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The Exhausting Business of Trying to Stay in Business

Once the doors to my Mexican sweets business closed, figuring out how to reopen became my full-time job

Fany Gerson, the owner of La Newyorkina, holds a paleta
Fany Gerson, owner of La Newyorkina
Donny Tsand

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Fany Gerson is among many in New York’s restaurant and food industry who have been struggling to keep their businesses afloat since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The owner of La Newyorkina, a Mexican sweets company best known for the paletas it sells from its West Village storefront, Gerson also made a name for herself as one of the owners of Dough, the doughnut shop and wholesale business she departed from in February to open her own shop, Fan-Fan Doughnuts. Before the pandemic, the business was getting closer to the point “where it was easier to breathe,” Gerson says.

Now, with construction on the shop halted and La Newyorkina’s plans for the summer season in limbo, Gerson finds herself trying to keep busy: In addition to brainstorming ways to keep her business going, she’s written two book proposals, made some home cooking videos, applied for government relief assistance, and started delivering food to hospital workers, all while ferrying her toddler-age son to his babysitter five days a week. She spoke to us about what her day-to-day life looks like right now, and why even small businesses like hers leave big footprints on the local economy. — Rebecca Flint Marx

We’re navigating how you keep moving to keep the lights on, but at the same time be safe for yourself and everyone else. My husband, for example, has two preexisting [medical] conditions, so we have to be extra careful. But we’re still working; I’m talking to you from our production kitchen in Red Hook. We don’t want to do anything irresponsible, but also, if I want to take care of us as a family and our staff, we need to have a place to come back to. I don’t know if that will be possible, but that’s what we’re fighting for.

We’re a seasonal business: [When this began] we were starting to hire people for the season. So we had 12 people that we had to lay off. Even my husband is technically an employee of the company, and he has not been able to apply for unemployment because the system keeps crashing. When he does get to the online [application], it just says to call a number. Some of our employees have been able to collect, others haven’t, and others aren’t eligible because they’re undocumented. What many people who aren’t in the industry may not realize is that [undocumented workers] pay taxes and contribute in so many ways to society, whether people want to turn a blind eye to them or not.

Since last year, we had given ourselves four more years to see if we can make [the business] work, because I cannot go through another bad winter, and I lost my entire kitchen during Sandy. So I’m no stranger to this feeling of helplessness or anguish and stress and all of the above. This is obviously at a very different level. When I was talking to my friend Alex [Raij], she said, “Now, at least you don’t feel lonely.”

We work from home half of the time; for the nationwide shipping we had four or five days a week, and now we have two. Since last year we’ve started selling our paletitas to Whole Foods, so our distributor placed one order. It wasn’t huge, but it was very exciting. So we’re continuously brainstorming. For Passover, we did our Mexican Seder menu — people could preorder it and we delivered it, so for two days we were able to give our driver work. I said to my husband, if we feel like this is working, maybe we do something like that two days a week, and then we can give work to those people.

This week, we’re going to start making brisket tamales for hospital workers. They were on the Seder menu, so I thought, why don’t we take advantage of that? We’re trying to see if any of our purveyors can donate some product. If we can keep on doing two days a week where we do meals like Mexican home-cooked food, then I can give [my employees] work and I can have the staff to make tamales. And in addition, the Jewish Food Society connected us with an organization that is now paying us to make 60 to 100 meals every day for hospital workers, which allows us to give work to some of our staff and also to help out. I’m trying to contact different farmers and producers so I can purchase [ingredients] from them directly.

I had some friends that were very frustrated about unsuccessful GoFundMe situations. We didn’t do one because we were really trying to see if there was a way we could continue giving [our employees] work. The other reason is we’re in the middle of writing a pitch deck to get funding to grow the company. We’re growing faster than we can afford to; it’s a good position to be in, but still a problem because we’re still cash flow-negative.

You can’t rely on government relief. The day they passed the [Paycheck Protection Program], they said you have to [apply] through your bank. So we went to the bank because they said it’s better to do it in person, but the bank was closed. Then we found out you can do it online, and then our bank, Chase, said they weren’t going to be ready. Then we get a notice that [the Chase site] was going to be ready at noon, and then at noon my husband was trying for two and a half hours. He finally got through. It’s not even like the full form — it was just your name and the tax ID number. And then because we have one of our accounts with Bank of America, we tried to do that one. [My husband] kept getting a message that we we didn’t have an account open prior to x date. Then he found it was a glitch, that everyone was getting this message nationwide, so then we were going to do it physically even though it said not to, but we need it.

Our biggest worry is right now we have [deferred rent], but what happens after those three months? The amount of money we would get for the store is barely going to cover rent. There’s no real estate tax, nothing for payroll. So even if we do get it, which I hope we do, it’s not enough. So that’s why I feel like I need to try different things and hopefully the collection of these things will come through and we’ll be able to survive and thrive.

Everybody copes in a very different way. I know for me, I need to move and try this and try that; it’s kind of like you’re shooting darts and maybe something hits. We’re so small, so we’re vulnerable. But we’re also big in the sense that other people depend on us. It’s not just the people who directly work with you: It’s the purveyor, the driver, the person who packs the stuff from the people where you buy produce. There are so many people in even a small company. So to me the one positive thing that happened, at least to me when I’ve gone through all of these things, is the creative thinking that happens. I’m sure the landscape is going to be very different, not just because of the economy but because people are realizing things and pivoting and that’s part of being an entrepreneur, too. But you still have to take into consideration your identity as a brand that you’ve built. How can I do something like a Mexican Seder and make it work when people know me for my ice cream? How do you tie those things together?

I haven’t been getting any sleep or time to relax. My baby still sleeps with us; we were supposed to start the process to wean him and this would be the perfect time, but having him next to me really brings me comfort in a very selfish way. And also, if I manage to get some sleep, I don’t want to be spending it sleep training. I keep meaning to go to the park to run, but we don’t have time. But I keep saying I’m going to go, or maybe we’ll do an online [exercise] class together; sometimes I use my son as a dumbbell to do some squats. He thinks it’s a game. Sometimes I manage to get a couple of hours of sleep. I think it’s because I’m just so drained. I don’t think anybody is getting much sleep these days.