PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — A handful of Latino business leaders are launching the first-ever Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Pinellas County.
The new chamber comes at a crucial time as Hispanic-owned businesses work to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Others are seeing booming success, despite the pandemic. That’s the case for Mi Caretta Restaurant and Bakery in St. Petersburg. From empanadas to baked goods, Marlon Yepes is constantly on the move as his Colombian restaurant sees a record number of customers.
“We actually got busier during the pandemic even though we had the whole crew working, we hired more employees to keep up,” Yepes said.
His business grew from 27 employees to 40 during the pandemic. He credits the Latino community for supporting him when he needed it most.
“We got lucky. We got blessed. We have a good product and people kept coming and supporting us,” Yepes added.
Just a few blocks away, Frances Moncada and her sisters just opened an insurance agency. They too are seeing early success. The women are born and raised in Tampa but their parents, who were also business owners, are from Honduras.
“Opening a business has come with some challenges but it’s nothing we can’t overcome and I think by joining forces together as business owners, we can do much more to help the community,” Moncada added.
Not all business owners have been as lucky. Many minority-owned businesses have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent study by Biz2Credit found on average that Hispanic-owned businesses lost $96,000 more than non-Latino-owned businesses from the start of the pandemic. The same study also found they applied for and received fewer federal loans.
Yet, Eli Gonzalez and Joe Lugo, President and Vice President of the new Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Pinellas County, plan to offer support to business owners to help them thrive.
“We want to have that spirit of togetherness. Of support. You’re not alone. You have resources. You have people you can reach out to,” Lugo explained.
“Growing up, I did not have not one mentor that was Hispanic. Where I grew up, I didn’t know one person who owned a business. So, I want our Hispanic business owners to stand up, to get into the community and go into schools to show the next generation that the sky is the limit,” Gonzalez added.
Pinellas County’s Hispanic population is expected to grow from 11% to 15% in the next 20 years, Lugo and Gonzales hope that will pave the way for hundreds of Latino-owned businesses to flourish.
“Regardless of their skin color, regardless of where they were born, regardless of the way they speak, they can find success,” Gonzalez said.
The next Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Pinellas County meeting will be held on Oct. 7 from 7-9:30 p.m. at the Feather Sound Country Club.
Anyone is able to attend and Gonzalez and Lugo say you do not need to be a Hispanic business owner in order to join the chamber.