MUSKEGON — Despite initially struggling to access COVID-19 relief funding, Ana Olson has kept Los Amigos Mexican Bar & Grill open with takeout orders throughout the entire pandemic.
The Muskegon restaurant’s dine-in service shut down on March 16 because of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter in place mandate and reopened June 8. The restaurant at 1848 E. Sherman Blvd. pivoted to a family-style takeout menu and started serving up its popular margaritas to-go. And while Olson had to temporarily lay off most of her staff when dine-in services were closed — a reduction from 33 employees to four — most have been called back as limited dine-in services resumed.
“We created a menu to do community-style meals so you’re not breaking the bank,” Olson said. “It helps us keep people coming back. If they want to take a break from cooking, they can get tacos from Los Amigos and it is still affordable.”
While her business has survived the pandemic, Olson said accessing small business loan and grant funding programs has been a challenge.
Additionally, while Muskegon’s city manager purchased nearly $200,000 worth of gift cards from local restaurants to support them during the pandemic, the initiative did not include outreach to Olson or two Chinese restaurants. The city’s attorney is in the process of investigating the gift card purchase with use of government funds, according to Muskegon City Commission meeting minutes.
“It’s been difficult to not get overwhelmed,” Olson said. “(The city) left me out and they left out two other minority-owned businesses.”
Despite this, Olson has partnered with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to get help filling out loan and grant applications. Los Amigos was also able to secure a $10,000 loan from Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW), which has been working with the Community Foundation for Muskegon County to provide business owners recovery and working capital loans.
“As someone who had never dealt with applying for a loan before, it was scary to first look at the application, but GROW addressed all of my worries,” Olson said. “Being both a female and a minority, it’s so reassuring to know there’s a group like GROW to help us. Because of them, I was able to secure funding and improve my business in these uncertain times.”
The GROW funds are “critical” to help businesses like Los Amigos, said GROW CEO Bonnie Nawara. Even when businesses had to close because of the executive order, expenses like rent, insurance and other items continue to rack up, Nawara said.
Olson was born and raised in Mexico, and came to the United States in 2006. She came to Muskegon in 2012 when she started helping her brother manage Los Amigos, an authentic from-scratch Mexican restaurant. They were able to buy the restaurant in 2015. Olson also serves on the board of directors for Latinos Working For the Future, a nonprofit organization seeking to unify and organize the growing Latinx population in the greater Muskegon area.
Los Amigos frequently partners with local nonprofits for fundraisers and supports local groups, Olson said.
When the pandemic hit, Olson said the restaurant wanted to make sure area children were still getting enough food as many families faced difficult financial times.
“There were a lot of families that weren’t able to get any help because they didn’t qualify for unemployment or weren’t able to get CARES Act money from the federal government,” Olson said.
Los Amigos was giving out free kids meals to families at the beginning of the pandemic, and the business now donates to Kids’ Food Basket.
“We have a for-profit business, I’m here to make money, but I’m always looking for ways to help our community, especially the ones that rarely get help,” Olson said. “If someone comes and spends money with us, they’ll get delicious food. But at the same time, we’re involved in our community.”
With dine-in now back open at 50-percent capacity, Olson has been able to call back her staff. About 10 employees chose not to return because they were taking care of a loved one or were in a high-risk group for getting COVID-19, Olson said, so she is now hiring new employees.
“Business is down from where it should be, but we are able to make the bills and we are not in the red,” Olson said. “We are very grateful.”