For Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, appearance still matters.
Cepeda-Freytiz and her husband Felix run Mi Casa Su Casa cafe in Reading, Pennsylvania. Normally bustling with everyone from office workers to high school kids, the cafe has been closed to the public by the coronavirus shutdown. Business is down 80%. Most of the cafe’s staff is furloughed. Now, Johanny and Felix are usually the only ones there to cook an occasional takeout or delivery order.
But in recent days she decided to put up new art on the walls. Felix touched up some paint. And whenever Cepeda-Freytiz, 46, picks up the phone for an order, she’s in a sharp outfit, makeup and a pair of gold hoop earrings.
“It’s a psychological thing, right?” she said. “You want to act like everything is normal, you want to look your brightest…even though that might be a facade.”
Cepeda-Freytiz is one of the countless small business owners and independent contractors across the Keystone state scrambling to find their footing during the shutdown, which Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered to continue through at least April to slow the spread of COVID-19. The unprecedented closure has forced owners and contractors to begin tapping deep emotional reserves, and seek out new financial options, to stay afloat.
Cepeda-Freytiz is looking to her past to guide her through this crisis. She left New York City and a job at a nonprofit to open the cafe in 2007 – just months before the Great Recession. The downturn hit Reading particularly hard. By 2011, the city was known as the poorest in America.
“[I had] suicidal thoughts, because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “When I recovered from that I made a vow that I would never, ever go through that again…This is why I am playing mind games with myself, because I need to stay upbeat, because I refuse to feel that way.”
So even though sales are down, the videos she posts on Facebook are upbeat, imploring her customers and friends to look for new opportunities during the crisis.
She’s working on a plan for a cafe mobile app to increase take-out orders, and is thinking about reconfiguring her kitchen so it can be rented out to caterers — whenever caters reopen.
And Cepeda-Freytiz has another reason to try and stay positive: her constituents.
The cafe owner was appointed to a seat on Reading’s City Council in January 2019. Considered a rising star in the city, she was elected in her own right last November.
People came to her for advice and help before the pandemic. They’re looking to her for guidance even more now.
“I have a huge responsibility,” Cepeda-Freytiz said. “I have to keep it together. I have to keep it strong because that’s the only way I can give people hope.”