when we moved here, we were like, 'Yeah, this definitely isn't for us,'" Scott said.

She said they were spending one a one-bedroom apartment the same that they spent on a three-bedroom apartment in Austin. Her pay had been cut by the pandemic. First, by losing her job, then, by the slower crowds at the bar and restaurant.

"It'll be easier for us to get back on track and back to where we feel comfortable enough to just get our life back in order" by moving back to Austin, she said.

Banker

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Leslie Ovalle
American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin.

American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin opened her email late in the first week in October. The email contained information she had been waiting weeks for. The Small Business Administration had released the rules on how businesses could apply to have their Paycheck Protection Program loans forgiven. It was a simplified application for loans of $50,000 or less. Those made up about half of the 500 loans Martin's bank made under the program.

"I think that people are going to sleep better when they get that notice from their bank that your loan was forgiven," she said.

By late October, Martin's bank was considering several million dollars of new loans, a sign of optimism for her even as there were plenty of signs of businesses struggling. The bank had 14 new loans under review — $20 million worth. They includes loans to three churches, commercial construction, some home equity lines of credit and business lines of credit.

"That was very good news," she said.

Martin would soon be greeted personally with the challenge of COVID.

Baker

Pilar Guzman Zavala is the CEO of Half Moon Empanadas. a company she owns with her husband.
Leslie Ovalle
Pilar Guzman Zavala is CEO of Half Moon Empanadas, a company she owns with her husband.

More than a year of work came to a head for Pilar Guzman Zavala at Half Moon Empanadas in early October. Her company finally launched a rebranding effort that included a digital makeover and a mural in the kitchen of its ventanita on 79th Street. The effort cost about $25,000 — money that came from the company's 2019 profits. Developing the rebranding was "four times that" she said.

By late October, Zavala was returning to her original focus for 2020 — growing the company. She was busy looking at spaces to open a couple of new locations by early 2021, exploring an expansion into frozen empanadas, and she had pitched opening an outlet far away from South Florida — inside Denver International Airport.

"I'm very encouraged," she said just days after making the Denver airport presentation. "It makes us feel happy. I took a moment to kind of observe and be grateful."

For months, her confidence had been growing. Not only was she optimistic that the company would survive the pandemic, but that it could grow. She soon would hear back from the airport near the Rocky Mountains.

NOVEMBER

The fact that we have the ability to keep moving forward is really the best thing to hold on to.
Kesha Scott

Bartender

By November, Kesha Scott had had two restaurant jobs in Palm Beach County over the stretch of the pandemic. She had earned two certifications by taking classes online. Yet her income had not rebounded. She decided to move back to Austin and was counting down the weeks until she left South Florida before the end of the year.

She left her friends know through a Facebook post when she officially had one month left.

"You know, it's tough. It's difficult. We're moving in the middle of a pandemic. It's definitely not easy, but it's doable," she said.

For Scott, COVID-19 has meant losing one job, finding another, seeing her take-home pay hurt by the restrictions on restaurants, going back to school and finally deciding to return home to Texas before the end of the year.

"I feel like everything kind of worked itself out the way that it should — the best that it could. Just the fact that we have the ability to keep moving forward is really the best thing to hold on to," Scott said.

There's so many other people who are still struggling. We're not out of this yet.
Ginger Martin

Banker

Ginger Martin had to order herself to stay home. In early November she had to follow the protocols she put in place at the bank she leads — American National Bank in Fort Lauderdale.

Her college-aged daughter, with whom she lives, had tested positive for COVID-19.

"You have all these decisions that you have to make that maybe you don't really think about until you are in that position of like, 'OK, now what am I going to do?'" she said.

Her daughter lost her sense of smell and taste but improved and Martin tested negative. She quarantined at home and kept working, and watching and the infection rates starting climbing again.

"I'm thankful that I kind of dodged that bullet. But there's so many other people who are still struggling," she said. "We're not out of this yet."

It opens so many doors with other airports and operators. It's huge.
Pilar Guzman Zavala

Baker

Pilar Guzman Zavala also was working from home for a time in November. She wasn't quarantined. She had had the virus over the summer.

She was at home when she got the email telling her that Half Moon Empanadas had been chosen to open an outlet inside the fifth busiest airport in the U.S.

"I'm like, 'Wow, this is from Denver,'" she remembered reading the email. "I run to the other side of the house where my husband has his office. I start screaming, 'Juan, we won, we won!'"

Her hopes of scaling their company nationally would begin to happen in 2020 after all.

"It opens so many doors with other airports and operators. It's huge," Zavala said.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.