Tag Archive | "Business"

Last Post Office In Morrisania Under Threat, Bronx Times

The United States Postal Service is considering closing the last post office in Morrisania, reports The Bronx Times. The post office, located at 167th Street between Washington and Webster avenues, is one of 33 in the city being considered for closure. Half of the offices under threat are in the Bronx. Morrisania residents would have to walk 10 blocks to the next nearest office on 174th Street and Third Avenue if the closure goes through.

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When times are tough, it’s goodbye to gold

Attracting gold sellers in the Bronx

Attracting gold sellers in the Bronx Photo: David P. Alexander

Stores usually sell goods, not buy them. But on Southern Boulevard in Hunts Point, commerce is a two-way street. Almost every other storefront window bears a sign declaring, “We Buy Gold.” As the effects of the recession continue, more and more residents of the South Bronx are looking to part with gold jewelry – often precious keepsakes that they’ve treasured for years. With the price of gold rising to $1,395 an ounce, the temptation to sell is strong and local business owners see a new opportunity. “Yes it hurts, it’s hard to get rid of something you really love,” said Longwood resident Evelyn Sanchez , as she shopped on Westchester Avenue. In 2008, Sanchez lost her job of 20 years as a teacher in a special education school. With no health insurance and no work, Sanchez, who suffers from scoliosis, did not have enough money to pay for her treatment. In need of quick cash, she decided to sell a pair of 10-karat gold earrings that were a birthday present from her sister. “I don’t like to give things away, especially if it is a gift from a loved one,” said Sanchez. But she knows she is not the only one looking for sources of extra money. “I see a lot of people selling these days,” she said. With an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, one of the highest in the nation, Bronx residents like Sanchez are doing whatever they can to get by. In an uncertain economy, gold jewelry is increasingly viewed as an unnecessary commodity in lower income neighborhoods such as Hunts Point and Longwood. In the past, residents might have been buyers – looking for Christmas presents for loved ones. Now, they have become sellers, seduced by the appeal of quick cash. “We usually buy more than $500 of gold a day,” said Lisa Alvarez, 21, a Longwood resident originally from the Dominican Republic. Alvarez rents space in a cell phone store. Her “office” consists of a podium with a scale for weighing gold, a file, and small plastic bottles of solution, which she uses to determine the the amount of karats of the gold she is buying.
Recently purchased jewelry

