New businesses bring light to downtown San Jose’s blight
K&J Sweets and Bakery opened its doors in downtown San Jose on May 18, 2023. It's one of several downtown businesses to open recently. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Entrepreneurs are still willing to take the plunge to open new businesses in downtown San Jose, even as the city’s core grapples with empty streets and storefronts.

    K&J Sweets and Bakery held its grand opening celebration Thursday morning, welcoming more than 50 people through its doors on East San Carlos Street. The Latino, family-owned bakery is one of several businesses opening in downtown despite the area’s ongoing battle with vacancies and declining foot traffic.

    “I can’t believe it,” bakery owner Elvira Armenta told San José Spotlight in Spanish. “It feels like it’s been a really long journey and I’m finally here at my goal.”

    Owner Elvira Armenta (right) talked to a steady stream of customers at the opening celebration. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Armenta, 45, emigrated from Mexico in 1999 and started baking in her East San Jose garage in 2014 as a way to bolster her family’s income. She started by experimenting with Jell-O before graduating to baking cakes, eventually earning a following from the community. Now she’s selling Mexican pastries and other baked goods in the heart of downtown.

    Armenta said she’s optimistic about her bakery’s chances, pointing to potential customers from nearby schools and offices, and she hopes to expand beyond downtown in a few years.

    San Jose Downtown Manager Nathan Donato-Weinstein said the majority of downtown’s new businesses include restaurants and eateries, but he’s also seeing growth in services such as salons. Recently opened businesses in the area include Backroads Barbershop, Ding Tea, Slice of Homage Pizza and Hula Bar and Kitchen. Additional new businesses are also on the way, including Cambodian restaurant Angkor Chef on First Street and The Gelato Shop in San Pedro Square Market.

    The area has faced post-pandemic dips in foot traffic and long-term vacancies that have resulted in a total of 73 empty storefronts, according to the San Jose Downtown Association. But community organizations and city officials are working to ensure the city’s core can pulse again by hosting block parties, sporting events and more.

    “We’re not out of the woods. There’s still a long way to go,” Donato-Weinstein told San José Spotlight. “(But) I think we’re starting to see signs that that’s turning around.”

    San Jose Councilmember Omar Torres was the first in line at K&J Sweets and Bakery, leaving with a full bag of pastries. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    District 3 Councilmember Omar Torres, who represents downtown, came for the celebration and left with a bag filled with brownies, cookies and conchas. He said the city is working to improve storefronts to attract entrepreneurs, but also needs to hire more city workers to help local businesses get off the ground.

    “For me, it’s always about investing in people’s dreams and investing in small businesses,” Torres told San José Spotlight.

    Community organizer Yacanex Posadas still remembers the first cake he bought from Armenta: a two-tier, red velvet chocolate for his son’s birthday. He said he saw how professional her home bakery was and encouraged her to expand the business to a brick-and-mortar. Posadas coaches local Latino entrepreneurs and also teaches at Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business’s My Own Business Institute.

    Posadas said he helped Armenta throughout the yearlong process of opening her downtown business. He assisted Armenta in securing the location, and because it was previously a bakery they were able to streamline the permitting process. They also worked together to get loans and have a city grant to redo the store’s front sign.

    “If you’re able to pull together resources and money, it becomes more manageable,” Posadas told San José Spotlight. “If not, any business is hard to start.”

    The city is home to roughly 60,000 small businesses, but some in downtown are facing displacement amid housing and transit development projects as well as commercial rent hikes. Small businesses still struggle to open, with leaders pointing to high overhead costs, permitting backlogs and limited financial capital, especially for entrepreneurs of color.

    De Anza College student Mariela Ramos said she came to the opening with her mom to support Armenta. Ramos’ mother held the sunflowers that were given to customers, while Ramos herself selected a concha out of a tray of lavender, teal and pink pastries. She said they’ve been longtime fans and recognize Armenta’s creativity and dedication.

    “My family actually bought some of her cakes throughout the years for our birthday party, for our celebrations,” Ramos, 20, told San José Spotlight. “I have seen her throughout her whole entire business.”

    Armenta said the hardest part of her journey was finding a location and she went through several attempts to secure one. Despite the frustration, she said budding entrepreneurs should still go for it.

    “Never let go of that dream regardless of what happens, because once you give up, it’s gone,” Armenta said. “Keep fighting for your dreams. Keep working toward them.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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