By Tatyana Ekmekjian and Holly Lowzik
It is no secret that the stores of the Westfield Town Center Mall in Valencia have struggled to stay open since the start of the pandemic. Store fronts are frequently closing as “going out of business sale” signs can be spotted throughout the mall. Aside from the lack of revenue by customer purchases due to COVID-19, businesses of the mall face yearly rent increases, limiting the amount of take-home profit and making it hard to keep store doors open.
Genuine Cigars owner Kyle Saado speaks to what it is like owning a business on Town Center Drive. Saado makes clear that business before COVID-19 was fluid and stress-free, although “rent has never been reasonable, not in the mall anyways,” he said. Saado emphasized that at least “before (COVID-19), there was enough work to sustain rent.”
The cigar lounge is a place for social gathering and relaxing with friends- activities that are not COVID-friendly.
“We are more like a bar, you know? People aren’t just going to come in to buy one or two cigars, that’s unheard of. They want to come in and hang out, but they can’t,” said Saado.
As a result, overall profit has decreased by at least 50-60% at the cigar lounge, according to Saado. This transition of limiting in-person transactions has made it extremely difficult for Saado to afford rent and still take home a profit.
“Now I have to pull money out of my own pocket to sustain rent and to be able to be here,” Saado said. “With no sales and regular overhead, you have to make it work.”
Rent has not decreased as a response to the minimal business flow, but instead has been the same since March 2020 for the Genuine Cigars owner.
“I started my business seven years ago and signed my first lease for $5,500 per month. I signed my second lease just before COVID and I’m paying $7,500 per month now,” explained Saado.
For Saado, rent has inflated approximately 37% since he signed his first lease in 2014. For a small business owner, this is not something that can be taken lightly. In fact, Saado has had to take out loans in order to keep his business functioning.
Saado has negative feelings towards the Westfield Corporation.
“They want you to apply for loans and be more indebted,” Saado said. “Then your business is in debt. If you survive, you survive. If you don’t survive, you close your doors and you’re still going to be in debt.”
Saado admits he sounds pessimistic, but still finds it wrong for Westfield to continuously increase rent to chase away small businesses from the mall. Large corporations may be able to afford inflated rent and keep doors open. Small mom-and-pop locations try to withstand the ultimatums placed by the Westfield company, but are eventually left indebted with no option but to submit to Westfield.
“The big retailers have an advantage because they can pull in a lot of people, but for small businesses, it sucks,” said John Robert Cabrera, a sales associate at Macy’s in the Westfield Valencia mall.
Cabrera emphasized that the larger corporations run the economy, reflecting back to what stores are open in the mall. The frequency of purchases directly impacts businesses and whether or not they can remain open.
So how long until businesses at the mall are no longer struggling to stay afloat? It is hard to say, but Saado thinks it won’t change once restrictions lift.
“Even if they open everything up tomorrow, I don’t think people will feel comfortable going back to normal for at least eight to nine months. Just like the vaccine, a lot of people were jumping on it, but a lot of people were scared of it, too,” said Saado.
Due to the outing restrictions set in place because of the pandemic, businesses are left to cover full rent without a source of income from their customers. The small businesses of Valencia Town Center are now entirely dependent on the loyalty of their customers to help them through these tough times.
Michelle Telles, a sales associate at Pom Paperie in the mall, reiterated that her devoted shoppers have helped her through this time by supporting the store.
“I think what is helping us is a lot of loyalty from customers, and also people really do just want to support businesses right now,” Telles claims. “They want to do all they can to help each other and I think that’s really helped keep us alive at this time as well as other small businesses around the valley.”
By continuing to shop at large chain corporations during this time, locals are reinforcing the ultimatums Westfield continues to place on the small businesses that can not afford rent. CanyonsNews placed calls to Westfield Valencia’s marketing team for comment, but no information was received.
Small companies are left with no other option besides closing their doors, while the big businesses can flourish under these rent conditions. Locals of the Valencia area of greater Los Angeles County can make a difference by shopping locally at small businesses in order to help support neighbors of the community.