While the loss of life and property understandably remains the prevailing topic of conversation in the months after the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, few fully understand the severity of the circumstances small-business owners continue to face. Jennifer Stierwalt sold her Blanka Boutique, a popular women’s clothing store on Coast Village Road, on March 1 after an estimated $100,000 loss of income during the holiday season forced her to choose between completely closing her doors or having someone else take over her business.
She described with frustration her previous efforts to find financial assistance. “I’ve done it all,” she said. “I’ve been to every meeting that the city held. I’ve been to Impact Hub to learn how to get better insurance help. I’ve been to the center at Calvary Chapel. I applied for FEMA assistance, and I applied to [the Small Business Administration]. I didn’t get help from FEMA, and I didn’t get help from [the Small Business Administration].”
Stierwalt resorted to the private crowdfunding site GoFundMe to keep her doors open, which she calls a “humbling” experience. She raised nearly $11,000, enabling her to pay her rent, staff, and some merchandise costs. Compared to many of the other business owners along Coast Village Road, Stierwalt considers herself fortunate. Others have been forced to lay off their entire staffs. To make matters worse, some continue to pay rent until they can secure subleases, and people willing to sign leases in Montecito are hardly plentiful at the moment.
Stierwalt resents the misconception that because Montecito is such an affluent community, its business owners are not struggling. “People think that if you own a business in Montecito that you’re just a rich snob,” she said. “But we’re not. We’re a service. We serve this high-end community, but we work our asses off to make it great.”
Blanka will host a Transformation Celebration on April 14 to mark the new ownership. Stierwalt will stay on as a buyer for the store, which will join Kannyn January’s line of Ambiance boutiques, with locations in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. “It’s an awesome story of women helping women,” Stierwalt said of the new business relationship. “Kannyn is coming in and not putting me out of a job. Instead, she’s offering me a job. I’m going to be doing what I love and still be able to be a part of the community.”