Mass. Restaurant Owners Meet With Sen. Warren on Restaurant Revitalization Fund

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A dozen Massachusetts restaurant owners gathered in Cambridge on Tuesday, January 25, for a roundtable with Elizabeth Warren, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, to share the hardships they experienced during the pandemic. Their hope was that Warren would be able to bring those stories back to the Senate to pressure her colleagues to finally move on Bill S.2091, which would add $60 billion in federal aid to the depleted Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). The bill has been lagging in the Senate for months.

The roundtable, organized by Mass Restaurants United and held at yet-to-open Cambridge restaurant Mothership, emphasized that no two restaurants have faced exactly the same set of challenges over the past two years, and each restaurant that has survived thus far has done so thanks to a different combination of financial aid and their own ability to pivot, among other factors. Some of the owners at the event received RRF aid for one or more restaurants; some received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans; some received both. Others were ineligible for the RRF; one was approved but never got the money. But everyone — even those who received aid from the initial revitalization fund — is feeling abandoned, and darker days are ahead if further aid remains elusive.

The stories are familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the restaurant industry over the last two years: Food costs have gone up. It’s hard to find employees. There are constant supply chain issues. Outbreaks of illness lead to temporary closures. The increase in remote work leaves no customer base in traditionally office-heavy neighborhoods.

Tam Le, owner of Pho Hoa and Reign Drink Lab in Dorchester, Pho Linh in Quincy, and Chashu Ramen & Izakaya in Worcester, spoke of the cost of food. Le didn’t want to raise prices. His customers are neighbors, friends, and family, he said; his father opened Pho Hoa back in 1992. Le racked up debt early in the pandemic to keep things running, and his grant from the the RRF — Pho Hoa received about $800,000 — was able to help with the debt.

Josh Childs, on the team behind Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville, Audubon in Boston, and Sunset Club on Plum Island, said that only Audubon received aid, and it would have closed without the financial support. Trina’s, meanwhile, had to close for several days around this past Christmas when an employee tested positive for COVID-19. It was the first time Childs ever felt worried about making payroll.

For Nancy Cushman — who co-owns O Ya, Hojoko, Gogo Ya, and Ms. Clucks Deluxe in Boston and Bianca in Chestnut Hill with her husband Tim Cushman — PPP loans and RRF grants were an absolute necessity. “We’re established restaurants and established restaurateurs,” she said, “and without [PPP and RRF] we couldn’t be open.” The Cushmans received nearly $5 million in RRF grants across their establishments. Each person sitting in the room at the roundtable, Cushman noted, represented hundreds of others also being affected by the fates of the restaurants — the employees, of course, but also the fishermen, the landlords, and many more. There’s a lot of economic depth behind each business, she stressed, hoping that Congress isn’t holding onto a perception that restaurants are a luxury.

Cheryl Straughter, who owns Soleil in Roxbury’s Nubian Square, has seen her customer base virtually disappear. Her restaurant is in the same building as the central office for Boston Public Schools — now, nearly all of her would-be diners don’t come to the office or the restaurant. Straughter received a PPP loan and thought she was eligible for an RRF grant, but found out upon reaching the final step of the application that she was not.

“Not being eligible, where’s the equity in that?” she said. Now, without customers and without aid, the restaurant is “barely afloat,” she said. “Do I ride this wave, or is this a point we don’t move past?”

Bessie King, who runs Villa Mexico Cafe in downtown Boston with her mother Julie King, said that the first nearly $200,000 RRF grant they received went to rent. The restaurant was temporarily closed for months; they were increasingly short-staffed. The next round will go toward rent again, but also toward higher wages and higher costs of goods. Restaurants pay so many fees and taxes but haven’t gotten anything back, she said. There was no emergency plan in place to save everyone, and the industry has been waiting through 2020 and 2021 without feeling that there was more help in sight. “This year is the definitive year of whether or not we make it,” King said.

Steve Postal, who owns Commonwealth and Revival Cafe & Kitchen, hosted the roundtable in his forthcoming restaurant Mothership; the space is ready, but he has no idea when it will open due to the labor shortage. He described the impossible choice he faced earlier in the pandemic: Close Commonwealth permanently and be down $800,000, or gamble on keeping it open — and maybe lose more. “You waited too long,” he told Warren. “We feel abandoned.”

The problems aren’t new, but the path toward replenishing the fund is a little more focused now: Warren told attendees that at least four more Republicans needed to be swayed in order to defeat the filibuster and finally get the bill onto the Senate floor. (There are currently 42 co-sponsors on the bill, six of whom are Republicans.) One tactic, she said, is to focus efforts on convincing Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Angus King of Maine; the other senator in each of their states is already a co-sponsor of the bill.

Warren reiterated the importance of calling one’s representatives, but better yet, Massachusetts residents — both those in the restaurant industry and anyone who hopes to see restaurants survive — should work any connections they have in those four states and get the local constituents to contact their own reps.

“We built a program that works,” said Warren. “We just didn’t build it big enough.” Every day that the fund isn’t replenished, more restaurants will have to wait on the brink of closure.

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