Just one absent worker can cripple small business


A white plastic jug simply labeled “Pedro Fund” sits on the counter at Noni’s Coffee Shop.

While the coins and bills that fill the jug is a big help to the Riverdale Avenue shop’s popular short order cook, the absence of Pedro Torres from the kitchen has had its toll on Noni’s.

It all started late last year when Torres finished his shift, and headed out the door. Minutes later, a customer ran inside Noni’s, screaming for its owner — Ruth Tzanetatos — to run outside.

There, Tzanetatos found Torres lying on the street, half-conscious, complaining his elbow felt like it was “coming off the bone.” Her cook had been hit by a car, and after surgery and physical therapy, Torres still isn’t back, leaving Tzanetatos and her small staff — including a delivery driver and a weekend part-timer — without its cook.

Tzanetatos’ duties now include “covering the waitress station, covering the cook’s station, taking the register, running the credit card, taking the phone, making the order,” she said. Her delivery person now spends more time in the coffee shop cleaning tables and giving menus to customers.


Feeling helpless

For small businesses like Noni’s, losing an employee to a long-term injury adds more strain to those left behind with expanded workloads and stress, and sometimes even a steep drop in revenue. 

Joel Maxwell, owner of Radioland TV Sales & Air Conditioning on West 236th Street, knows that all too well after his wife and business partner, Dorothy, broke her hip in July 2016.

“It was a disaster,” Maxwell said. “There was no other way to put it.”

Before her accident, Dorothy handled all the customer service and organized the store while her husband and a third person handled repairs. Dorothy ended up being out for months while she endured hospital stays, recovery time at home, and physical therapy. 

“Sometimes we had to close when two people were required for a job,” Maxwell said. If he could work alone, Maxwell always did it with his “mind half on the job and half on Dorothy and the store.”

The stress depressed Maxwell, causing him to lose 20 pounds — all the while upsetting Dorothy who felt helpless through the whole ordeal.

Radioland business dropped 50 percent, made worse by occurring in the middle of summer — the height of air-conditioning season, and their busiest time.

Some of their clients were referred to other companies during that time, and long-term, some of them haven’t returned.

“There was only one real positive outcome from this disaster,” Maxwell said. “I’ve learned that I took Dorothy for granted.” People in the neighborhood would just stop by and chat with his wife of more than 50 years, and she was the reason maybe returned year after year.


Making it work

Tzanetatos has experienced a similar drop in business since Torres has been out. She serves at least 100 meals daily, but that’s still low compared to the past 25 years Noni’s been in business. 

Replacing Torres, even temporarily, has not been easy. In fact, Tzanetatos has been through five cooks, and she has little time to train any waitresses. Torres knew how longtime customers liked their meals prepared without anyone having to tell him — it’s the kind of familiarity absent from short-term help.

“If there is delay in service, people get upset,” Tzanetatos said. “In other businesses like banking, where you might have to wait on a long line, people accept it. But if there is delay with food service, not everyone is as understanding.”

The food quality remains the same, and customers shouldn’t hesitate to come in or place orders for delivery, she said. 

“We are still here. We are still around. We are still looking forward to serving them.”


Jumping back up again

Sometimes being a down a person doesn’t always end up hurting a small business. 

That was the case for Segundo Lituma, owner of Riverdale Shoe Repair on West 235th Street. A few years ago, Lituma was hospitalized for a heart-related illness.

His wife, who had worked with him years earlier, returned to the shop, handling leather repairs, answering the phone, and keeping the store opened. Many of Lituma’s customers weren’t even aware he’d been out.

Yet, that unplanned time off still was demoralizing for Lituma, as he worried regularly about the repair shop during his recovery. 

“I’m not the type of person who takes off for some reason,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘How I can do work?’ It was stressful.”

Small businesses where illness or death affects its owner are highly likely to fail unless there is a good succession plan in place, said Angela Grotto, a business professor at Manhattan College. Taking steps like reaching out to recruitment agencies to fill gaps or contacting former employees who left in good standing are some ways to help manage the additional workload and ease some of the stress.

“Owners of small businesses tend to develop quite close relationships with their most loyal customers (and) clients,” Grotto said, adding they “could even serve as potential resources as they may be able to make referrals.”

For companies that have experienced this type of setback, the Radioland owners have some advice.

“Do the best you can,” Joel Maxwell said. 

“A lot of people understand. A lot of people are compassionate. And a lot of people will work with you.”