As the owner of Emoji Burger in Jackson Heights, Fernandez has high hopes of expanding the kid-friendly burger joint to different parts of the neighborhood.
The healthy alternative to fast food has been serving sliders that are free of antibiotics and hormones, as well as several different varieties of milkshakes and fries since 2015.
But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Fernandez, like many small business owners in New York City, was faced with difficult decisions.
“Where we were in Queens was like a cemetery,” said Fernandez. “We were one of the last ones open on the street, everything else was shut down.”
However, thanks to the Queens Small Business Grant Program, an initiative made possible through a partnership with Steve Cohen, the owner of the New York Mets, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), over $14 million was dispersed to 755 small businesses and street vendors in Queens.
“I’m very grateful for the grant,” Fernandez said. “There’s no words that can describe our gratitude,” “It really did get us over that hump that we needed.”
The program was launched in January thanks to $17.5 million from Cohen and his wife Alexandra’s foundation, with 90 percent of grants going to minority and women-owned businesses. Most grants were for $20,000, and don't need to be repaid.
Last week, many of the businesses who received grants were invited to Citi Field for a pre-game celebration and seats for that night's game between the Mets and Cardinals.
“When you see the actual people and how they're expressing how much it helped it makes it that much more meaningful,”Cohen said near the conclusion of the event. “You give money and you don't always see how it helps, this means a lot.”
Born and raised just two miles from Citi Field, Azra Khalfan-Kermali says she’s always had a front row seat to New York Mets games. But the owner of Plaques by Azra and another grant recipient had never been to Citi Field until last week's event.
Plaques by Azra was founded in 1974 by her parents. Specializing in custom awards and signs, her business took a downward turn during the start of the pandemic.
Her family ended up contracting the virus and her business faced eviction notices during the pandemic. Khalfan-Kermali says she started using her time to join online webinars and looking for different ways to stay afloat.
“When I was asked to leave, when I was originally planning to buy the building, it was very heartbreaking,” Khalfan-Kermali. “I’ve had so many memories in that building.”
Khalfan-Kermali is hopeful that a reinvestment into the local economy can bring worldly changes to her clients.
“During that time when I was kind of bootstrapped, I realized this funding helped me take one burden off of my shoulders,” said Khalfan-Kermali. “It allowed me to think outside the box and say that I got this.”
Patrick Schmidt is the owner of two Queens eateries that received grant funding, which he says went towards keeping employees working and motivated through a global pandemic.
At Mom’s Kitchen and Bar in Astoria, Schmidt recalls the first few months of the pandemic as unpredictable and intense. The same can be said for his other restaurant, William & Willow, located just south of Astoria Park.
“You didn’t know what to expect,” said Schmidt. “All of the businesses are only worth anything if they’re open, and we didn’t know how long this thing was going to be. We had a bunch of keys to front doors, which is pretty much all we had.”
Business temporarily shut down for about a month between March and April of last year, but Schmidt said that by taking it day-by-day and seeking different relief opportunities has helped maintain a working staff and keep morale high.
“I stayed plugged in, watched a lot of webinars and kept up to date with opportunities to request relief,” said Schmidt. “This has been a great opportunity for us and it’s really helped to put some of those funds back into the place and to make sure we kept our staff on.”
As the recipient of two separate grants from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Schmidt says the relief has “lessened the blow” his businesses endured over the past year and a half.
“The whole last 18 months hasn’t been about making profit, it’s been about surviving,” said Schmidt. “Getting to now or next year, you’re just trying to stay open, stay relevant and keep it moving. The money that we got from the grant opportunity has been really helpful to put that back into the business and make sure we’re keeping our team going.”