The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Business

July 5, 2014

REGINA ABEL | SBA loan feeds hunger to renovate

— I love comfort foods – meatloaf, soups, omelets – well, most people do. So, when I travel for the Small Business Administration (SBA) I look for cozy cafes to rest, refuel and sample good grub.  

All towns and neighborhoods have a favorite spot where regulars not only relish the food but also the cooks, waitresses and their fellow patrons. It’s a successful formula where the local flavor often can’t be matched by national eateries. For many Johnstown-area residents, a stop at the Corner Coffee Shoppe is as needed as that first cup of Joe.

The half-century-old cafe was sold almost three years ago to John & Natalie Riccilli, whose goal was to keep the joint jumpin’. After sealing the deal, the Riccillis found themselves in a pickle when a lot of the equipment began to fail.

“The HVAC units needed replaced and as a tenant, I was responsible,” John Riccilli explained. “I also had the refrigerators, ice machines and freezers checked, and then computerized our menu and reporting system, bringing the shop into the 21st century.”

The tab for the necessary improvements left the new business owners in a financial pinch.

They turned to Michele Clapper, vice president of economic development at Johns-town Area Regional Industries for a microloan.

“At JARI, we’ve been processing SBA microloans since 2013 and have approved

12 applications,” Clapper said.

“We get all kinds of businesses in need of a small loan: start-ups, seasoned business owners, you name it.”

For those who haven’t heard of a microloan, it’s an SBA program that provides very small loans through nonprofit intermediaries such as JARI to business owners. These entrepreneurs can use the cash infusion for just about anything from working capital or the purchase of furniture, fixtures or supplies.

“At JARI, we offer one-on-one counseling, as well as a series of lunch and learn programs where business professionals, such as attorneys and human resource specialists, help our program via in-kind donations,” Clapper added.

The Riccillis, who now own a piece of Johnstown history where everybody not only knows your name but also where you sit, are slowly blending new ingredients into the shop, aspiring to attract new patrons.

It’s a three-prong approach: people, popularity and a dash of renovation.

They’ve spiced up the place with new signage and a checkout counter and offer free Wi-Fi. Now, they’re tweaking the menu, being careful not to tinker with the Corner’s culinary classics such as their homemade desserts – especially their popular gob cakes.

“I’ve added a lite menu with salads and veggie and chicken burgers,” John Riccilli explained. “Soon, we’re going to offer soup and sandwich combination meals.”

But, perhaps it’s their unique community approach that is the Riccillis’ icing on the proverbial cake.

Regina Abel is the Western Pennsylvania SBA lead economic development specialist and often is asked to speak on strategic marketing for small businesses.

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