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Fitchburg Sees A Flurry Of New Small Businesses Amid Pandemic04:20
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Restaurant owner Elmer Melendez stands inside the future home of Tacos Tequila Mexican Cocina, a Mexican restaurant he hopes to open on Main Street in Fitchburg before Cinco De Mayo. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Restaurant owner Elmer Melendez stands inside the future home of Tacos Tequila Mexican Cocina, a Mexican restaurant he hopes to open on Main Street in Fitchburg before Cinco De Mayo. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There's a new bodega in downtown Fitchburg, stocked with a colorful array of hot chocolate and chips and beans that come special from Central America.

Owner Carmen Mejía de Guzmán and her husband moved to Fitchburg from Chelsea in the summer of 2019. They could afford to buy a house here — but there was one problem.

"I had to go to Chelsea to buy all the things we eat," she said in Spanish, "like the beans, cornmeal, cheese, cream. We were living well, but we missed our food."

So last winter the couple decided to open a bodega in downtown Fitchburg — Mi Rinconcito Salvadoreño — or "my little corner of El Salvador." They wanted to serve the local Central American community, which they say is growing and hungry for food from home.

"It hit us hard, the pandemic hit us hard. My husband without a job, and having invested so much in this business, we were unable to open our doors."

Carmen Mejía de Guzmán

The business venture made sense to the couple — but the world was about to change. The week they were planning to go to City Hall and get their permits to open, Fitchburg shut down because of the coronavirus.

"It hit us hard," Guzmán said, "the pandemic hit us hard. My husband without a job, and having invested so much in this business, we were unable to open our doors."

Eventually they did open, in the summer, and it wasn’t the only bright spot in a dismal economy. According to the Secretary of State's office — which registers new corporations and limited liability corporations — almost 54,000 new entities were formed in Massachusetts in 2020, up almost 3,000 from the year prior.

The biggest surprise is among new LLCs, a status many small businesses opt for in order to protect their personal assets: 32,100 LLCs were formed in 2020, up from 28,600 the year before — an increase of more than 12%. Experts cite a variety of possible reasons for this, including laid off workers who form LLCs and return to their employers as contractors, but MIT business professor Scott Stern said there's something more going on.

"There's evidence that there's just been this explosion, really the highest level of new business registrants in the entire United States since our measures of that ... have been recorded," Stern said.

Stern said it's still unclear exactly what's happening in the small business sector. Even while more than a third of businesses open before the pandemic have closed -- per the latest figures from December, according to the Opportunity Insights research group at Harvard — many new businesses are starting up.

Stern sees a trend forming — not just in Massachusetts but across the country — and it could point to a renaissance in startup activity.

"That shift towards LLC that you identified in the Massachusetts data very much reflects choices of individuals, who found themselves at a moment in life where [they could start] a new business, whether to pursue a passion, or perhaps to undertake some sort of broader [enterprise]," Stern said. "That has certainly been one of the bright spots in an otherwise challenging time."

Back on Main Street in Fitchburg, Elmer Melendez is another business owner who saw opportunity in the pandemic. He said the price of real estate here was so low, he couldn't pass up the chance to buy a building, where he’s planning to open a Mexican restaurant in the months ahead.

Melendez, who's also from El Salvador, said he’s positioning himself to capitalize on the return to normalcy — which, in his world, means more people going out to eat.

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"With so many restaurants closing, we're going to be ready [to] take care of patrons or guests that will be coming through to the restaurants," he said. "I'm really betting on that — that's going to happen."

Melendez knows there's risk in opening a new business — especially during a pandemic. But he knows that also means the possibility of great rewards once COVID is in the past.

"With so many restaurants closing, we're going to be ready [to] take care of patrons or guests that will be coming through to the restaurants. I'm really betting on that — that's going to happen."

Elmer Melendez

Ray Belanger, director of small business at the Fitchburg nonprofit NewVue Communities, said that people are looking toward the future.

“Most of the people I'm working with now are optimistic that once everyone's vaccinated, once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, they feel there's going to be a wave — and they want to catch the wave,” Belanger said.

And he said the excitement of small business entrepreneurs like Guzmán and Melendez makes him bullish on the future of the city.

This segment aired on February 2, 2021.

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Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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