Damaris Pimentel, owner of Ultra Beauty Salon, colors Rose Moorachian's hair. November 2014. Credit: Esther Ro
Running a small business is no easy task. Just ask longtime Jamaica Plain entrepreneurs Damaris Pimentel and Patria Valenzuela.
The two business pioneers face the challenge of thriving in the midst of a gentrifying neighborhood.
Alison Moronta, the business development director at Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, has been advising them and other local business owners about how to succeed as JP's demographics change.
“Business owners must learn to adapt and bring in new services to adapt for newcomers," Moronta said. "They must go through a period of learning, especially because every change they make will cost money. They have to be very particular about what they change to stay true to their businesses.”
Though they've altered how they run their business — including increasing each store's aesthetic appeal — they are met with other hurdles.
Demographic & Socioeconomic Change
Damaris Pimentel is the owner of Ultra Beauty Salon at 401 Centre St. She has been the owner since it opened in 1982 as Brenda’s Beauty Salon. Since then, Ultra has called Centre Street its home but has had three different locations.
Ultra’s efforts to serve the community go as far back as 1998.
“We saw that our salon was too small and too localized, only serving Latin customers. When we saw the change, we decided to change location in 1998. Then in 2007 we had to renovate and saw another wave of change,” said Pimentel.
In 2007, a car accident that injured six people occurred directly outside their current location and forced them to renovate the salon. Pimentel took this as an opportunity to give her salon “a new face,” because she felt it was time.
Pimentel says part of this adjustment business owners must undergo requires observing old and new customers, and providing adequate service with the right attitude.
In her experience, customers come in and ask why she doesn’t charge more for the salon’s services. The answer lies in the balance she must keep–some customers pay $60 for a men’s haircut with ease while others cannot pay more than $30.
But her efforts to keep a fair balance for all go a long way. Some customers, she said, will tip her an extra $20.
'Hoping the Future Comes Soon'
Just 56 feet away from Ultra Beauty Salon stands Sonia of Boston.
Patria Valenzuela bought the business from a woman named Sonia 26 years ago and honored its original name. The business is now located on 351 Centre St.
Their clientele is made up of mostly Latinos coming from JP, Connecticut and New York. Customers have even flown in from Central America.
Valenzuela was on the verge of closing her store three years ago when a wave of change urged her and her daughter-in-law, Saire Jimenez, to revamp the business.
Jimenez took charge; she redesigned the interior and brought in new technology. Demographic change in JP hasn't been the only hurdle. There's also competition from the Internet.
The store specializes in “quinceañeras,” the Hispanic version of a Sweet Sixteen for 15-year-olds. The demographic shift has meant that less is needed from the full-service bridal and quinceañera store.
The duo experienced a successful first year post-renovation, but the following two years proved to be doozies.
For Valenzuela, the business is more than a means to an end. It's her dream come true.
We sat in a back corner of her modernized store and talked about the business for an hour. As her story progressed I could tell she was holding back the emotions she wanted to pour out.
As a topic became emotionally tough to speak about, she sat up straight, fiddled with her hands on her lap and tried to put on a straight face. She's strong but she's also human.
“Here we don’t earn anything. Here we’re seeing that there is a future, trying to survive and hoping that that future comes soon. It costs us a lot. It’s difficult,” said Valenzuela, fighting back tears.
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Tremendous Strides for Maid Service
But while some experience setbacks, others experience success.
Tremendous Maid, a residential and commercial space cleaning service based in Jamaica Plain, takes on the same circumstances with different results.
Sisters Victoria Amador and Nisuary Tejeda opened Tremendous Maid with their mother Rosa Tejeda almost four years ago.
They have adapted by taking advantage of the market and adding a commercial division to the business a year ago.
The nature of their small business attracts a variety of clients expanding further than JP, but a bit has changed over the years.
Now that JP houses a substantive mix of low and high-income families, Tremendous Maid is receiving more and more clients from the JP area. Their move from Canton to JP also helped.
"We have a high-end appeal and our customers understand that. We have the reputation of providing high-end service, so we get more high-income clients," said Amador.
Cost of Operation
Gentrification has increased the cost of living, no doubt. Businesses have seen increases in rent and a need for innovative, inviting storefronts. Unrelated to that but still an issue is the increase in utilities, supplies and machinery.
Pimentel said there was a 25 percent rise in electricity three years ago and now there's talk about a 29 percent increase. Combining increased costs worsens the situation.
"In the past few years we’ve been faced with paying more for rent and utilities with a combination of higher costs to operate daily. That would be fine if we were still receiving the same kind of income but we’re not,” said Pimentel.
Pimentel said rent has increased 50 percent in the past five years. She said she was not willing to provide a specific number due to policy.
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If Valenzuela had not bought the building her store calls home years ago, her store would have closed by now because costs are through the roof and profit isn’t flowing her way, she said.
The way these business owners have measured their success is not by only evaluating the present.
For Valenzuela, her success is measured by years of desire.
“I love this business. It was my dream since I was a little girl. Even though it took me a long time to get here, I made it,” she said, this time with a smile on her face.
Both businesses have welcomed customers for more than 25 years.
An incomplete study started in 2011 revealed that the average life span of small businesses in the Hyde/Jackson area is 19 years plus. Peg Barringer started the study in collaboration with Hyde Jackson Main Street's Economic Restructuring Committee, but the study was not completed for reasons out of her control.
“The fact that our business has been standing for 32 years is already enough of a success for me,” said Pimentel.
Pimentel also attributes her salon’s success to its diversity. She says that Ultra complements the community because it attracts customers from different nationalities and economic backgrounds.
"The businesses that won't adapt won't see if it's worth the investment. I hope it is," said Amador, who is also a part of the Hyde Jackson Business Association.
A Hopeful Future
Despite increases in cost, owners remain hopeful about a better future for their businesses.
“The future of Jamaica Plain isn’t today or tomorrow–it’s in a couple of years. We all see that future but operating like this, how we are now, is tough,” said Valenzuela.
Pimentel also envisions a more fruitful future. She says that community members should work together rather than individually for everyone’s benefit and to also preserve the community’s ‘sabor Latino,’ or Latin spice.
For now, the focus is on the present.
"Most people won't adapt because they're afraid of change. If that's the case, they won't be able to make it unfortunately. With all the changes in JP, change is necessary in order to stay in the area," said Amador.
Small business supporters realize working with small businesses is not simple. It “requires power, great partnership and finding cheaper resources. “
So the only way to get out of this pitfall is to hold on tight and fight to survive.
As we wrapped up our interview, Valenzuela shook it off and stood up to show me around. She walked to the center of the store, put on a smile and spread out her arms. She said, "I don't know for how much longer but this is my store. Take a look at all the dresses. Snap some pictures if you'd like."
Valenzuela savors her pockets of triumph even in moments of distress.