Many restaurants around the Bay Area benefitted somewhat last year from Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, helping them to keep employees on the payroll just as the pandemic was decimating their businesses. But under the new $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that the House was taking a final vote on today, a new fund will provide relief money to independent restaurants that won't need to be put toward payroll.
The one-year-old Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) was established last March by a group of celebrity chefs who could see the coming disaster for the industry. They established their lobbying group as a force separate from state restaurant groups and the National Restaurant Association, advocating specifically for independent operators who would be squeezed the most in the pandemic — while chain-restaurants were able to reap big sums from PPP loans and were not all as deeply impacted in 2020.
"So many restaurants are not going to get through this. And a lot of restaurants are just hanging on to see what the government will do," said one of the groups founders and biggest backers, chef Tom Colicchio, speaking to CBS News in November.
"We were forced to close. The airlines were never forced to close," Colicchio said. "The whole ecosystem is going to be affected by this. It's not just a bunch of restaurateurs."
The IRC was initially advocating for a $120 billion relief fund for independent operators, under what was called the RESTAURANTS Act, originally proposed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D.-Ore.) last year. The fund was whittled down to $28.6 billion in an amendment to the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, but the IRC considers it a win.
Restaurant and bar owners will be able to apply for grants of up to $5 million for a single location, or up to $10 million for a restaurant group, and the funds can be used for a variety of expenses besides payroll including rent, food and beverage costs, cleaning supplies, and other operating expenses. The NRA won a concession for small chains: Chains with up to 20 locations will also be eligible to apply.
As the Washington Post reports, when the Senate passed the stimulus bill over the weekend, members of the IRC virtually high-fived and cheered over social media. One of the group's organizers, established Mississippi chef Robert St. John, tells the Post that he was in New Orleans on Saturday when the Senate vote happened, and he approached a jazz band on Bourbon Street and asked if they knew "Happy Days Are Here Again."
"The trombonist knew it, and he taught the other guys real quick. I dropped a 20 in the hat," St. John says.
The IRC has a sign-up page for restaurant and bar owners who want the latest info on how to apply for these grants — the process isn't yet nailed down, and the coalition says it is "working with the White House and Small Business Administration on an efficient application process."
Grant amounts will vary depending on how long the restaurant or bar has been in business, and how much the business received in PPP loans last year, with PPP amounts subtracted from the total. Places that have been open since 2018 or earlier will have their grants calculated based on a subtraction of 2020 revenue from 2019 revenue, while newer restaurants that opened in 2019 will have their grants calculated based on average monthly revenue in 2019 versus average monthly revenue in 2020.
The first 21 days of the application process will be reserved for women- and minority-owned businesses, and those owned by veterans and socially or economically disadvantaged groups. Also, $5 billion of the total fund will be reserved for restaurants that had less than $500,000 in gross receipts in 2019.
"We’ve cleared another important hurdle in our long fight to provide local, independent restaurants the help they need,” said Rep. Blumenauer, speaking Restaurant Hospitality.
The fund, which is less than one-fourth of the initial $120 billion ask from the coalition, is still going to come up short — and any restaurateurs or bar owners who drag their feet in applying will likely lose out. As Eater points out, once the initial $5 billion for small restaurants is used up, it would take fewer than 5,000 restaurants getting the maximum grants of $5 million to use up the remaining $23.6 billion — and it was estimated that there were 700,000 restaurants in the country before the pandemic began.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images