OCEANSIDE — Instead of preparing for a sales uptick over spring break, local non-essential businesses are facing dire straits after being forced to close their doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Oceanside business owner Brandon Foster, shutting down Little Louie’s and Sandy Toes gift shops, both located on Mission Avenue in the heart of downtown’s business district, only marked the beginning of his troubles.
On March 8, approximately 10 days before Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order requiring all non-essential businesses to close, Foster paid off a $12,996 credit card balance with Bank of America.
The next day, Foster, a native South African and longtime Oceanside resident, learned the bank made a second withdrawal for the previously paid amount of $12,996 — charging him twice for a total of nearly $26,000.
The bank’s accounting error couldn’t have come at a worse time for Foster and his mother, Heather Foster, after the business partners closed both stores last month.
“It’s just terrible timing,” Brandon Foster told The Coast News. “We have no money coming in and we had to lay everybody off. No cash to pay our rent, no cash to pay employees. We drained our savings account and it’s not a little bit of money.”
For the past four weeks, various bank associates have continued to “kick the can down the road,” apologizing for the trouble and telling Foster the money would be returned to his account within the next 48 hours.
But Foster said he still hasn’t been reimbursed.
“Everyone keeps passing the buck off to someone else,” Foster said. “They have given us the biggest runaround in the whole world. It seems like they just don’t care.”
During his most recent conversation, the situation worsened. According to Foster, the bank told him they had lost his money to a third-party vendor and they don’t know where it is.
“We have begged, pleaded, phoned all the way to headquarters for over three weeks now,” Foster said. “It’s a disgrace. I feel sick thinking of how they just stole this money and won’t give it back. We feel helpless.”
Bank of America did not respond to requests for comment.
Since the state’s social lockdown, small business owners have been scrambling for financial assistance. The day after Gov. Newsom’s order, Foster had already completed applications for the U.S. Small Business Association’s (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Paycheck Protection programs.
Additionally, Foster applied for federal aid within the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law on March 27 by President Donald Trump.
The $2 trillion package offers business owners government-backed loans with low-interest rates and incentives to keep their employees on the payroll and money flowing into the national economy.
But until those refunds arrive, employers like Foster are just trying to find ways to survive.
Brandon Kelly, an outreach specialist at Money.com, suggested that some small business owners in desperate need of cash might consider borrowing from local commercial lenders.
“The government is offering great terms, at least at face value, but you are going to have wait for it,” Kelly said. “If people can’t wait, there are other options. There are lenders in your community who need the business and you can leverage the current low rates with a commercial loan.”
Gumaro Escarcega, program manager at MainStreet Oceanside, said the organization is working to help small businesses market their services through online webinars.
Specifically, Main Street Oceanside is working with Danielle Milne, CEO of Digital Hopper, to offer digital workshops every Wednesday at 11 a.m. to help small businesses market themselves online.
MainStreet Oceanside also created a Facebook group that serves as a platform for small business owners to ask questions.
“The biggest impact I’ve seen on local businesses right now is a lack of revenue coming in,” Escarcega said. “Sole proprietors are having a really tough time and owners are hurting both as a business and personally. There is no money to pay their rent and utilities at home. So, it’s very difficult for small businesses not equipped to deal with a pandemic like this.”
Escarcega said the local hospitality industry, which has been hit the hardest by the pandemic, has come up with creative ways to generate business.
Local restaurants, including Blade 1936 and Flying Pig, are creating do-it-yourself meal kits for families to cook together at home. Pacific Coast Spirits, a local distillery, is manufacturing and selling hand sanitizer for the public, and The Rising Co, a community co-op, is making face masks.
Foster and his mother said they have shifted their focus to online marketplaces (Amazon, Shopify and eBay) to generate much-needed revenue.
“We started putting everything online, even though a majority of our vendors don’t allow online sales,” Foster said. “But we came to a realization these are dire straits.”
Currently, the best-selling items online from Sandy Toes and Little Louie’s gift shops are soaps, candles, socks and other comfort items. Between both businesses, Foster is making roughly 30 sales per day, which allows them to barely break even due to smaller profit margins selling online.
Sometimes, Foster even sells items at a loss just to compete with other businesses and establish an online presence.
“I’d rather some cash in my bank account,” Foster said. “We feature handmade stuff from local artists and very unique stuff you’re not going to find anywhere else. It’s upsetting to see these items sold for cheap. But you have to do business.”
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