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How A Baker, Banker And Cleaner Are Growing Their Local Businesses — And Looking For Help

A year ago, the U.S. economy had plunged into a sudden and deep recession. Never before had all kinds of economic activity just stopped. It wasn’t like anything anyone had ever experienced. There was no business playbook or tried and true strategies for companies to find their way through the pandemic.

For months this year, WLRN's Sunshine Economy has been checking in with three women operating their businesses through the worst of the COVID-19 collapse — and the rebound.

In these uncertain times, you can rely on WLRN to keep you current on local news and information. Your support is what keeps WLRN strong. Please become a member today. Donate now. Thank you.

The Baker

Pilar Guzman Zavala had 13 Half Moon Empanada outlets before the pandemic — including on college campuses and at the Miami Beach Convention Center. When those were forced to close she was left with her ventanita in the Upper East Side of Miami and at Miami International Airport. She was able to survive by winning a Miami-Dade County contract to make meals for seniors.

As business has rebounded, Zavala has played a role in shaping national policy.

The Banker

Ginger Martin is the CEO of American National Bank based in Broward County. The bank concentrates on commercial real estate lending.

Despite worries over how the sudden shift to work-from-home and the slow return of workers to offices could impact commercial real estate, Martin’s bank has been busy thanks to low interest rates, strong trends in some commercial real estate — like warehouses — and processing tens of millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program loans as part of the federal government’s efforts to stimulate the economy.

The Cleaner

Sherry Rudolph runs the smallest business of the three. She moved to South Florida from Detroit and started Legally Clean in Lauderhill 14 years ago. It is a commercial cleaning service — janitorial work.

Before the pandemic, Rudolph had four part-time employees providing janitorial services to offices and homes. A quarter of her business was residential cleaning. That was hit first by people not wanting others inside their homes, then the work-from-home movement emptied out offices, hitting her commercial cleaning clients. She was preparing to sign a new contract to clean apartments and condominiums that would have given her a big boost in revenue but then the pandemic wiped out that possibility.

She pivoted to providing disinfection services, which helped bring in income and keep her business afloat.

The Rebound

Each of the three businesswomen have experienced a bounce back in business since the worst of the pandemic-induced recession. And each have seen their companies grow as business returns.

Last year was a record one at American National Bank. Record-low borrowing costs, high savings rates and federal government stimulus programs helped boost the bank's business. It was one of the largest local lenders of Payroll Protection Program loans. The loan money is from the federal government with the banks processing the loans. The money does not have to be paid back by companies if they spend most of it on keeping workers employed.

At the bank’s March board meeting, it celebrated some of its milestones from last year, including operating in the top 10% of similarly-sized banks across the country. That strength has continued in 2021, especially demand for warehouse and industrial real estate in South Florida. That's a trend that has just gotten hotter with people at home during the pandemic and using e-commerce like never before.

Rudolph's janitorial business went from slow to "better than pre-COVID" in a matter of two months this year. With construction and home remodeling booming, Rudolph has found work cleaning up post-construction after everything from a kitchen makeover to a new construction condominium building.

"If the projects will be coming in continuously and in volume that could mean that Legally Clean will be back in the seat in terms of being able to become more lucrative and also be able to be where we were pre-COVID," she said in March.

By April, she had cleaning jobs "nearly every day." She reported getting more calls and more opportunities. "We're really busy," she said. "It hasn't been like this in a very long time."

By May, she reported "I can hardly keep up."

Zavala had planned on having two new stores opened by this spring. Only the new counter at Jackson Memorial Hospital has opened. And business has returned to her other outlets. Sales have taken off at her main location in Miami, and when the Miami Beach Convention Center reopened for a limited conference in March, she was able to reopen two kiosks there.

Help Wanted

Business has improved so much that each of the businesswomen are looking for workers and having a tough time finding help.

In March 2020, there were more than three million jobs in South Florida and about 3.2 million people in the labor force. It was very early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies had just started to cut jobs as the economy was slowing fast, as a consequence of the restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

One year later and there are far fewer people in the regional job market. The labor forced has shrunk by nearly 120,000 people. Maybe they’ve gone back to school, or have a child in online school and can’t leave their home for a job. Perhaps they have grown frustrated and stopped looking for work, or have been able to make ends meet with stimulus and unemployment checks.

