Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was looking to get a read on how small businesses are faring Tuesday, but he got more than he bargained for in Pawtuxet Village.
Accompanied by state Sen. Joshua Miller and state Rep. Joseph McNamara, Whitehouse started at the Little Falls Cafe on Broad Street in Cranston and worked his way to the bridge. While it was mid morning and the commuter traffic had long passed through the village, Whitehouse found no lack of locals and the time to linger with business owners.
Within minutes of arriving at Little Falls, Whitehouse found he was the target of unsolicited praise from Kevin DeJesus. A social science professor at Johnson & Wales, DeJesus had stopped in for a coffee.
“Thanks for your outstanding work,” DeJesus said to the senator. Whitehouse was caught off guard, and smiled and extended his hand.
Asked what impressed him, DeJesus said Whitehouse has a grasp of “deeply complex issues in international affairs,” citing in particular Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. He said Whitehouse is a diplomat and that he demonstrates compassion and an understanding of the issues.
More provincial issues were on the minds of a clutch of women who had just sent their children off for the first day of school. Whitehouse listened to their concerns about traffic and how after some village streets were dug up to replace utilities, sidewalks and curbing had not been properly replaced. Whitehouse suggested the utility was responsible, and Miller and McNamara made notes to follow up.
One of the mothers, Mum Coffey, thought “it was nice” that Whitehouse should make the rounds of area businesses. Others he encountered thought likewise, although observing that Whitehouse does not face re-election this year, they wondered why now?
Mark Hayward, district director of the Small Business Administration, joined the entourage as it moved on to the next business, The Elephant Room. It was here that the senator gained an insight of a small business owner and the considerations that went into creating the business.
Owner Tony Lopes talked of the research that went into locating the business where he did, the help he received in developing a business plan and the $60,000 loan he was able to get from Coastway Community Bank.
He even touched on the choice of name for the business, which specializes in 50 varieties of tea and crepes.
“I have to give the credit to a cousin,” Lopes said, describing a family get-together where possible names were debated. The name seemed fitting with Lopes’ effort to create a relaxing atmosphere where people could put aside the concerns of the day.
“It’s a peaceful beast,” he said of the elephant.
The Elephant Room opened two years ago, and Whitehouse was interested to learn how it has fared and what is planned for growth.
Lopes looks to expand his evening dinner business, and recently was granted a license to sell beer and wine. As Miller and McNamara noted, that action required General Assembly approval, as the establishment is not far from a church. Before applying for the license, Lopes said he met with the church elders and outlined what he planned to do. He gained their approval and then turned to Cranston Councilman Steve Stycos.
Hayward credited Lopes for communicating what he planned to do with the neighbors.
Lopes elaborated. He said the very intent of the establishment is “for people to stop, take a breath and slow down a little bit.” This is not going to be nightclub with a raucous crowd.
Hayward noted that the SBA, SCORE and other agencies working with small businesses look to coach those starting businesses not only on how to prepare a business plan, but also on practical steps to make it work. He underscored that a recent $250,000 federal grant helps enable this kind of counseling.
Whitehouse got the message.
The senator spent two hours in the village and visited eight businesses.