Lawrence businesses fight for survival as gas remains shut off
LAWRENCE — On the summery morning in May when she first unveiled her South Broadway bakery and cafe, Elizabeth Bautista unlocked the door and waited nervously, gazing out the front window at the busy street.
She had dreamed for years of opening this little shop. Since immigrating to America from the Dominican Republic, in 2010, she had picked up extra waitress shifts whenever she could, tucking away every spare dollar she earned. When at last she was ready, and had found a space she could afford to rent, Bautista and her friend and business partner, Deya Garcia, worked night after night to make it beautiful.
They retiled the floor, replastered the walls and painted them a pale celestial blue, hung blue wallpaper scrolled with delicate gold. They painted the ceiling, balancing on ladders, and painstakingly assembled new Ikea chairs and tables. When they were done, the place gleamed. Gold letters on the wall spelled out the name they’d chosen, a hybrid of their own first names: Delish. But as they stood before the case stuffed with fresh-baked pastries, all dressed up and ready, they could not help but worry: What if no one comes?
They cut the white ribbon hung across the door. Their first customers appeared. And as the summer bloomed, and they worked constantly, the two single moms began to build a following. Glowing reviews multiplied online. First-timers turned into regulars. They could pay the bills. After three months, Bautista was weary but hopeful. The first year was the riskiest, she knew — with all their savings invested, and high overhead, it could all collapse if foot traffic faltered — but maybe, just maybe, they would make it through.
Late on the afternoon of Sept. 13, Garcia stepped into the kitchen at Delish to check on some cakes baking in the oven. She opened the door and frowned at what she saw — cold pans full of flat, liquid batter.
She called out to Bautista: “Did you pay the gas bill?”
Then suddenly police officers were pushing through the door, telling them they had to leave at once. The sky outside was dark with smoke, the streets full of panicked people running. Across the city, dozens of fires were burning. Something had gone wrong in the gas lines webbed beneath the streets, a suspected surge in pressure spreading sudden danger into homes and businesses.
Back at home that night, the two women felt lucky that the fires had spared their business. They imagined reopening the next day, or at least going in to make the cakes that had been ordered for the weekend.
But the gas stayed off, and the news filtered in, so grim and unexpected it took days for them to believe it. There would be no quick reopening. Bautista roughed out the numbers and guessed they could survive for a couple of weeks, maybe. The gas company, meanwhile, promised service by Thanksgiving. For their 14-week-old business — their fledgling American dream — the delay seemed likely to prove fatal.
“I can’t wait that long,” said Bautista, 38, standing in her shuttered bakery one week after the disaster. She rubbed her forehead with one hand. “This is my beginning.”
“It was growing,” said Garcia quietly.
Bautista nodded sadly. “Now,” she said, “it’s broken.”
Getting increasingly desperate
The neighborhood, close by the banks of the Merrimack River, is dense and working class, long a home to immigrants and the businesses they built with grit and hard-won savings. Beneath the towering green copper spire of St. Patrick’s Church, where Mass is said in three languages, shops that cater to immigrants from Vietnam intersperse with those serving Latin Americans. The bakery run by Bautista and Garcia occupies a former Chinese restaurant wedged in next door to a liquor store; a Dunkin’ Donuts sits directly opposite. Because Dunkin’s baked goods are made elsewhere and trucked in, it reopened quickly while Delish stayed closed.
The sight of the chain coffee shop, humming along undisturbed while Bautista fretted in her dormant cafe, constantly reminded her of the risks she faced. The first few days, some of her customers had called to check in, to see if she was OK, and when they would reopen. Now, the phone was quiet. One rainy September afternoon, as she stood by the front window watching the utility workers in white plastic hard hats working outside, Bautista’s eyes widened in recognition: Across the street, she had spotted one of her regulars leaving Dunkin’ Donuts.
She made a pained sound, half laugh, half sigh, to see her hidden fear confirmed so starkly.
“I will lose them,” she lamented, her posture collapsing as she slumped over a chair. “They will find another place, and maybe they’ll like it better.”
Across the city, small restaurants like hers are among the most imperiled enterprises in the aftermath of the gas explosions. According to someone briefed by a city official, at least 70 businesses were still affected last week, leaving hundreds of employees out of work.
For some, the future is uncertain, as bills pile up and reserve accounts dwindle to zero. Financial assistance from the gas company has come slowly, if at all, some merchants said, hindered by spotty information and communication breakdowns.
“They literally blew up my business, and I’ve still got rent and all these bills to pay,” said John Farrington, owner of Carleen’s Coffee Shoppe, a neighborhood institution a few blocks down South Broadway. Three weeks after they were thrust abruptly out of work, most of his 18 full- and part-time employees had received no aid from the gas company, he said.
