The government's Paycheck Protection Program has failed independent restaurants.

By Nina Friend
April 29, 2020
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Credit: Sean Zanni/Getty Images; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Denny Culbert

Independent restaurants are at risk of vanishing forever. The nationwide shutdown in response to COVID-19 will have lasting, devastating effects—it is estimated that nearly 80% of restaurants could close permanently if they don’t get help.

Enter the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a national organization formed just five weeks ago by chefs and independent restaurant owners across the country. The IRC has been at the forefront of lobbying for the independent restaurants that define our communities. And now, they’re calling upon Congress to establish a $120 billion fund to help save these small restaurants. In a public briefing via Zoom, political advisor Sam Kass and chefs José Andrés, Nina Compton, Rosa Garcia, Naomi Pomeroy, and Andrew Zimmern explained the stabilization fund and took questions from the virtual audience.

“We are fighters,” said José Andrés, the chef/founder of DC-based ThinkFoodGroup and founder of World Central Kitchen. “Nobody works harder than the millions of people that make this big family of independent restaurants. We are fighting to give restaurants a chance.”

The restaurant stabilization fund came about because the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has twice failed to help independent restaurants. Loans have been granted to massive chains, like Ruth’s Chris and Shake Shack, while the majority of small restaurants in this country are seeing rent bills pile up with no relief in sight. According to a survey conducted by the IRC and the James Beard Foundation, the food services industry only received 9% of PPP loan dollars, even though it accounted for 60% of job losses in March.

Rosa Garcia, owner of Mott Haven Bar and Grill in the Bronx, New York, said that she has gotten denied twice for the PPP. “I’m trying to remain hopeful, but if we don’t get this fund, I don’t think we will be able to survive with 50% occupancy in the restaurant,” Garcia said. “We’re not gonna make it.”

The particulars of how the fund will be distributed is still up for discussion. One thing the IRC knows for sure, in the words of Naomi Pomeroy, chef/owner of Beast in Portland, OR, is that loans are not the answer. "We’re looking for grants and direct aid to the people who need it most," she said. 

The $120 billion asking amount is intended to help address the shortcomings of the PPP. During the press briefing, Andrew Zimmern called the PPP “an eight-week band-aid that doesn’t match the 12 to 18 month job it’ll take our restaurants to keep over 11 million people employed in our industry ... We are in urgent need of the stabilization fund.”

No matter how Congress responds, restaurant owners will undoubtedly have to rethink their businesses. Nina Compton, chef/owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater Bistro in New Orleans, shared the questions she’s been asking herself: “What’s the best case scenario if we get to 50% capacity? Can I reopen? Is it worth digging myself deeper in a hole, taking on a loan that I can’t pay it back?”

The panel was asked about what individuals can do to help. Sam Kass, a political advisor who served as President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, said, “The biggest thing you can do is stay in touch through social media. Lobbying efforts work. People on the hill don’t like people knocking on their doors and putting pressure.”

“Congressional staff actually read those emails,” Zimmern added. “We are counting on the dining public to call upon congress to help this vital cultural institution.”

To send your elected official a note and urge them to set up the restaurant stabilization fund, go to saverestaurants.com.