Recently purchased jewelry Photo: David P. Alexander

Alvarez and her partner Angel, who prefers to go by his first name, stand outside of the store handing out cards, and hoping to attract potential sellers. “It’s because of the neighborhood, people need money right now,” said Alvarez. Also a native of the Dominican Republic, Angel wears a sign on his chest stating, “We buy gold.” He switches back and forth between Spanish and English as people walk past him on the street. A Puerto Rican women walks by, and Angel says to her, “Compramos oro.” A black man walks by and he switches to English, “Ay, we buy gold we buy gold.” Angel lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend and her family. He makes $50 a day, under the table. Because Alvarez is in charge of determining the value of the gold they buy, she earns more: around $70 to 100 a day, all cash. Inside the store, Alvarez scrapes a recently purchased gold ring with her file. She then places a few drops of a clear liquid solution on a small flat stone where she has rubbed the ring. The gold’s reaction confirms its value. “A lot of the time you will scrape it with the file and underneath it’s like silver or something else,” said Alvarez. “Most of the Africans and Indians come in with 22- and 24- karat pieces.” “But most people in the neighborhood, like the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans come in with 14- and 18-karat pieces.” If the gold passes Alvarez’s test, she buys it on the spot, handing over cash. Her boss John, who would not give his full name, is a Palestinian businessman. He says he has identical operations spread throughout the Bronx, with the head office based out of his clothing store “Underground” on Southern Boulevard. John employs 40 people in teams of two, at 20 different locations in the Bronx. The teams work six days a week, from 11 in the morning until 7 at night, pulling gold out of the Bronx as cheaply as possible. Imal, John’s cousin who also preferred not to use his full name, says that as sales at the clothing store went down, his family started exploring other options. “We started selling shoes, hookahs, anything.” Imal is new to buying gold, but says that businesses like his are being forced to think creatively in order to stay afloat. As for the gold itself, “If it works, it works,” said Imal as he smoked a cigarette in front of the clothing store. “ If not, then I will leave it alone.” Before the recession, jewelry stores were the primary buyers of gold in the area. Now, independent gold buyers are moving in and capitalizing on the public’s willingness to trade their gold for cash. Gary Pinero, the manager of Golden Dreams Jewelry, a jewelry store on Southern Boulevard, and feels that independent buyers like John and Imal mislead people on the street. “A lot of people don’t know the value of the gold,” Pinero said through the thick plastic window separating him from his customers. “The only reason they sell is because they hear now is the best time to sell, or because finances are tough.” But he thinks the sellers should be wary of buyers. “They take advantage of those people.” When Pinero started buying and selling gold 15 years ago, it went for $275 an ounce. It’s now $1,396. For many Bronx residents, the decision to sell gold is an easy one. This was the case for Libby Perez, a middle-aged Bronx resident who has sold many pieces of gold jewelry in the past. “I sell gold that I am not going to use,” said Perez nonchalantly. “I prefer the money especially because I am not doing anything with the gold.” The decision to part with his gold assets was more difficult for Terry Kaine, a 23-year-old father, originally from Virginia. “Regret would be the proper word to use,” said Kaine as he sold cologne out of a briefcase on Southern Boulevard. Kaine spoke somberly about a gold necklace that he sold in Virginia when he was only 15. “I wish I hadn’t sold it, so I could pass it on to the next generation. I have a two year-old daughter, and I would have liked to give it to her.” Karina Minaya, a 19-year-old store clerk was attracted to the idea of quick cash for her gold jewelry. “I wasn’t doing nothing with it,” Minaya said about a ring given to her by her grandmother. Minaya said the ring didn’t even fit. “It’s always a good time to sell gold if you are not using it.” But is it really a good time to sell? Donald Davis, a Columbia University economics professor, says the gold market is tricky. “Anyone who tells you they know where the price of gold is going is a fool or a shill,” said Davis. Davis cites the 12.5 unemployment rate in the Bronx as another strong reason people opt to sell their gold. “Gold sales may also be driven by desperation. If we had a crystal ball that told us where the economy will go, then we would have a much better guess about where the price of gold will go. But we don't.” But on the street, all that really matters is getting cash when you need it. For gold buyers such as Imal, a high price per ounce on gold means more business. For gold sellers like Sanchez, it ultimately means getting out of a tight situation. Fortunately, she is now getting disability payments from Social Security, which means she has enough money to pay for her scoliosis medicine without having to sell any more jewelry. At least for now.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern BronxComments (0)

Incubating new businesses in Hunts Point

A rendering of the Sunshine Bronx reception area. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Suites

A rendering of the Sunshine Bronx reception area. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Suites

When Clarisel Gonzalez decided to expand her Mott Haven home-based new media business for journalists and local artists, she knew her hardest task would be finding office space she could afford. Then, on Nov. 3, Gonzalez discovered Sunshine Bronx, a new city-funded venture that aims to provide affordable office space for 400 local entrepreneurs in Hunts Point’s newly renovated BankNote building. The program offers offices and desks for rent in the historic site, as well as on-site mentorship from successful business-owners to help fledgling new businesses in the Bronx build momentum. Within five days of the ground breaking, Gonzalez became one of 60 applicants vying for space in the refurbished building which should be fully functional by February 2011. Cheni Yerushalmi, Sunshine Suites co-founder, said the response was “overwhelming but not surprising” due to what he sees as a lack of new business opportunities in the Bronx. “People are hungry to be their own boss,” Gonzalez said. Yerushalmi will take an active role in overseeing the activities and progress of the new Bronx “Shiners.”  A wide range of events and seminars will provide tenants with face-to-face access to veteran “Shiners” from Sunshine Suites’ offices in Tribeca and NoHo and give the rookie entrepreneurs opportunities to connect with successful Sunshine alumni and faculty members from Baruch College. Entrepreneurs are enticed by the opportunity to expand their space and ingenuity. “I was drawn to Sunshine Bronx because if its location and because I really want to get my business out of my home and into an office,” Gonzalez said. “I also really enjoy the idea of networking opportunities because that’s what most of my business is about. It’s nice to have local support.” Sunshine Bronx is the first business incubator in the borough, joining six others across the city since 2008. The incubator received a $250,000 grant from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, as did the other Sunshine Suites incubators. “More than 15,000 new businesses were established in the Bronx in 2008,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the ground breaking. “We’re creating the Bronx business incubator to build on that momentum.” With the help of Sunshine Bronx, Gonzalez aims to take her business from the pixelated computer screen and into real life, which is one of the aims of Sunshine Bronx. The city began sponsoring the for-profit Sunshine Suites project ten years ago in other boroughs, as a way of boosting the local economy. Many of the businesses cultivated in the Manhattan incubators have gone on to make millions and send workers back to mentor new business owners. Adobe, the creative computer program master, spent time in Sunshine Suites incubators as a start-up business. Yerushalmi said that the Bronx was a natural choice for the next incubator, one of three that the city hopes to set up by the end of 2011.
A rendering of the Sunshine Bronx conference room. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Suites

