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Hard-hit restaurants rush for a lifeline as $28 billion in grants go up for grabs

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Chairs and tables are seen outside a closed restaurant in Washington D.C., the United States, on April 24, 2020.

Liu Jie | Xinhua via Getty Images

After a year of unthinkable challenges for the restaurant industry, targeted aid is on its way.

The Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund opened its portal Monday, allowing hard-hit restaurants, bars, food trucks and more to apply for $28.6 billion in grants. Small businesses owned by women, veterans, and the socially and economically disadvantaged, have priority application processing for the first three weeks of the program before it opens widely to all applicants.

The American Rescue Plan Act established the RRF to provide restaurants with funding equal to pandemic-related revenue losses of up to $10 million per business and no more than $5 million per physical location. The funds must be used by March 2023, and do not need to be repaid so long as the money is used on eligible expenses including payroll, suppliers, mortgages, maintenance and rent.

The industry has been among the hardest hit over the course of the last year. The National Restaurant Association projects that from March of 2020 through April of this year 110,000 restaurants have closed either permanently or long-term. The trade group also says restaurant and foodservice sales are down $280 billion from projected levels.

Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the restaurant industry group, said 100,000 applicants registered for the portal over the weekend.

Enough to go around?

The bigger concern is if the program will have enough aid to help all the businesses that need it.

“The question that everybody is asking of course is how long is the money going to last, and who’s not going to have a place to go when the music stops,” Kennedy said in an interview. The launch of the fund is a result of a year-long effort led in part by the restaurant group.

The SBA recently faced challenges with another small business aid portal for its Shuttered Venue Operator Program. The site was closed down on its first day, and remained shuttered for more than a week before being reopened for application submissions.

So far, the portal for struggling restaurants has been accepting applications smoothly, Kennedy said, save for a slight hiccup Monday that had to do with an issue outside of the platform.

The SBA did not immediately comment on the applications received or the program’s operations so far.

Operators like Pete Cortez are hoping to access aid before the fund runs dry. Cortez is chief operating officer of La Familia Cortez restaurants in San Antonio, Texas. Now in its fourth generation, the restaurant group has five full-service locations. It is down 300 employees over the course of the pandemic from a high of 725 before the crisis hit.

The restaurants have had to grapple with both mandated closings to help control the spread of Covid-19 and a once-in-a-lifetime storm that walloped Texas in February. Cortez said he was able to access the Paycheck Protection Program, but more aid is needed.

“We feel that we’re blessed just to be here still — it’s been a long road. We see this as an opportunity to really get back on solid footing and try to rehire all the employees. We lost them,” Cortez said.

Rehiring as wages rise

Rehiring is bringing its own challenges, he said. La Familia Cortez is facing staffing woes like so many across the country from bars to hotels and more. He said the company is offering referral and sign-on bonuses at the same time wages are rising.

“That’s another one of the reasons why this grant is so important to restaurants, because at a time when we’re coming off of a pandemic and trying to recover from everything that we lost, we’re coming back to an industry where there’s supply chain disruption. Beef prices and chicken prices and other goods are very expensive right now,” Cortez said. “And on top of that, we don’t have enough employees and we’re having to close restaurants or reduce hours.”

Kennedy said that challenge is being felt across the restaurant industry. Some executives have pointed to government stimulus as an incentive to keep workers away from heading back to the job, while advocates are pushing for higher pay for low-wage workers.

“We do have a growing number of operators that say ‘We just want to operate … we just need a workforce, and an operating environment that allows us to bring people back in,'” he said. “It’s a growing concern.”

PPP runs dry

Beyond the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the PPP has been a lifeline for small businesses and many restaurants. The SBA confirmed Tuesday that general funding for the program had been exhausted and was closed to most new applicants, save for an allocation for community financial institutions that typically fund loans for the underserved. The program was extended to run through May 31, although many believed the funding would not last through that deadline.

“After more than a year of operation and serving more than eight million small businesses, funding for the bi-partisan Paycheck Protection Program has been exhausted. The SBA will continue funding outstanding approved PPP applications, but new qualifying applications will only be funded through Community Financial Institutions, financial lenders who serve underserved communities. The SBA is committed to delivering economic aid through the many COVID relief programs it’s currently administering and beyond,” the SBA said in a statement.

More than 400,000 businesses in accommodation and foodservice were able to access forgivable loans under the program.

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