Underwood touts Community Navigator Pilot Program in meetings with Kendall County small business owners

Owners of Asadoras Argentina Burgers, Erica Caballos and Kristen Stika, with Congresswoman Lauren Underwood during her latinx small business tour Thursday, Aug. 11 2022, at 4542 IL-71 in Oswego. (from left to right: Caballos, Underwood, Stika)

OSWEGO- Kristen Stika and her mother, Ericka Ceballos, opened Asadoras Argentinas Burgers at 4572 Route 71 in Oswego in September of 2019.

Ceballos is the chef, and Stika is the waitress and sous-chef. Including them, Asadoras has four employees.

While business has been great and Asadoras has even been ranked best burger in the Chicagoland area, Stika and Ceballos say their business is barely hanging on.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, toured Asadoras and two other Kendall County Latinx owned small businesses Thursday Aug. 11, to meet the owners, learn more about their needs and make them aware of local opportunities.

Underwood was promoting the SBA Community Navigator Pilot Program, which provided $100 million nationally in grant opportunities through the American Rescue Plan to community organizations to provide resources for under-served businesses.

One community organization that received funding from the CNP was the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Marisa Alcantar, the community navigator program director and member of the IHCC, also accompanied Underwood on the tour.

Part owner of Asadoras Argentina Burgers, Erica Caballos with Congresswoman Lauren Underwood and Marisa Alcantar, during a latinx small business tour Thursday, Aug. 11 2022, at 4542 IL-71 in Oswego. (from left to right: Alcantar, Caballos, Underwood)

Community navigator is a program created by under American Rescue Plan, which reaches out to small businesses, makes them aware of grants and support opportunities and helps them access assistance available to them.

Underwood said there are over 10 community navigators in the 14th Congressional District who work with small business owners in multiple languages, providing technical assistance with applications to make the business owners feel confident and comfortable.

Community Navigators like the IHCC connect under-served small businesses to federal resources, non-profit grants and loan programs, while providing step-by-step guidance through application processes.

During the tour, Alcantar introduced the Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch, which will award 11 $10,000 grants to small businesses as an example of the opportunities the IHCC can connect businesses to as a community navigator.

“It’s really clear to me that federal programs need to be more accessible to small businesses, especially those run by women and people of color,” Underwood said.

Stika said when they started, many other businesses were receiving grants and funding for COVID-19 relief, but as a new business Asadoras was not eligible for relief grants or forgivable PPP loans.

Underwood said this is where community navigators will be of use. She said based on the feedback she was getting, a lot of the under-served businesses don’t even know these programs exist.

“People need to be better connected with the resources that are available to them, to help their businesses grow,” Underwood said. “Community navigators make sure folks know how to apply and feel confident in doing so.”

Underwood said the Latinx small business tour was to meet small business owners in under-served communities of Kendall County and better understand their needs relating to the pandemic.

“We’re trying to see how their businesses are doing and how they would plan to use a community navigator’s assistance,” Underwood said.

Ceballos said inflation feels like the third wave of challenges their business has faced, after a wave of shutdowns and a wave of unemployment making workers nearly impossible to find.

Stika said when they first opened, they had eight employees, but COVID-19 shut downs caused the employees to leave. She said during the period of unemployment, big companies in the area like McDonald’s and Walmart were offering $19 per hour and more.

“We just couldn’t afford to do that,” Stika said.

Now, with inflation, the owners say they can barely afford to stay open. They have had to adjust pricing and even take items off the menu, because ingredients have gotten so expensive.

The owners of Asadoras Argentinas Burgers said federal assistance would give them the opportunity to be more flexible. Both Stika and Ceballos work 6-7 days every week.

Stika said that if they were able to receive some type of grant or assistance, they would like to use the money to hire more workers, so that she could have more time to start catering and working local events.

Underwood said much of the feedback she received on her tour was that the money would be used for appliances and investments in their businesses to allow them to grow and better serve the community.