A rendering of the Sunshine Bronx conference room. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Suites

“There’s 1.3 million people in the Bronx, but there’s a severe lack of resources for those who want to start their own businesses,” Yerushalmi said. “Sunshine has a great track record and with the help of Taconic Investment Partners, a Manhattan based real estate developer, we’ve been able to bring a great resource to the Bronx.” In January 2008, Taconic Investment Management bought the historic BankNote building for $35 million from The Blauner family, which had owned it since the American Bank Note Co. left in 1985.  Taconic said its aim was to rent out space in the building that once printed currency and postage stamps to local community and arts organizations. Taconic Invesment Management signed a 10-year, low, rent-controlled lease with Sunshine. Yerushalmi expects the 11,000-square-foot space to be self-sustaining within three years by renting out 180 work stations which are split between desks and co-working space for freelancers. Permanent desks rent for $295 a month while co-working stations go for $195 per month. Sunshine Suites does background checks on all potential renters. Those who have criminal records are not offered space, but other than that there are no other renting requirements. Gonzalez is looking into obtaining a permanent desk as a way to get out of her home and connect with more local entrepreneurs. “It’s such a great opportunity,” she said. “As soon as I heard about it I had to find out more.” Cake Apparel Co. and Internet-based organic clothing company also expressed in moving in. Lorin Jones, the company’s marketing representative, said she was searching on Google for shared office space when she stumbled across a press release for Sunshine Bronx. “It looked like a great opportunity and I liked the location,” Jones said. Jones isn’t sure if she’s going to use the space. “I haven’t decided if we’re going to rent yet but it looks like a great way to take our business offline.” Cake Apparel has a large following in New York, Boston and Maryland and is based around the business model that organic clothing can be colorful and fun. Yerushalmi said the biggest draw to these sites isn’t the cheap space, it’s the mentorship and networking opportunities, which is the aspect that most heavily drew Jones and Gonzalez. “Networking is very important to any business,” Yerushalmi said. “ And with Sunshine no one has to stay home with their cat.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern BronxComments (1)

Take the cannoli — with a heavy dollop of family tradition

Anthony Artuso Sr. may have cannoli and entrepreneurship in his genes. The Belmont native and one-time aspiring aeronautical engineer recalls scrubbing pots and pans at his father’s pastry shop when he was 13 years old. His father, Vincent Sr., bought the pastry shop for approximately $12,000 in 1946 after returning home from World War II.
Anthony Artuso Sr., in the back of his pastry shop, next to chocolate-dipped cannoli shells. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Anthony Artuso Sr., in the back of his pastry shop, next to chocolate-dipped cannoli shells. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Now Artuso, 63, and two of his children, Anthony Jr. and Concetta, have transformed the shop’s retail and wholesale locations into multi-million-dollar pastry powerhouses. According to Artuso, he sells over nine million cannoli a year, and in 2009, the wholesale location alone made nearly $6 million in sales. His current clients include Whole Foods, Hyatt and the New York Yankees. Artuso and his brother Joseph operate the retail store on the corner of Vincent F. Artuso Sr. Way and Cambreleng Avenue. Assemblyman José Rivera named a section of East 187th Street after Artuso’s father to honor his dedication and success in the pastry business, a legacy the Artuso family strives to continue every day. When Artuso comes to work, he sports polished shoes, slacks with a crease, a cell phone above his right hip and an eye for detail. “That tag on those cookies is falling down,” he said to one of his employees standing behind the glass display case. “See if you can straighten that out.” Artuso may be meticulous, but he remains well-liked and respected by his employees, some of whom have worked for him for many years. “He’s a good business man,” said Amanda Rivera, who works behind the counter at Artuso’s retail store. “He’s always telling us that we have to stay focused on the customers.” Artuso’s interest in customer service is not new. Even as a teenager when he was working for his father, Artuso was interested in recruiting new customers, keeping existing ones and expanding the family business. Artuso never really considered himself a first-class baker. He was always more of a helper, he said, an experience that he believes helped shape the man he is today. “In those days when you worked with old-time Italian bakers, they were very rough especially if you were the boss’s son,” said Artuso of his teenage years at his father’s shop. “They [old-time bakers] used to say go to the hardware store and get a gallon of pigeon milk; tell me to go out and get a bucket of steam. I guess it made a man out of you. If you managed to survive, you became a better person.” Years later, when Artuso became the boss, his children worked for him and also took away many life lessons. “I’ve really learned a great sense of business from my father,” said Artuso’s daughter Concetta, who operates the wholesale location in Mount Vernon with her brother. “My father taught me how to think like a customer and how to be sensitive to their issues.” Artuso did not acquire his clever business sense by accident. When he was growing up, Artuso would spend such long hours working that his mother would make Sunday dinner in the back of the pastry shop. When Artuso was nine years old, he would go to the liquor store located across the street from the shop to buy beer and wine for dinner. The employees at the liquor store would sell him liquor, even though they knew he was underage, because they knew his father. When Artuso returned to the shop, he and his family would sit down to eat macaroni and meatballs with tomato sauce, at the same marble table they used to prepare cakes on previous days. Today, if he had the choice to have one plate of any food in the world, Artuso said it would be his mother’s homemade bolognese gravy with rigatoni. When customers enter Artuso’s pastry shop, they are treated like members of his family. “The Artuso family is not only the finest bakery in the world but the finest family in New York City,” said Thomas Leigh, who stopped into the shop to show Artuso a picture of his son in the newspaper. “There’s no soup kitchen nearby; they come here and the Artusos feed them. We’re talking about the work of Jesus Christ.” Over the years, Artuso has hired hundreds of employees from the local community in his attempt to help residents secure and maintain jobs. He has also donated gift certificates and cakes to charitable organizations and helped put underserved people in contact with landlords. The Belmont community was not always like it is today, he explained. He says it hit rock bottom in the 1990s before a revival. Sales increased and crime in the neighborhood went down. He attributed the revival in part to local attractions like the Bronx Zoo, Fordham University and the New York Botanical Garden. “We’re opening up another retail location and trying to expand the wholesale business,” said Artuso. “If my father knew about all this expansion, he would be smiling right now.”

