Photo by Noe Magana.

In a two and a half hour listening session, small business owners and community members exchanged thoughts on issues that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, when inflation and staffing shortages significantly impacted profit margins.

“Right now, we still have problems with products,” said Carlos Hernandez, owner of Heavenly Bakery in Hollister in the Sept. 14 session. “It is a matter of pricing and how some products are hard to find. And there are problems with staffing, finding people who want to be with us for a long time.” 

Becky Herbert, owner of Hollister’s Farmhouse Cafe, agreed that rising costs and staff retention are serious issues. 

“It’s all really hard to make a living,” she said. “It’s not like you’ve gone back to where you were three years ago. I have been pushing for the leadership to do a downtown restructure—I keep hearing whispers about it, but I don’t know how long it’s going to be.”

Kathina Szeto, owner of San Benito Bene in Hollister, said she wished merchants had more input, and if sustaining small businesses in the downtown area is the government’s goal, it would be helpful to involve those businesses in the discussions that result in policy.

Kathina Szeto (center) addresses a group. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Kathina Szeto (center) addresses a group. Photo by Robert Eliason.

“The signs on our parklets are an example,” she said. “We were told to take down our banners with no notice or anything. We rely on those parklets for 10%-15% of our business because that’s how people find us. There are many codes, and the city is not consistent or inclusive in the decision making.” 

A similar point was brought up by Herbert, saying that the licenses, fees, taxes and permitting for businesses are at times difficult to understand, and within the local business community there’s a lack of knowledge and access to business support services.

“So many times you are penalized first,” she said, “rather than being given the knowledge to avoid it or not being included in conversations to help understand why or why not in terms of the decision making.”

Renee Wells, executive director of the Economic Development Corporation of San Benito County, said she thought that the city and county could be more welcoming to small businesses that are having a difficult time and trying to survive. 

“There should be more incentives to small businesses if they want to expand,” she said. “There should be more collaboration.”

She also mentioned that the local PG&E substation, which is at capacity, limits the number of new businesses that can get established. 

“It could be three to five years before a new business can come in,” she said. “So if you’re a small business, it’s not difficult if you already have a space. But any place you find will already have to have the utilities if you want to grow, and then it might be difficult.”

Aaron Ricketts, of the Hapa Bros in San Juan Bautista, said he thought that his food truck was a good example of a small business that achieved success almost completely on the support of local customers rather than any help from local government.

“By no means was it any one of the city halls,” he said, “because they just made it harder. I talk to other small business owners in the county, and I hear nightmares. It’s really hard for us to think about opening up shop down here when I just feel like I’m setting myself up for failure.”

Aaron’s brother Jason said that he was hoping for city leaders to take more initiative to help businesses. 

“From an evaluation standpoint,” he said. “We are looking for where is the best place for us to ultimately grow our business. And just seeing it from outside eyes, you see things are isolated here, and it’s hard to grow.”

Excessive regulations are a concern for Patricia Bains, owner of Mrs B’s Z Place in San Juan Bautista.  

“They make rules and regulations that should be on Mars or something,” she said. “No signs, no A-frames, no banners, no flags. We are the tax base, and I have said this before, when we succeed, we all succeed together.”

Asked what businesses could hope for in the future, Ed Bless of H2 Solutions suggested that some of the barriers facing businesses should be reexamined and perhaps removed.  

“We need to start locally with the politicians in the city council and get them on board with what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We need to let them know we are serious about it and that we want to get something done. We need to go to the city council meetings and bring small business ideas to them.”

Hernandez said he thought it was very easy for those in government to make decisions without weighing the impact, and he would like to see more accountability. 

“When they do realize it was the wrong answer,” he said, “they have to admit it and fix it, not just leave it there and cause more damage. They have to be more prepared in every decision they make.”

Szeto said she would like to see a centralized website where customers can get information about the businesses in town.

“Customers come in all the time and say, ‘Where’s your website? How do we find you? What’s happening in town? What restaurants are there? What services are there?’ Something that is beautiful and gives you that sense of place and the quality of where they are.”

Toney Canty, owner of Canty’s Kitchen, summed up the session by saying he hoped city governments would take the business members seriously.
“I’d like to see them treat us as if we’re an integral part of the town and county,” he said, “and not look at us as a thorn in their side or a problem. Once they get to that point, they can come up with new ways to support us and to show that they’re behind us.”

BenitoLink’s listening sessions are a continuation of those done by the Community Foundation for San Benito County. Several notable results followed the foundation’s 2011-12 listening sessions. 

  • The founding of BenitoLink, a nonprofit news organization serving the residents of San Benito County with local and regional news and information
  • The REACH Parks Foundation, which has been central to the development of parks and walking trails in San Benito County
  • The Community Foundation Women’s Fund, which has helped women with financial support and educational programs
  • Local nonprofits such as the San Benito County Farm Bureau identified the need for leaders with a better understanding of agriculture, and worked to bring qualified team members into leadership positions

The 2023 Vision San Benito County listening sessions are supported by the Calhoun/Christiano Family Fund and the Community Foundation for San Benito County. There are approximately 20 listening sessions scheduled throughout September on issues and solutions from many small segments of the community. BenitoLink is reporting back the results in articles about each session.

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