Justin Tempelman, who owns three "JT's" eateries in Blue Point and Bayport, remembers feeling “crushed” this month when Congress didn’t replenish a grant program for restaurants hit hard by the pandemic.
He said he submitted applications for Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants for JT’s Farmhouse, JT’s on the Bay and JT’s Cafe on May 3, 2021, the first day that the U.S. Small Business Administration began taking forms. But the agency was quickly inundated, and the $28.6 billion in grant money was gone in weeks.
Tempelman, 48, of Blue Point, is among 177,300 restaurateurs, bar owners and caterers nationwide who were shut out of the RRF, or two-thirds of all applicants. They’ve been lobbying Congress and the White House ever since to put additional money into the program.
“They knew from Day 1 that the RRF was underfunded,” Tempelman said. “They need to finish the job by allocating $48 billion for the restaurants that applied and didn’t get funded."
Eateries and the trade groups that represent them had pushed for more RRF money to be in this month's budget bill — the passage of which prevented a federal government shutdown. On March 8, they learned that additional pandemic relief wasn’t included.
“We are definitely disappointed that we didn’t get enough members of Congress to understand the need,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association.
She and others said the budget bill was the most effective way to secure additional RRF money — but not the only way.
Two other bills to provide relief to the industry have been filed in the U.S. Senate and two in the House that together are sponsored by 52 senators and 299 House members from both political parties.
“We will continue to try to get some funding, but it doesn’t seem like there’s enough support [in Congress] to actually make it happen,” Fleischut said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the majority leader, blamed Republicans for opposing the inclusion of additional funds in the now-adopted budget bill.
"I am continuing to work to get my colleagues across the aisle to support these common-sense measures that would undoubtly help thousands of hometown restaurants," Schumer told Newsday on Tuesday.
Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), a member of the House small business committee, said there is "a lot of consensus for the need to provide this critical relief to restaurants and I am confident that, if [legislation were] brought to the House floor for a vote, it would pass. However, while Republicans are in the minority, it's Democrats that need to allow a vote."
On Long Island, about 1,100 eating and drinking establishments were awarded RRF grants, or just 12% of the nearly 9,200 such businesses licensed by the county health departments. Approximately $270 million was distributed, according to SBA data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Newsday.
The average grant amount was $248,250 locally. About 40 businesses received more than $1 million each, while nearly 500 got less than $100,000, the data show.
“A staggering number of businesses were shut out from the RRF due to demand and still need relief,” said Matt Cohen, president and CEO of the Long Island Association business group. “We urge our federal officials to keep pushing for this much needed support.”
The Flex Association, which represents online ordering and delivery services, and the Independent Restaurant Coalition continue to lobby Congress and the White House.
Coalition executive director Erika Polmar said, “Restaurants and bars feel abandoned by many elected officials.”
In Blue Point, Tempelman agreed, saying it’s frustrating to see airlines, cruise ships and automakers “get bailed out while the restaurant industry is forgotten.”
He said RRF money would make up for his lost sales, the cost of setting up outdoor seating at JT’s Farmhouse and the purchase of personal protective equipment for all three restaurants, which together employ about 100 people.
“It would make me whole,” Tempelman said. “I’d have a fresh start.”