In the kitchen at Delish, the owners filled black plastic garbage bags with the refrigerated food they had to throw away after the electric company shut down power to the area for safety. Leaning on the empty bakery case, Bautista called the gas company again and again. For more than two weeks, she had been trying to find out when the gas might be restored, and how to seek compensation for her losses. The people on the other end of the line said someone would call her back, but no one did.
Increasingly desperate, she waited in line at offices around the city, any place she heard there might be help or information. No one could tell her how to try and save her business.
Her 7-year-old son was the only one happy about the limbo they were trapped in. The bakery’s closure meant she had more time for him, and he didn’t have to spend hours there waiting on his mom to finish work.
Bautista had been just a few years older than him when she started learning how to bake. San Pedro de Macoris, the vibrant coastal city where she had grown up, had long been dominated by the sugar industry; fittingly, her family owned a bakery there. At 12, she started decorating cakes, elaborate confections in every shape, color, and flavor, custom-made for every kind of celebration. Soon she had visions of running her own business.
The dreams driving her forward were simple but deep: To become independent. To create something unique. To build a better life for herself and her child.
Only now, with her savings gone and her business vanishing, her son’s world was shrinking, not expanding. When the weekend came and he asked to go to a trampoline park, she had to tell him no, they had no money for that now. Garcia faced the same hard conversations with her two children, 11 and 14. Her son complained that he only had one sweater. “You’ll have to wait,” she told him. “The bakery is closed.”
As September came to an end, Bautista sorted through the bills that were piling up unpaid. They owed $900 for electricity, $110 for insurance, $110 for their rented cash register, $171 for the phone and TV package, $60 for garbage collection.
She called to cancel the Comcast service, but stopped when she learned they would lose the phone number listed on their business cards and the sign outside.
Worst of all, the October rent was due. On the second day of the month, she steeled herself and walked next door to the liquor store to find her landlord. She was hopeful he would understand why they did not have the $1,900 payment. But that didn’t make it any easier.
They stood in a cold drizzle in the parking lot, speaking over the growl of nearby traffic. The landlord said his business had suffered, too; sales in the liquor store were still down 50 percent, because the neighborhood had not come back to life. “I have bills. I owe money, too,” he said. The message was clear: he could only be so patient.
You need to call Columbia Gas, the landlord advised. Tell them how much your rent is, and that you have no income. “I want them to pay the rent,” he said, “not you.”
Bautista pulled the hood of her jacket up over her head as the rain fell harder. She didn’t bother telling him how often she had called them.
“I am not just a landlord, I am doing business, so I understand,” he said, his tone gentler. “I don’t want you to worry about this.”
She nodded, though she knew she would not stop worrying.
Back inside, Bautista huddled with Garcia at the counter. They unpinned their business license from the bulletin board on the wall and prepared to venture out again in search of help. They had heard about an emergency loan program, aimed at helping businesses like theirs survive the shutdown, and they wanted to file an application.
Bautista drove a few blocks to the address they’d been given, dodging orange cones and crews of utility workers digging in trenches. She spotted a bright yellow sign on a brick wall, a black arrow pointing the way to the “Emergency Business Loan Fund.” She followed more yellow signs through a maze of hallways in the renovated mill, to an office where she’d once applied for a business startup loan.
The woman at the counter greeted her warmly. There were loans available, with zero percent interest, and no payments due for six months. But to complete an application, Bautista needed a claim number from Columbia Gas — something the company, in all Bautista’s attempts to make contact, had yet to provide.
Staff members urged her to call the company again — but to ask for a supervisor this time.
“We don’t want these small businesses to be gone when the gas comes back,” said Frank Carvalho, executive director of the emergency lender, Mill Cities Community Investments. “They’re part of this community. We’re all connected.”
Back at the bakery, Bautista picked up the phone again, dialed the number, and waited, tapping her fingers on the glass pastry case. She asked for a supervisor, someone who spoke Spanish.
No one is available, she was told, again. Try calling back later.
She gazed out the window where the rain still fell. It was time to go pick up her son at the school bus stop.
Tomorrow morning she would call again.
Stretching their resources
She did what she could to keep some money coming in. The following day, she planned to drive for Uber. On Friday she would deliver Amazon packages. Sunday, she had a scheduled shift at the post office, a side job she’d held onto after she opened Delish.
On Tuesday evening, she went to the class she’d been attending, a 10-week business workshop offered free by a local nonprofit. She was learning how to write a detailed business plan, a road map to rely on as she grew her business. She tried to set aside her nagging fear that she might not have a business by the time her plan was finished.
In the days that followed, she would finally get through to the gas company, get the claim number she needed, and apply for an emergency loan.
Her dream was still alive for now, if only by a thread. Perhaps she and her partner would open the door of their bakery again. If they did, there would be joy — and a keener fear: They could not know for sure if anybody would come back.