Like pretty much everyone except the White House press secretary, I’m aware that inflation is a huge problem affecting countless Americans.
But I wanted to know what it felt like to be a small-business owner who is feeling the squeeze. On one side, with distributors charging them more for the same stuff. And on the other side, with customers angry about jacked-up prices.
That’s why I turned to Nancy Rommelmann.
You’ve probably read Nancy in Reason Magazine or The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. She's the founder of PalomaMedia and a co-host, with Sarah Hepola, of the podcast Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em. Her most recent book is “To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder.”
Nancy has many gifts, but the most significant of them all is also the one most fundamental to producing good journalism: She likes to go out into the world and talk to people. She likes to get inside strangers’ lives and empathize and relate what it’s like to be them.
On a recent jaunt through New York City and upstate New York, Nancy turned up some of those business owners and their stories. — BW
They cut hours, slashed budgets, raised prices—anything to keep their doors open. There were no extra pots of money and no more government loans. They were small-business owners, and if they’d had good years and not so good years, now they were having a very, very bad year.
On top of that, their customers thought they were price-gouging, which was laughable and infuriating at the same time.
“They’re just redirecting their anger, because I’m the only point for them,” says Hamza El Jamal, a garage and gas station owner in upstate New York. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know if you’ve watched the news anytime recently, but this isn’t exactly in my hands.’”
The people whose hands it is in? They’ve taken to finger-pointing or pretending.
A few months back, President Joe Biden blamed the Russians for our inflationary woes. “Americans’ budgets are being stretched by price increases and families are starting to feel the impacts of Putin’s price hike,” he tweeted May 10.
By early July, it was gas-station owners. “Bring down the price you are charging at the pump to reflect the cost you’re paying for the product,” the president tweeted.
Then, just a few days ago, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre shrugged off all the hand-wringing. “We are stronger economically than we have been in history,” she told reporters.
It was insulting. Americans can see for themselves the alarming dip in their 401ks, and the stock market failing to rally. They know they are paying more for less, that every trip to the gas station or the grocery store is at least $100. They know that they are not, in fact, stronger economically than ever.
I spoke with a half-dozen small-business owners about inflation and the economy and their place in it. They’d survived the pandemic and the lockdowns, but they were not sure they would survive this.
Hamza El Jamal runs two garages and four gas stations in Westchester and Northern Dutchess County, including a Mobil station in Milan, New York. “When you’re at $2 per gallon, nobody pays attention. But when you’re at $5, the customer is watching the price closely, and they notice if it goes up or down five cents,” El Jamal tells me.
El Jamal is of Palestinian descent and was born in Jordan. He was one of ten children, and he moved here with his family when he was two. This was in the 1980s. His family did everything it had to to get by. They ran some fish markets in New York City, and then they moved upstate. They thought they could make a better life there.
For a long time, they could.
But now everyone is driving less, so he’s making less. “When gas is $5 a gallon and you don’t have stimulus money, people are not going to drive to a state park or take the kids on a road trip,” he says.
Lately, El Jamal has developed a go-to line that he uses with angry customers who come in complaining that he keeps raising gas prices: “If I was making the money you thought I was making, I wouldn't be standing here listening to you right now.”
El Jamal used to work at Shell, on the corporate side, and he knows that the big companies take advantage of gas prices by hiking up their own profit margins per gallon along with the actual price at the pump. “The margins go down for us, while big oil makes a ton more,” he says.
He calls the constant price fluctuations—for gas and everyday groceries— “confusing for the customer” and says the stimulus checks, dispensed under Donald Trump and later Biden, knee-capped an already flailing economy. “It was a terrible decision,” he says. “You’re just going to print money? What do you expect is going to happen to everything else?”
It’s 8 a.m. at Gourmet Deli & General Grocery on Canal Street in Manhattan, and Hannah, who would only give me her first name, is ringing up four Modelo tallboys for one customer and two packets of the dietary supplement Emergen-C for another.
“How much is this?” asks Kristin, waving a packaged coffee cake. I usually see Kristin sleeping on the asphalt around the corner from Gourmet Deli—I live down the block and come in for cold drinks and snacks and occasionally half-and-half. This morning, she’s wearing a surprisingly unsoiled evening gown.
“Two dollars,” Hannah tells Kristin.
“I’ll take care of it,” Emergen-C says, and pays for both the coffee cake and his own haul.
“That sort of thing happens a lot,” Hannah tells me.
Hannah is a forty-something Latina with brassy auburn hair she wears in a frazzled ponytail. She’s petite, but the counter she stands behind is on a rise so she can keep an eye on things.
“Customers complain because we're charging a lot more than we used to,” she says. “What they don’t understand is we’re getting charged a lot more when we go buy the products.”
At Gourmet Deli & General Grocery, milk is $7 per gallon right now. “I mean, everything has gone up, from eggs to milk to chicken, steak,” she says. “Oftentimes, we're out of stock on certain items because we can’t find it. Then, if we do find it, we have to raise the price.”
Sometimes, Hannah says, customers slink away from the counter after she’s rung them up. “They order a sandwich and then actually leave the sandwich,” she says.
Gourmet Deli is open 24 hours, and the neighborhood can be dicey. The west side of the building is often a makeshift homeless encampment. There’s a lot of yelling and fighting, and last month someone was stabbed in the entryway.
“We get a lot of homeless. Every day there’s new ones,” says Hannah, eyeing a skittish guy loitering near the in-store ATM. The concern is not so much that he, or someone like him, might lift a bag of chips, but that he freaks out or attacks someone. On top of that, she estimates that business is down 20 percent. “It’s a really, really tough crowd here.”