There are a lot fewer jobs to find. While the labor force shrunk 3% between March 2020 and a year later, the number of jobs fell by nearly 6%. Yes, a lot of jobs have returned but there were still about 200,000 fewer jobs in March of this year compared to the month the pandemic unofficially began.

For Zavala, the difficulty in finding workers has delayed her expanding Half Moon Empanadas. She had planned on opening two new outlets by March, but only one has opened — a planned store in Pembroke Pines has not yet opened its doors.

"We've had huge problems with hiring people," she said. As sales have increased at her existing locations, that has led to increased production. Business has tripled at her main ventanita in Miami's Upper East Side neighborhood. "So things are picking up on the sales side. Customers are coming. But I haven't been able to hire the three people full time that I need for my kitchen."

She has put off opening the Pembroke Pines store indefinitely even though it is ready to go. She has increased starting pay for cashiers from $11 to $12 an hour. She has bumped up the pay of other workers and paid bonuses in an effort to retain the workers she has.

Rudolph also has increased the hourly wage she pays for cleaners as new business comes in.

"I have stretched my areas of cleaning. I was called by a group home. I was called by a restaurant that I had not ventured into before. It looks like they are going to be really good opportunities for me," she said. Rudolph now pays up to $15 an hour for experienced cleaners. "It is better than ever. I can hardly keep up. It's kind of challenging with getting employees. We're still struggling and trying to get qualified, capable people."

Martin has two candidates for a loan officer position at American National Bank. But it hasn't been "an easy process." Despite the strong business and loan demand, she said the quality of the job candidates "has not been that good."

"I do think there's plenty of demand and yet a struggle and finding people. I do think this is the first time that I can really remember where we've had jobs and not people willing to work for what for various reasons, which is kind of sad when you think the economy is recovering. Things are getting better. Business is picking up. But then you can't find employees to sustain your business," Martin said.

Helping Shape Policy

Zavala may run a small empanada maker in Miami with big plans but she also has influenced presidential policy this year. Just days before Joe Biden's presidential inauguration, Zavala was invited to participate in a Zoom conference with the president-elect.

"I have never thought anything political. I'm not political, but I felt that it was it was a moment in time in the history of this country that I wanted to have a voice. And so they were giving me the opportunity. So I took it," she said.

The incoming president was holding a roundtable with a handful of small business owners as he was beginning to roll out his American Rescue Plan. The meeting included a short story of how Zavala worked to save her business during the worst of the pandemic. And after the incoming president spoke about his stimulus plan, Zavala raised her hand.

"My husband is like, 'Are you seriously raise your hand? To say what?'"

It wasn't a question as much as a request. She asked Biden and his incoming administration to look at ways to assist really small companies — those with two dozen or fewer employees. Those types of companies had a tough time getting access to the first round of Paycheck Protection Program money.

"There's years [and] years where small businesses, which happen to be women-owned and Hispanic and African-American businesses, are the tiny ones. So it's not a Trump versus Biden situation, at least from the point of view of small businesses. It's a systemic situation where we really as a country need to look and really seriously think about how we can support these kind of groups," Zavala said.

By late January, after Inauguration Day, Zavala was invited to speak with new Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen during just her second day on the job. Zavala again took the opportunity to push the new administration on helping very small businesses.

Then in late February, President Biden held a news conference next door to the White House. He began his remarks by saying he had spoken to Zavala again. Then, he announced a two-week period where only businesses with fewer than 20 employees could apply for loans to the program. The strategy was to clear the way for very small businesses and allow banks to focus on those firms processing their applications.

"This call actually was much more fulfilling for me because he called me to let me know, thanks to the conversation he had with me, that I had educated him on the realities of small businesses and the PPP," Zavala said. "If that was the reason why I had to speak to him, I welcome it because I hope we were able to help a lot of businesses."

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Leslie Ovalle /
American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin.
Leslie Ovalle /
American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin.
 Sherry Rudolph owns and runs janitorial services firm Legally Clean, based in Lauderhill.
Tom Hudson /
Sherry Rudolph owns and runs janitorial services firm Legally Clean, based in Lauderhill.