Great Expectations

Joe's Sandwich Shop is just one of the businesses along Main Street struggling to survive until Metro gets its light rail line up and operating.

"This place is dead," says Joe Hernandez, stating the obvious. It's the middle of a Saturday at Joe's Sandwich Shop at the corner of Main Street and Webster in Midtown. The middle-aged Hispanic businessman sits next to a wall of chips in the middle of a small sea of black-and-white linoleum. Behind a deli display case, his 18-year-old grandson putters around in a white plastic apron -- prepared for customers, any customers who might make it past the muddy lane-wide trench that stretches around two sides of the business.

When customers do trickle in, Joe jumps up from his seat and hustles. He smiles broadly -- partly because he is jovial by nature and partly because his wife has told him to do so. She learned that the sale is in the smile when she worked for Marshall Field's department store. "Come on in, come on in," he says. "We got the Philadelphia cheese steak. It's my No. 1. It's on special today." Every $3.75 counts. He encourages them to buy party trays for their offices, and gives them free homemade carrot cake and brownies for coming in despite the hassle of construction.

Joe says his business is down 30 to 40 percent since the construction for Metro's light rail began there last August. His landlord has cut his rent by 20 percent, but still Joe has had to put $20,000 of his own money into the sandwich shop to cover expenses in the last nine months. He's shy about admitting this to a reporter. He's afraid of scaring people off. He doesn't want to show too much weakness.

Businessman Steve Clark took the City of Austin to court for the profits he lost during construction.
John Anderson
Businessman Steve Clark took the City of Austin to court for the profits he lost during construction.

Joe's is a struggle that's being fought in all kinds of small businesses along torn-up Main Street -- the ones that still have their doors open, that is. The Amco Insurance agency next door is trying to sublease its space in the retail center. There's a vacant space next to that, and the alterations shop in the small complex is about to move out as well. Down the street, Fusion Café closed its doors in August, and Connie's Health Food Store will follow suit in December.

But Joe is not one to give up. "I told myself a long time ago: I gotta make myself strong. If I was a weak man, I'd already be out of here." He tells stories of entrepreneurial spirit, bolstering his own confidence by remembering trials already overcome.

As a young man, Joe learned the trade of a butcher. He raised five children, and sent three of them to college, on the meager profits of cutting meat. But butcher shops are chilly, and Joe could never seem to get over his colds, so he went to work making sandwiches and taking out the trash at his sister's restaurant, Supreme Sandwiches. When Joe decided to go out on his own at the age of 50, nobody thought he could do it. But he was inspired by "the Colonel," who had started Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was 65. Joe didn't exactly turn his sandwich shop into a global chain, but he's been serving the blue-collar workers and Greyhound riders in Midtown for ten years now.

Joe remembers one day, early on in his new business, when the meat truck came and he asked his son to write a $150 check to pay for the supplies. His son protested. Had Joe noticed his balance lately? Joe scolded him. He hadn't asked for his balance; he asked for a check. Then the chip truck came and another $150 check went out the door. Joe's son was insistent. They had 15 cents in the bank. His father had just ordered two hot checks. Joe ignored him. That day, the fledgling sandwich shop did remarkably good business. They brought in $350, enough to cover the checks.

"My boy said, 'Daddy, you got guts,' " Joe remembers. "And I said, 'Life is about chance. You got to take chances.' "

Now, Joe wants to take another chance. He knows that he has to fight the downturn in revenue not by scaling back but by expanding. He's talking to his banker about opening another shop a few blocks away at Louisiana and St. Joseph Parkway. He hopes the second shop will help float the one on Main Street for a while. He has three years left on his lease at Main, and anyway, he doesn't want to leave that location. After all, if he lasts through the construction until the light rail opens in 2004, Metro promises a boon to his business there.

"It's a short-term pain for a long-term gain," says Metro President and CEO Shirley DeLibero. "Once we build it, it is going to definitely enhance their business. So we want to really kind of hold hands with them as we go through this construction so that they remain there when the times are good too."

Holding hands, as defined by Metro, means putting up signs, printing flyers, holding community outreach meetings and hosting spaghetti dinners to update merchants on construction progress. It does not, however, mean financial assistance. Any street improvement causes temporary inconvenience for businesses, says DeLibero. "We're a public entity and we couldn't just give money to these businesses. No one does that in the country."

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