Small Business Administration official visits Berks businesses

When Mark Madrid and Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz talk, it’s like they’ve known each other for years.

“Mucho gusto,” Madrid says as he embraces Cepeda-Freytiz, owner of Mi Casa Su Casa restaurant on Penn Street and a Reading city councilwoman.

It’s hard to believe that the two just met. Madrid visited Berks County Thursday as part of his duties as the associate administrator for the Office of Entrepreneurial Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration. He visited the Pennsylvania Small Business Development Center at Kutztown University, Radius Corp. in Kutztown and was now in Reading to learn about the concerns of small business owners.

“We have to have empathy,” Madrid said, “we have to have elephant ears, not hippo ears, which means we have to listen. This is about making sure we understand the terrain in Pennsylvania.”

Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, the owner of Mi Casa Su Casa, talks with Small Business Administration Associate Secretary Mark Madrid in her restaurant on Penn Street in Reading on Thursday afternoon.

Cepeda-Freytiz and Madrid had a wide-ranging conversation on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses like hers, and the ensuing supply chain crisis. Cepeda-Freytiz showed Madrid her children’s artwork, and the two traded stories about their fathers. Cepeda-Freytiz’s father is battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, but when his daughter told him to relax, he said he “didn’t want to get too comfortable.” Madrid’s father, in hospice care with COVID-19 in summer 2020, was cleaning his surroundings shortly before his death.

“As long as there’s breath and life in you,” Cepeda-Freytiz said, “you keep fighting… That’s what my dad instilled in me, that hard work, that dedication.”

Her father’s attitude helped her survive the challenges of the past 20 months, with the help of loans and support from the SBA’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund and the Kutztown SBDC.

“If we didn’t have that ongoing consistent support from these entities,” Cepeda-Freytiz said, referring to the SBA and SBDC, Mi Casa Su Casa wouldn’t be here today.

“This is the most genuine group of people you will ever meet,” she said. “This is not just a job for them, they’re really about serving our community, serving small businesses. They’re always a phone call away.”

This isn’t the first challenge that Mi Casa Su Casa has faced. Cepeda-Freytiz called the Great Recession of 2008 a “COVID boot camp.”

“I kid you not, I thought I was gonna jump off the bridge,” she said. “It was that bad. I was always crying on the phone with my mortgage. When this funding came in, I was like ‘Thank you Jesus!’”

Madrid likes to say that his business is small business. During the meeting at Mi Casa Su Casa, he praised President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, saying that it would help small businesses. He also touted the SBA’s Community Navigator Pilot Program (CNPP). Connected with the American Rescue Plan, the $100 million program is “hyper local,” Madrid said, “to help us reach the smallest of the small.”

Rural Berks County reminds Madrid of his homeland in the Texas panhandle, “where the cattle outnumbered the people.” (“That’s why I’m wearing these boots,” he said, pointing to his cowboy boots.)

Madrid is interested in the growth of entrepreneurs in rural areas.

“We’re making sure that we build digital resources together,” he said, “because this ecosystem is so diverse.”

The pandemic has created a new crop of local entrepreneurs working from home, and Cepeda-Freytiz wants to give them the tools to succeed.

“We’re all part of this extended family,” she said, “it’s like one big neighborhood. We have to look out for each other. It’s like a win-win.”

She was so excited by Madrid’s visit, she got fresh flowers ready.

“It reminds me that you’re running a business and that things every second of every day are happening,” he said. “And that’s beautiful.”