San Diego County supervisors hit with ‘overwhelming demand’ for small business relief grants

Maxine Zepeda, owner of the Ryan Brothers Coffee shop
Maxine Zepeda, owner of the Ryan Brothers Coffee shop on University Avenue in City Heights, didn’t qualify for the county grant but found help in other relief programs.
(Howard Lipin/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“How do I divvy up these funds?” said County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar. “That’s a daunting task.”


San Diego small businesses hoping to tap into the county’s recently announced relief funds will likely face disappointment, as officials have received far more applications than they can currently fulfill.

More than 3,000 local companies have already applied for a cut of the $17 million CARES Act money set aside for small businesses suffering from COVID-19’s blow. Those applications amount to requests for over $510 million as of Friday, July 31, far surpassing the county’s pool of funds.

County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who represents business-heavy neighborhoods like University City and Torrey Pines in District 3, said her region alone amassed more than 700 applications totaling $100 million in requests. But she, like every other county supervisor, only has $3.4 million to distribute.

“It sounds like a lot of money set aside,” Gaspar said. “But when applications started rolling in, it became clear within 24 hours that the demand far surpassed the funds available.”

District 4, represented by Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, received the most applications — 925 — as of Friday, July 31, totaling nearly $138 million in requests.

Despite the outsized demand, Fletcher launched a renewed campaign this week for the grant program, encouraging minority-owned businesses to apply for the funds.

Karleen Lovett, who owns The Golden Egg Omelet House in Escondido with her husband John, said the campaign gives business owners false hope. She already applied for the loan and was disappointed days later to receive an email from Gaspar detailing just how much competition Lovett had.

“(She said) my chances are slim and even if I get it there wouldn’t be much,” Lovett said. “It’s disheartening. We’re flat out disheartened to hear all that. We understand there are so many people in need, and we’re part of that group.”

The Lovetts opened their breakfast joint 40 years ago and operated every day of the year (save Thanksgiving and Christmas) until the pandemic. Now, with sales down about 50 percent from what they were before the pandemic, the bills are mounting and the clock is ticking.

“It’s now very expensive, very inefficient to do business,” John Lovett said. “It costs us way more to operate outside than inside. We lose money every day we’re open.”

Gaspar said it was important to manage expectations in her district. She’s well acquainted with the small business owners’ plight but knew applications were piling up.

“So many business owners call me to cry, vent, or beg for a solution during these very challenging times,” Gaspar said. “But even I was surprised by the overwhelming and immediate demand.”

Despite numerous local, state and federal relief programs for small business owners, Gaspar said many have fallen through the cracks.

Maxine Zepeda, who owns the Ryan Bros. Coffee shop in City Heights, said she wanted to apply for the county’s grant program, but her business didn’t meet the criteria as she’s only been open for nine months. The rules stipulate businesses must be open for at least one year.

But Zepeda has not lost hope. Just last week, she scored a $4,000 grant from the City Heights Economic Development Collaborative, a group made up of several nonprofits. And after months and months of delays, she finally received funds from the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP). Combined, the aid programs are meaningful. They will keep her company alive.

But Zepeda has watched as other business owners on University Avenue suffer around her.

“My neighbors are struggling,” Zepeda said. “A barber is closing down for good, and the restaurant next door is struggling. They used to be busy all the time.”

Although demand may be higher than funds can currently support, San Diego County supervisors may have an opportunity to add to the pool of grant money. Next Tuesday, Aug. 4, supervisors will discuss how to allocate $48 million in additional CARES Act money available to the county in a regularly scheduled Board of Supervisors meeting.

“We haven’t made a decision yet,” Gaspar said. “We could decide to move some of those funds into small business stimulus programs.”

Members of the public can weigh in on that matter by completing a “Request to Speak” form on the county website, and participating in the meeting through teleconference.

For now, county supervisors are determining which businesses will be the lucky winners of grants. Gaspar’s district is developing a scoring system for evaluating businesses on various factors, while other districts may distribute the funds differently among qualifying applicants. The county’s deadline for distributing the grant money is Oct. 31.

—-Brittany Meiling is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune