Jose Almonte learned a lot about hard work, long hours and drive from his older brother, Felo, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic a few years before Jose and owned a grocery store in East New York.
As a young teen growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jose Almonte worked alongside his brother in the family’s bodega where customers knew their names and they knew what types of groceries their customers needed.
After high school, Almonte attended Baruch College. He is the first one in his family to attend college. In addition to attending college, he had another dream: owning his own business. Almonte has accomplished his dream.
Almonte owns Lavanderia Express, a thriving Laundromat chain featuring three stores in Brooklyn and Queens, and three more large, modern Laundromats on the way. Putting together this chain took plenty of time, but during the process he found additional time to give something back to other store owners.
During the last decade, with the support of small-business lender Eastern Funding, LLC, Almonte has helped hundreds of other New York grocery store owners from the Dominican Republic obtain financing for their businesses that has historically been unavailable.
These friends, relatives and fellow Dominicans whose small shops line the streets of New York City in ethnically diverse neighborhoods like East New York, Flatbush and Ridgewood, were often unable to obtain loans from traditional bank lenders, frequently borrowing at their own risk from the “street.”
How Almonte, along with the help of Michael Fanger, a friend and business associate who believed in Almonte, got to where he is and how he’s giving back to others in the community is a testimony to his own ambition and risk-taking.
“When I met Jose and saw his store, we knew he had what it takes to be successful,” says Fanger, president of Eastern Funding, a niche funding company that helps small businesses such as self-service laundries, drycleaners, delis, and groceries obtain the financing they need to open or grow their businesses.
When traditional banks turned a deaf ear to Almonte’s loan requests to open his first Laundromat, it was Fanger’s company that paid attention. Fanger himself would drive out to meet Almonte and see the empty, dilapidated brick-and-mortar buildings that Almonte dreamed of turning into busy, sparkling-clean Laundromats.
“You just couldn’t turn this guy down,” Fanger says. “The look in his eyes was one of passion, and you knew he would succeed.”
Fanger took a financial risk in 1997 when he gave Almonte the first of many loans: $365,000 for the Laundromat equipment and $150,000 toward the renovation of his second Laundromat — a 3,000-square-foot knitting-mill factory that he turned into a Laundromat in East New York.
“I saw the space and it just spoke to me,” Almonte recalls. “It was a big risk, but I knew the neighborhood could use a large Laundromat like that.”
At the time, Fanger says, Almonte used his first grocery store as collateral. The rest is history. During the last 14 years, Eastern has loaned Almonte the capital to open several other stores. But that is only part of the story.
“Michael had faith in us from the beginning and lends on the character of the individuals,” Almonte says. “He takes the time to get to know his clients and has a gut feeling for who is going to be successful. He asked if I knew anyone else like me.”
Most of the immigrant shop owners like Almonte are often turned away from traditional banks because they don’t speak English or have the proper credit history, he says.
Almonte has been committed to helping others get their businesses off the ground — so much so that he has single-handedly recommended Eastern Funding to more than 200 other grocery store owners, many who are actually Almonte’s friends and relatives from the Dominican Republic community in New York City. Recently, he, aided by Eastern Funding, saved a childhood friend’s bodega in Brooklyn from foreclosure.
“We only lend to certain industries, and we know the operators on a very personal basis,” Fanger explains. Since 1997, Eastern Funding has written more than 4,000 contracts to owner-operated businesses, supplying them with equipment loans and leases totaling more than $500 million, he says.
“For many of these shop owners, Eastern Funding is their only means of building their businesses,” Almonte says. “We couldn’t have done it without Eastern Funding, which is like our own very personal community bank.”