Despite surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, Hispanic restaurants on Fourth Plain Boulevard find themselves facing an even bigger issue: rising prices and difficulty finding workers.
Maria Isabel Castellon Pena is one example of this. She hasn’t had the smoothest transition since taking over 4 Caminos at 3503 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
Castellon moved to Vancouver from Mexico four years prior. She worked with the previous owner of 4 Caminos for a year before he let her know he would be selling the restaurant and that he trusted her to run it.
Just four months after she took over, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“For me, it was an extremely difficult time. I was still pretty new to living in the U.S.,” Castellon said. “I didn’t know the norms or the process of how things worked.”
Castellon said support from Fourth Plain Forward and other community organizations helped hers and other small, family-owned businesses along Fourth Plain Boulevard navigate the pandemic.
Fourth Plain Forward
Kimberly Gonzalez, the business development coordinator with Fourth Plain Forward, said the majority of businesses aided by the nonprofit were owned by people of color. The grants, paid for by the SW Washington COVID Response Fund, can help “businesses pay rent, payroll, working capital, and inventory.”
The emergency grant application targets small businesses within the Fourth Plain Boulevard area. Three rounds of emergency grants have been given, with the most recent one occurring in May that distributed $190,000 across 39 businesses, with 74.4 percent of the funding going to Hispanic- or Latino-owned businesses, 20.5 percent going to Asian and Pacific Islanders, with the remaining left to white-owned businesses.
According to Gonzalez, businesses can apply to more than one round and receive up to $10,000. An estimated 60 to 70 businesses have been helped throughout all three rounds.
Still, Castellon says, the biggest obstacle she faced isn’t the pandemic but rather what she’s experiencing now.
“The change of prices has been by far the most challenging issue. Cheese went up from $13 to $22 a pack; oil went from $19 to now over $40. Prices haven’t just gone up, but resources are also scarce, and I feel like the quality in food has gone down,” Castellon said.
Castellon said she has had so much difficulty finding resources that she had to move from buying things locally to online.
Despite this, Castellon said she hasn’t raised her prices.
“I hope it doesn’t stay like this forever and that it’ll eventually stabilize so I don’t have to raise prices,” she said.
In addition to rising costs and scarce resources, Castellon said finding workers has been an ongoing problem. Two months ago, she posted a notice on her website looking for a restaurant worker but hasn’t had any luck in finding someone.
“I’m very worried we’ll have another shutdown. When we had to close down to just takeout, our sales went down by a lot. We make way more when dine-in is allowed. I just don’t know if we would be able to handle another shutdown,” Castellon said.
Times even tougher
Maurilia Marquez has run Su Casa Marquez at 5406 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. since 2010. As a small family-owned business, the pandemic took a big toll, though support from Fourth Plain Forward has allowed her to remain open.
Yet, like Castellon, Marquez says this time is even more difficult than the height of the early pandemic.
“We can’t find [restaurant products] in the stores anymore,” Marquez said. She’s had to resort to Amazon to buy most of her disposables, causing her to spend more money on things she used to be able to find in local stores.
Marquez’s one troubling price increase is for Maseca — a corn flour mix used to make several of her dishes. She used to pay $22 for a packet; now it costs around $29.
Marquez says it’s gotten so bad that she had to raise certain prices for food such as burritos, quesadillas and tacos.
To add to her difficulties, Marquez said finding reliable people to work has been a challenge.
Her son who helped run the restaurant went back to college, leaving her short-staffed.
“This time around I don’t know how things are going to unfold, the delta cases are rising and the cold is coming. If they close again and you can’t find store products, prices are rising, what are you going to do, how are we going to keep running?” Marquez said.