‘I won’t let this ship sink’
Restaurant Revitalization Program helps Queens restaurant owner fight for the survival of a neighborhood institution.
On a Sunday afternoon in late September 2020, Elena Calderon sat in her living room across from six employees of Rincón Salvadoreño, the Jamaica, Queens, restaurant that has been in her family for 40 years.
They had the faces of old friends—the forty-something-year-old head cook whom Elena met when he was just 19; the kitchen staff she saw weekly for more than a decade; the server who worked for her for 21 years helping to make the bustling, family-style Salvadoran eatery a neighborhood institution.
But this was the first time she had seen them in seven months and grief and worry hung heavy in the air.
“I won’t let this ship sink,” Elena said to the group. “We’re in this together. We are going to make this work.”
The tension in the room gave way to tempered relief as Elena laid out her plan for reopening the restaurant for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic overtook New York City in March.
After months of meticulous research and planning she had stitched together a patchwork of grants and loans to get the business back up and running. The turning point in her fundraising, Elena said, was when she was approved for the Restaurant Revitalization Program (RRP), which allowed her to bring each of these six staff members back on board at $20 an hour.
“That was the golden ticket,” she said. “I had my team back and I could pay them a living wage. With that, we had some ground to stand on finally.”
“Nothing about this has been easy, but there is no other choice for me—this restaurant is part of my family. I see it as one of my children. And as a parent, you struggle, but it’s that love that keeps you going and fighting.”
RRP—an initiative of the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) and the NYC Human Resources Administration that is funded by the Mayor’s Fund and NYC Opportunity—was announced during the summer of 2020 by the New York City Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity. The program supports unemployed and underemployed restaurant workers affected by COVID-19 and their employers, with a focus on communities that were hit hardest by the pandemic. It partners with restaurants like Rincón Salvadoreño that have committed to paying a full minimum wage with tips on top, increasing race and gender equity, and making their meals accessible to vulnerable community members.
Through RRP, Elena and other participating restaurants across New York City were awarded up to $30,000 each to pay wages of $20/hour to subsidized employees for six weeks. In addition, the City partnered with One Fair Wage (OFW)—a nationally-recognized advocacy organization working to raise standards across the restaurant industry—to launch its High Road Kitchens (HRK) program in New York City, making $1 million available to support local restaurants.
Elana Calderon explains that her restaurant was closed during the beginning of the pandemic and how she was able to use the Restaurant Revitalization Program to reopen her business.
Collectively, RRP and HRK will direct $3 million into hardest-hit communities to support approximately 100 restaurants and 1,000 displaced workers, as well as provide 53,000 meals to the community members most in need.
“Of course, the grant money was a huge relief, but what I actually gained has no price tag,” she said. “I connected on a deeper level in my community. It became not just about saving my business, but sustaining the community. One hand will feed the other.”
Elena is no stranger to the difficulties faced by small business owners in New York City. Originally opened by her husband in 1980, Elena took the reins at Rincón Salvadoreño after his death in 1996 while raising her three sons as a single immigrant mother from El Salvador.
In 2017, large-scale construction projects in the neighborhood led to frequent street closures and eventually Elena lost the majority of the parking outside the restaurant. By 2018, she saw sales slump as foot traffic fell. The near-fatal blow came at the end of October that year when a construction accident on an adjacent property damaged the restaurant’s kitchen.
Rincón Salvadoreño was shuttered for three months, but Elena persevered, hitting her stride again in late 2019 when sales and foot traffic started hitting pre-2017 levels.
Then came COVID-19. As cases began surging across the city and lockdown measures went into effect, Elena faced the closure of her restaurant for the second time in as many years. To make matters worse, she had fallen ill herself.
“I was too terrified to even go to the hospital, so I was just completely alone,” she said. “The experience pushed me to the very end—physically, financially, mentally. Debts were accumulating and I wasn’t generating any income. My situation went from bad to worse, then from worse to terrible.”
“Of course, the grant money was a huge relief, but what I actually gained has no price tag. I connected on a deeper level in my community. It became not just about saving my business, but sustaining the community. One hand will feed the other.”
Elena’s physical recovery from the virus took months (in fact, she still has lingering side effects), and she spent the better part of her days in quarantine fighting for the survival of her business.
“Once I realized the money wasn’t just going to come to me I said, ‘Ok, I need to go out and find it,’” she said.
By September, and with the help of organizations like the Queens Chamber of Commerce, Greater Jamaica, and OFW, she taught herself how to navigate an unfamiliar digital fundraising landscape and got creative about how to attract new and old customers ahead of her phased reopening.
She hired local artists to paint a vibrant mural celebrating Salvadoran culture on the side of the restaurant; donated the space and electricity to have a community refrigerator installed on the property, which residents and local mutual aid groups keep stocked with free, fresh produce for anyone in need; built a makeshift area for outdoor dining; and bolstered the restaurant’s social media presence.
After one week of exclusively serving outdoor and to-go meals, Elena opened her doors just in time for the city’s reopening of limited indoor dining. Almost immediately, her regulars came flooding back along with new faces. And although it wasn’t quite akin to the crowds of young couples and families that used to flock to the restaurant every Saturday night for pupusas and late-night karaoke, it gave her more hope than she’d felt in months.
“Nothing about this has been easy, but there is no other choice for me—this restaurant is part of my family,” she said. “I see it as one of my children. And as a parent, you struggle, but it’s that love that keeps you going and fighting.”
During the six weeks that Elena received RRP funding, she donated more than 680 meals to the community in partnership with City Harvest, and forged a deep and meaningful alliance with community organizations throughout Queens. The experience, she said, opened her eyes to the level of need and vulnerability present all around her.
Even with limited indoor dining, Elena worries not just about Rincón Salvadoreño, but her community as a whole. But she isn’t deterred, she said. With the skills and knowledge she has amassed, and support from organizations like the Mayor’s Fund and others, she knows she is not alone in her fight for the future.
“We’ve all worked so hard to put these seeds in the ground,” she said. “Sooner or later, the crop will come up.”