UNITY, Maine — Tamika Adjemian, the owner of the Unity Kitchen, is a whiz at baking treats and whipping up meals that lure hungry diners to the small cafe along the town’s Main Street.
Her menu is full of such crowd-pleasing fare as the Unity Reuben, complete with house-made corned beef, and the savory Magical Mushroom Bowl, made with miso-roasted local mushrooms and maple tamari dressing.
But even though Adjemian, who opened the cafe on Dec. 13, 2019, never doubted her ability to make good food or create a welcoming space, she doesn’t know if she can withstand the financial hardships that have come with the past 11 months of the pandemic.
Right now, things are so dire that she can’t even afford to buy more takeout boxes.
“We’re slipping through the cracks,” she said. “Every single day, people tell us how glad they are that we’re here — that’s wonderful.”
But it’s not going to pay her mortgage.
“COVID ruined everything,” she said.
Adjemian is not alone. According to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses made up more than 99 percent of Maine businesses in 2019.
Her cafe, with just two part-time employees, is very small, but nonetheless important to the customers it serves. Entrepreneurs like her typically have passion, talent or solid business strategies to succeed in their market.
From left (clockwise): Tamika Adjemian opened the Unity Kitchen in downtown Unity in December 2019; The sign displayed in the entry of the Unity Kitchen in downtown Unity; Owner of the Unity Kitchen, Tamika Adjemian, said she cannot buy more products to sell because she is running out of money; Tamika Adjemian, owner of the Unity Kitchen in downtown Unity, checks out customer Lyn Grotke last week. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
But they don’t always possess the skills that have been necessary to survive during this past atypical year. Those include resilience and the ability to pivot with ever-changing pandemic protocols and restrictions. Business owners also have needed to advocate for themselves in the pandemic and grasp complicated grant and loan opportunities, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which is already in its fourth iteration.
“Somehow you’ve got to figure it all out,” said Greg Dugal, the director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine, the non-profit trade group representing the hospitality industry. “Not only were [business owners] trying to figure this out, they were making no money. They had to do all the work. There are people who fell through the cracks, and there’s probably literally hundreds of reasons why they did.”
Adjemian is among them, although she is working hard to pull herself up.
She received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, but there were limitations — and because her business was still in its infancy when the pandemic hit, it wasn’t a large amount of money.
Not to mention that she had to spend it within a three-week period last spring.
The cafe was closed, so she paid her two employees — including her husband, Dan Hanchrow — to build shelves so that Adjemian could open a small, speciality store inside the cafe.
She used a small sum of money she got through the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans program to buy a cooler for produce, dairy and eggs she now sells in the store.
But although hundreds of Maine hospitality businesses received up to $36,000 in Maine Economic Recovery grants in December, Adjemian did not.
The money would have been a game-changer for the cafe, she said, adding that she faced another hurdle when Unity College never reopened for in-person instruction.
“It’s not like this pandemic hasn’t affected me. I can’t afford to buy more inventory of anything,” she said. “I’m lacking $4,000 a month. I can’t do it. I’m going to end up having to close.”
On a recent day, customers who carried out lunches said they hope the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen.
Lyn Grotke of Unity, who ordered a sandwich on homemade, gluten-free bread, said that she likes the food, the little market and especially the attention that Adjemian pays to health and safety.
“It’s the only place in town that’s really reliable about making people wear masks,” she said. “It’s the only place I’ll come inside.”
But she’s worried Unity Kitchen might not make it.
“I’m very concerned,” she said. “I think it’s been a struggle for them to get small business assistance. It’s very unfortunate. They used to have people working here, and now they can’t. It’s very difficult.”
Adjemian and her husband, Hanchrow, started out 2020 with a lot of hopes and dreams for the cafe, which seemed on an upward trajectory. But they’re beginning 2021 in a very different place: working 70-hour weeks and hoping that, somehow, they’ll catch a break. She dreams of finding no-interest — or very low-interest — loans or grants to help her business, but doesn’t expect that to become reality.
“We’re in a holding pattern of really just trying to survive,” she said. “Which I think a lot of places are in. They say we’re too small to fail, but no — that’s actually not true.”
Dugal offered a bit of hope for fledgling small business owners in Maine. Federal loan and grant programs were intended to be a lifeline, but were often passed through Congress in a hurry.
“Almost a trillion dollars of business financing help was written in a weekend,” he said of the first PPP. “I’ve never seen things happen so fast. It’s good that it did, because people really needed it. But if you do things so quickly, generally you miss something. It’s impossible to be perfect in that kind of time crunch.”
Still, he hopes Adjemian, and other business owners, can hang on. There will be other grants and loans made available to small businesses, he said, and summer will be better.
It has to be.
“In my mind, if we have halfway decent weather and older people getting vaccinated, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’ve got to ride this thing out.”