Joe Epstein: The Demise of Small Business

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Small businesses are rapidly closing or barely hanging on in San Francisco, and Joe Epstein warns that without help their demise will change the character of the city.

Running a small business in San Francisco has never been easy. I should know, because I own one. Almost half of all commercial enterprises in San Francisco are designated as small businesses. The city may seem large, but it’s really a collection of quirky little villages like North Beach, the Haight and Chinatown. My deep concern is that the COVID pandemic may significantly alter this landscape.

Since sheltering in place, my new weekly routine has brought this home for me. I often stop at my laundry, a small hole in the wall on Taylor Street and am greeted by the owner and her daughter, a college student who works every day helping her mother making ends meet. Last week, she told me they were closing. She thanked me for my support. I also stop at the small café next door for a cup of coffee. A CLOSED sign was prominently displayed on the door.

Sadly, nearly 50% of San Francisco eateries have closed within the last four months, and those owned by minorities and women are disproportionately affected. The closing of my neighborhood laundry and café felt like a kick in my gut, with a far greater impact on me than the bankruptcy of Union Square icons Neiman-Marcus and Brooks Brothers.

My own business, a small steel brokerage company, has undergone a sea change too. My three colleagues and I no longer work in real time. Instead, we must now balance our responsibilities by working remotely. Mine is a personal business based on relationships and collegiality. Zoom cannot replace the energy and creativity we generate at the office. I place great value on this face-to-face interaction and it's difficult to imagine a different work dynamic in order for our business to survive.


I am managing to keep my business afloat, and am trying to remain an optimist during this pandemic. But I fear for the small, neighborhood businesses like my laundry and coffee shop, which provide the real spirit of the city. Unless our government can provide immediate and real help for the dire needs of San Francisco’s small business owners, we will be experiencing a vastly different business environment once this pandemic is over.

With a Perspective, I am Joe Epstein.

Joe Epstein is a past president of the Commonwealth Club.