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Restaurant Relief Fund Injects Optimism Into Industry

Specialty Food Association

Restaurant operators said they are hopeful that the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Biden last week will help prevent any more restaurants from closing, after the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out thousands of locations across the country.

The new program includes a $28.6 billion Restaurant Relief Fund—up to $10 million per restaurant—and can be used to cover a wide range of pandemic-related costs. The grants will be distributed through the Small Business Administration, and include a $5 billion carveout specifically targeting small restaurants with less than $500,000 in revenues in 2019. The grants also prioritize businesses owned and controlled by women, veterans, and others considered socially and economically disadvantaged.

“I think it will provide a certain level of comfort in knowing that you have enough capital to work through any pandemic-related downturns, as far as maintaining staff, helping offset some of the losses,” said Richard Wall, a co-owner of The Heidelberg restaurant in Columbia, Missouri.

Wall, who is also the treasurer of the mid-Missouri chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said his restaurant suffered the worst year of its 58-year existence in 2020.

“We had record-breaking business losses, and job losses,” he said.

The Heidelberg, which is located next to the University of Missouri campus, closed for a month last year when the university shut down most of its operations, and reopened for takeout with the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan. The restaurant has since begun allowing indoor dining, with social distancing between tables.

The funds from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund will help compensate for some of the losses the business suffered in 2020, he said.

“It allows us some stability—some peace of mind,” Wall said.

Doug Levy, owner of Feast In Tucson, said his dining room has been closed for a full year—Tucson went into lockdown on March 17, 2020—and he has chosen to remain closed for indoor dining to protect the health of his workers.

“Like everyone else I am grateful that it will help us keep our doors open,” he said.

Feast has continued operating with some innovative new strategies, including wine tastings, specialty product sales, and pop-up locations in suburban communities where the restaurant offers heat-and-eat meals. Feast also has provided more than 6,000 meals to local people in need, thanks to a program that allows customers to purchase meals for donation. Feast throws in another 50 meals for every 250 that are provided via donation.

“We are fortunate to have great relationship with the community, and we have a very generous community,” said Levy.

Feast was able to obtain a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and Levy has also used his own savings to keep the restaurant going.

“I have had the ability to put my own money back into the business until there is relief, and then hopefully I’ll be able to pay myself back a little,” he said.

Levy said he was encouraged that the funds could be used to cover the cost of perishables, which are an important element of Feast’s seasonal menu.

He said he’s also hopeful that the Restaurant Revitalization Act will provide some relief for the millions of workers that have relied on restaurant jobs for their livelihood. Many of the workers in the industry are young and inexperienced, and with little savings, he said.

“There are a lot of people supporting their families … people living check to check,” he said. “There are a lot of people here who have a year’s worth of catching up to do, and it’s a little scary.”

Art Smith, the chef-owner of the farm-to-table Blue Door Kitchen & Garden restaurant in Chicago, among other restaurants, said he closed two of his restaurants last year.

“As a restaurant owner who lost two restaurants during the pandemic, I understand its effects fully,” said Smith, who previously was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef and has won broad acclaim for his homestyle Southern cuisine.

He said he relied on his business partner to help navigate through 2020.

“Unfortunately, the majority of small restaurants are not fortunate to have advisors who can support all aspects of their business,” he said. “My hope is that this Restaurant Revitalization Act will provide the help desperately needed to small restaurants and food vendors with limited resources and be a game changer for recovery.”

Smith is in the process of opening Reunion, a restaurant that will feature healthy and classic comfort foods, on Chicago’s Navy Pier. The menu of the new restaurant was recently featured as a pop-up at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa during The Platers Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Amanda Cohen, a co-founder of the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the chef-owner of the vegetable-focused Dirt Candy in New York City, described the Restaurant Relief Act as “an important step in saving the restaurant industry.”

“This is what we have needed since the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “Restaurants have been hit harder than most industries this year, and this bill will allow all restaurants to keep their doors open for the foreseeable future. I, for one, am very grateful to our sponsors for understanding the industry’s needs and helping us make this happen.”

Related: Immigrant-Owned Restaurants Face Additional Struggles Amid the PandemicBiden Signs Restaurant Revitalization Into Law.