SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman spoke with Food & Wine about what restaurant owners can expect from the COVID-19 relief program.

By Kristen Hawley
April 30, 2021
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Over a year since the pandemic began, real relief is finally in sight for thousands of independent restaurants and small food businesses in the U.S. Applications open Monday for grants under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the $28.6 billion effort signed into law by the president in March as part of his larger Covid relief bill.

The fund is administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), a cabinet-level federal agency that acts as a resource for small businesses in the U.S. "We're excited that we're able to deliver these grants—not loans—for businesses, and that we're able to turn this around quickly after signing the American Rescue Plan," said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman in a Thursday interview with Food & Wine.

While the amount of targeted aid—$28.6 billion—is sizable, it's a fraction of the $120 billion in aid initially requested in last year's RESTAURANTS act, the proposed legislation upon which the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was based.

"We know that demand is going to exceed $28.6 billion. We encourage everybody to apply to try to access those funds as well as demonstrate the demand and need," Administrator Guzman said, adding that any additional aid would need to be authorized by Congress.

This means that all eligible businesses should apply as soon as possible. Restaurants, food stands, food trucks, bakeries, caterers, bars, breweries, tasting rooms, wineries, and other food businesses can apply for grants based annual revenue lost during the pandemic. Restaurants that opened in 2020 and early 2021 are eligible to receive grants, too.

How to apply for restaurant relief funds

As of Friday, April 30 at 9 a.m. ET, business owners can pre-register to apply for grants at restaurants .sba.gov. It's a quick sign-up process that requires an email address and two-factor authentication. Actual grant applications open at noon ET on Monday, May 3. The application should take about 25 minutes to complete, Guzman said, assuming a business has all required information and documents ready. Sample applications and a list of required documents are available at sba.gov/restuarant. For the first time, the live application will be available in both English and Spanish.

Restaurants can also apply directly through several point-of-sale providers including Aloha, Clover, Square, and Toast on Monday, May 3 at noon ET.

Which restaurants receive priority access?

Administrator Guzman made clear that the government recognized the disproportionate impact that smaller and underserved businesses experienced over the course of the pandemic. For the first 21 days, the SBA will prioritize applications from businesses owned by women and veterans or those who have been socially or economically disadvantaged. "This is critical in the first-come first-served program in order to ensure that those businesses are able to apply," she said.

Businesses that fall outside of those groups are still encouraged to apply immediately; those applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis at the end of the priority period.

Guzman stressed the importance of equitable access not only to the program itself, but to information about the program. The outreach is just as important as the program design, she said, and the SBA partnered with national organizations, ethnic chambers of commerce, and various advocacy groups to distribute information, and leveraged other partners to do additional outreach in underserved communities. A sample application has been translated into 17 languages. And for those who need additional assistance, a customer service line is open from 8 a.m. through 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday at (844) 279-8898.

In early April, the SBA had to pause a similar program for live events venues, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, due to technical difficulties. It was shut down shortly after opening for applications and reopened 18 days later. Administrator Guzman said she's taken steps to make sure this system has been tested and can handle Restaurant Revitalization Fund applications. "I am confident based on performance that we will be able to deliver this program effectively to the businesses who need it the most," she said.

Guzman said the SBA is "expediting as quickly as possible because we know that these funds are needed," but did not commit to a specific timeframe.

"When we say that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, it is because they create two thirds of net new jobs, they employ half the private workforce. But they also define our neighborhoods. They give us a sense of community. They build wealth in communities," Guzman said. "I always say that we want small businesses to feel like the giants that they are in our economy. And that means our job as their voice is to really provide programs that are easily accessible, and that make sense for them and how they're doing business, especially today since we know so many of them have transformed during Covid."