Hannah keeps an eye on the guy near the ATM while ringing up a French toast to-go. “The homeless will get a little violent—they get nasty with the other customers,” she says. “I have to be a little bit stronger, or else they’ll just be all over me."
Matthew Stickle, owner of A.K. Stickle Variety Store in Rhinebeck, New York, is the only one working there on a recent Saturday afternoon.
“Right now, it's the start of the summer season. It should be a little bit busier,” he says. There’s a single customer perusing household items.
Stickle’s business has been taking it on the chin for more than two years. The pandemic delivered the first blow, and economic uncertainty has kept things unstable ever since. “I don’t know what to expect in the future,” Stickle says. “I don’t think anybody does.”
Covid restrictions forced the store to close in March 2020 for the first-time in its 75-year history. When Stickle opened three months later, it was without his staff. All of them had quit.
“It was extremely difficult,” he says. “We’re still digging out. We buy from maybe 55 different companies, so the bills didn’t stop, but our income did. It was very difficult to keep up with that.”
The lone customer brings up her purchase: a $2.90 mesh laundry bag. Stickle rings her up and asks if she’d like a bag.
“No need,” she says.
“Have a good one,” he says. He tells me his secret sauce, the only thing he can control, is to “always have a positive attitude, always thank the customers who come in, and keep doing it.”
Stickle recalls how, as soon as he was able to reopen, business was brisk. “A lot of people wanted to get out,” he says. “But then the supply chain thing hit us. We would put in $3,000 orders and maybe get $500 worth of supplies. Some are waiting until they have more business in the area to deliver to, so then we're waiting an additional month or so.” Meaning the customer coming in for the laundry bag or the pool toys or the flannel shirts often finds them out of stock, with no assurance as to when they’ll again be on the shelves.
Stickle does have one advantage over other businesses: His family owns the building. “If we had to pay rent on a space like this, we would have been out of business long ago,” he tells me.
“We just keep plugging away, you know? Just like everyone else,” he says. “Just continuing to fight for stock and get what the customers are asking for. And just try to ride this out.”
It’s the day of the local Pride parade, and outside of Roosters Home and Hardware in Pine Plains, New York, rainbow balloons tied to a lawn chair float beneath red-white-and-blue bunting. The store skews New Homesteader, with soft lighting and premium paints. (There’s another Roosters nine miles away, in Stanfordville. It looks more like a rural agricultural center, with bags of grain and pallets of seed starts.)
Jeff Como and his wife, Amy, own both Roosters. They were able to stay open during the pandemic since they were considered an essential business, and they were able to do well owing to the many people who fled the city—driving up home prices and bringing a lot of disposable income to the region.
“We pretty much cleaned up because there was nowhere else to go,” Jeff says. “We did curbside, pick-up and delivery, and the orders were constant.”
“People were home,” Amy says. “They were like, ‘I’ll fix the sink now.’”
The big problem now is their distributors keep bumping up their prices on a weekly basis. With 25,000 or so different products in the store, that creates huge logistical headaches and sometimes results in customers getting to the register and being charged more than they were expecting. “Whoever they think is gouging, it’s not the local retail store,” Jeff says. Amy adds that building materials like steel, lumber, plumbing parts and paint have seen the steepest increases.
As Jeff and Amy speak with me, they have to assure a customer that the hardware she is looking for is out of stock but should be in later in the week. She may have better luck at the Home Depot in Kingston twenty five miles away.
Jeff’s not that worried about losing customers: A lot of people don’t want to drive far because of the rising gas prices.
“I still think there’s opportunity galore, and that it’s up to the individual owners,” Jeff says. “This idea that inflation is an existential threat? Get over it. Don't blame it on everybody else. Get your butt in the seat, be a pilot, and run your business. You can land that plane.”
“You’re open? You’re open?” asks a woman with three daughters in tow. Andy Wang, who’s owned Taiwan Pork Chop House in New York City’s Chinatown for more than twenty years, shakes his head. He recently took down the window sign that read “Open 7 days a week” since he is now closed on Tuesdays. He has not been able to retain enough staff.
On a recent Tuesday, the restaurant bears a signature chockablock quality, with open cartons on the floor and tables haphazardly pushed together. Family members pass in and out. Wang, wearing Adidas sneakers and long jean shorts, speaks in English but mostly in Mandarin about what it’s like trying to stay ahead of inflation.
“We raised the prices on our menus by fifty cents, but that’s not holding us,” he says. “The cost of our supplies is extremely unstable. It does not help that some goods are coming from Thailand and Taiwan. There are hold-ups at the ports, hold-ups from distributors, hold-ups in deliveries due to gas shortages.
“Things are harder now than they ever have been. Things just don’t feel normal,” Wang says. “I used to be able to buy a case of eggs for $19. Now, the average is $65. Last week, I had to pay $85. And we don't know where the roof is. The price just keeps going up.”
Wang hands me a menu, showing “Marinated Egg, $0.50.” Paying more than four times for an item but charging the customer the same amount is unsustainable, but what can he do?
“You can't expect people to pay that much more for an egg!” he says. “And we can't just keep printing new menus.”
With his inventory bottlenecked due to transportation costs, he hopes the government can do something about gas prices and, more generally, inflation. “It has to change,” he says.
For now, he keeps doing what countless other small-business owners are doing: working hard every day, making adjustments as needed, having his family give up “any kind of pleasurable things for ourselves” and hoping it's enough to get through.
“I still believe in this country,” he says. “I still believe America is a good country.”
But he’s not blind. “We’ll never return to the way we were living before,” Wang says. “There’s so much instability, with the government but also with individuals and lifestyles and concepts and even our ideas of what life and work and eating out should be. You never know.”