June 21, 2021

‘There is no new normal’: Worcester small business owner pivoted during COVID-19 and expects only more change after pandemic

It took about eight minutes for the bank to reject Natalie Rodriguez’s application for a…

It took about eight minutes for the bank to reject Natalie Rodriguez’s application for a loan through the Small Business Administration.

Rodriguez opened Nuestra, a Puerto Rican inspired restaurant in Worcester, in January of 2020. When COVID-19 arrived months later she discovered Nuestra wasn’t eligible for the federal or state funding that thousands of other establishments received.

To qualify, restaurants were required to show payroll and salary for years before 2020. Those figures didn’t exist for a restaurant that weren’t open in 2019.

“[I was] determined and knew that ‘no’ is not an OK answer,” Rodriguez said. “A door may close but you may need to kick down another door.”

Rodriguez then applied for conventional loans only to be led to more closed doors. Less than 10 minutes after applying for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, she received notice that her poor credit score resulted in her application being denied.

Rodriguez used the dead end with the SBA to create a new path for herself and Nuestra.

She not only learned how to improve her credit but wanted to ensure others didn’t have to follow her journey as an entrepreneur.

Rodriguez extended the “Nuestra” brand to include financial advising. She started Nuestra Financial in April of 2020.

“Now I’m helping others. I’ve been able to restore my credit,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been able to help others restore their credit and be able to help them make a business themselves if they so choose. I’ve been able to survive.”

Without grants and other funding, Rodriguez managed to keep her restaurant open through funds generated from Nuestra Financial.

“I was very quiet about it in the beginning. I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Oh look at this girl, she just opened a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic,’ and talk smack,” Rodriguez said. “About a month or two later, a light bulb hit and I was like, nobody pays my bills but me. I needed to mind my own business and not worry about what other people thought.”

In creating Nuestra Financial, Rodriguez said she’s helped Worcester residents restore their credit and purchase new vehicles and homes.

Rodriguez said financial literacy is rarely taught to children in school and wasn’t something she learned. When a situation arises like a rejection notice for an economic disaster loan, many don’t know how to respond or where to find answers.

Rodriguez said she’s helped young and old people, along with those who have bad credit or no credit.

“We lack the confidence, including myself, because we weren’t taught,” Rodriguez said. “So if you don’t know something, you weren’t taught, you’re not going to be confident about it.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Rodriguez remains confident about both her businesses. Nuestra, the restaurant, while closed for daily service continues to provide catering services. Rodriguez is still preparing what the future holds for the restaurant but plans to announce an update soon.

As masks start to become less a part of daily routines, Rodriguez, as a small business owner, doesn’t envision many differences from this year to last.

So many aspects of life remain uncertain from rising food costs to a potential third booster for vaccines and whether the country will ever reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

The pandemic arrived with Rodriguez immediately pivoting. As it approaches its potential end, Rodriguez will continue to do what helped her to navigate it.

“I feel like there is no new normal just yet,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’re all just trying to adjust and pivot at the same time and getting creative. I think it’s where we all are.”

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