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Put Some Cork in it!

Put Some Cork in it!

With Ken Bollella, all discussions, from the Yankees to the weather, lead back to one subject: cork. Bollella, the owner of Globus Cork, a flooring factory in the South Bronx, is cork’s biggest booster, and quick to recite a litany of its uses, from sandals to the space shuttle – it’s used as a heat shield in the rocket boosters, according to NASA. It’s also found in gaskets, baseball cores, platform shoes, shuttlecocks and bedding for pet lizards. Seated on a stool, with long black hair, reading glasses, and a long-sleeve T-shirt, the heavyset 58-year-old entrepreneur looks more like an aging drummer than the cork impresario who heads “the premier U.S. manufacturer of colored cork tiles,” as his website proclaims. He sells cork in 38 colors, and judging by the paint cans strewn across his desk, is concocting more. Bollella laid out his vision while burning through cigarettes wrapped with a cork-colored filter. As Bollella sees it, cork’s time has come.
Fifteen years ago, Ken Bollella wondered, why isnt cork flooring colored? He now heads Globus Cork, a colored cork factory in the Bronx, and told the Ink, Nobodys ever done what I do..  (Sam Fellman/The Bronx Ink)

Fifteen years ago, Ken Bollella wondered, why does cork tiling only come in beige? Bollella, who now heads a cork painting factory, says, "Nobody's ever done what I do." (Sam Fellman/The Bronx Ink)

Cork, in his estimation, may be the perfect material: light, durable, quiet under foot, resistant to insects and fire, good insulation, and easy on the feet. Bollella, who suffers from severe sciatica, said he can stand on it for hours. And it’s environmentally sustainable. Cork comes from the bark of cork oak trees grown predominantly in Spain and Portugal. Wine corks are punched out of the bark, with the excess processed into cork sheets. Bollella once made a pilgrimage to a Portuguese forest and watched lumberjacks shear off the bark with axes. Afterward, he touched one of the skinned trees. “It feels like elephant skin – amazing,” he said with a touch of reverence in his thick Bronxese. Everything can be corked. Take the yoga mat – wouldn’t that be better with cork? Bollella rummaged behind some boxes and pulled out a large spool, spun with thin cork, the raw material for Korq Yoga and Pilates Mats, based in Brooklyn. Music, not cork, was Bollella’s original muse. After growing up in Washington Heights, Bollella studied liberal arts at Manhattan Community College, but his main focus was rock guitar. When a rock career didn’t pan out after the better part of a decade, he learned carpentry – “Something had to pay the bills; rock 'n' roll wasn’t,” he said – and eventually wound up in flooring. His cork odyssey began in 1995, when he owned a flooring shop in Manhattan, which sold cork tiles – brown, square, straight-edged and to his mind, boring. So he started dabbling with colors and designs in his apartment. By 2001, when he closed his store, he was ready to launch a colored-cork factory. To drum up business for his launch, he fixed up his Manhattan apartment with a cork floor of brown mahogany (“Scotchwood,” as he named it) tiles in a herringbone layout, and hosted a wine and cheese party. “I even got dressed in a suit. I hate suits,” Bollella said. Then the guests began to arrive. Many couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “People would stare at the floor and say, ‘That’s not cork!’” Bollella said. “Trust me, it’s cork,” he would reply. At first, no one recognized colored cork. Especially not the competition. At that point, big manufacturers like the Portuguese company Amorim still sold cork tiles exclusively au naturel with a wax finish; in appearance, their products seemed unchanged since cork flooring was invented more than a century ago. So when Bollella’s colored tile hit the market in 2001, it baffled his competitors, who either saw him as a Young Turk or a small-time kook. They even mocked the name of his company – Globus, a combination of the words global and U.S., which Bollella dreamed up over a vodka martini. “Nobody’s ever done what I do,” Bollella mused for a second, while recalling those heady days. “In the beginning, it’s like I’m sitting on top of a goldmine, without a pick or a shovel.” Globus Cork opened in 2001, when he rented a large basement on East 136th Street in the Bronx, hired a salesperson, and then set to work. Bollella became a one-man cork tile assembly line, placing orders for processed cork from Portugal, then sawing, painting and shipping it to designers and home owners. He remembers working 105-hour weeks. To avoid the trek back to Manhattan on the really late nights, he’d set up an air mattress on the finishing counter – the floor was always off-limits, he explained, because of all the rats. Those sacrifices are paying off as his company’s sales rise year after year. Even in 2009, amid a deep downturn in new construction and remodeling, Bollella said his sales grew by 12 percent. He sells his tiles for an average of $7.25 per square foot and expects to sell more than 250,000 square feet this year. Sales are on target so far, he said. Most of his recent business is institutional. The government of Barbados bought 18,000 square feet of mahogany tiles for a courthouse and the housing authority in Little Rock, Arkansas is remodeling the hallways of a 12-story apartment building with tile, courtesy of stimulus money. While he’s processing the Arkansas order, Bollella is trying to win a contract to floor three galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But after each sample he’s sent, the museum has replied they want something “grayer.” Globus Cork has grown over the past three years to occupy large swaths of three buildings. A recent tour of his mostly subterranean empire began at East 136th Street and ended at the loading dock on East 137th Street, spanning an entire block. His company now has three salespeople – one based in Missouri – and a production team of seven. That frees Bollella for chain-smoking and big thinking. Haiti is his latest idea. After the devastating earthquake in January, the country needs to rebuild everything from government palaces to countless homes, requiring acres upon acres of new flooring. Bollella is avidly following the reconstruction effort, and pointed out that termites are a huge problem in the Caribbean. Of course, he added, “They don’t eat cork.” Part of his success comes from seeing every situation or exchange as a possibility to push cork. When firefighters, heavy boots on and all, stepped into his cork-tiled office recently on a fire inspection, he asked them how the floor felt. Good, they replied. Before the firefighters left, Bollella asked them a question that he’d long wondered about, “What’s the worst type of floor?” One of the firefighters replied, “‘Vinyl – that stuff is nasty,’” Bollella recalled. Bollella is now designing a new flooring scheme – red tiles with their ladder number inset in marigold – to retile their burnt kitchen floor. From his vantage point, Bollella sees a flooring arms race mounting around the world. The latest threat is China, namely its bamboo – another environmentally friendly flooring material. Over the last few years, the bamboo trust has spent so much on advertising that “people know more about bamboo than cork,” Bollella said. His epiphany came a few years ago, while watching the scene from “The Godfather” when the dons of the five warring families gather to air their grievances and leave resolved to bury the hatchet. That is exactly what the corkmongers need to get past all the “my cork is better than yours” infighting, he realized. So Bollella founded the North American Cork Association three months ago. Although no other companies have contributed to the non-profit yet, Bollella has big plans: cork kiosks in bus stops, billboards, mention in a TV show like “Flip This House," and ads “just to get people thinking about cork,” he said. Already, Bollella has sold cork to clients in Canada, Hong Kong, Macau, the United Kingdom, Romania and Australia, where he hopes to open a factory in a few years – to “feed the Japanese market,” he said. So even with renewed competition and a slow economy, Bollella sees cork’s future as bright. “It’s a perfect time for me. People are a little choosy and green isn’t going to go away,” he said. “You can’t get greener than [expletive] cork.”

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