Long Island’s restaurants, bars and catering halls need Congress to replenish a pandemic-relief grant program, with some of them facing closure as their unpaid bills multiply, a top lobbyist said on Sunday.
Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, called on the Senate and House of Representatives to add money to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund through a federal budget bill due for a vote on Friday.
The RRF’s initial $28.6 billion was exhausted in a couple of weeks in May 2021 with the number of grant applications far exceeding expectations. As a result, two-thirds of the applicants nationwide didn’t receive help.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Owners of restaurants, bars and catering halls want Congress to add $48 billion to a pandemic-relief grant program.
- The Restaurant Revitalization Fund ran out of money in a couple of weeks in May 2021. Congress could replenish the program in a vote this week.
- Just 12% of Long Island’s eating and drinking establishments secured RRF money last year, some were large restaurant groups, according to a Newsday data analysis.
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 a Newsday analysis of federal data.
"When you pick one out of every three restaurants to get funding, you can’t ignore the other two who applied and needed help," Fleischut said. "We have to take care of everyone that struggled through the pandemic."
Fleischut and others are lobbying for $48 billion in additional RRF money to be included in a budget bill that must pass Congress by Friday to avoid a shutdown of the federal government. Other bills also have been introduced to replenish the RRF or to create a new aid program.
"You have to attach the additional RRF funding to a bigger piece of legislation, like the spending bill to be voted on this week … It’s probably our best chance to get the RRF replenished," Fleischut told Newsday on Sunday during her group's International Restaurant & Foodservice Show in Manhattan.
In Melville last week, Timothy Caras, owner of Suburban Eats, said he would be following the deliberations on Capitol Hill.
Caras said he needs an $800,000 grant to keep the deli going until office workers return in larger numbers to the Route 110 Corridor. He submitted his application 17 minutes after the RRF’s online portal opened for the first time on May 3, 2021, at noon.
"I never thought it wouldn’t come through … I was devastated," he recalled.
Caras said if he secured an RRF grant it would go toward back rent, equipment repairs, store improvements and wages for Suburban Eats’ 12 employees.
"A few people got so much money and so many got nothing," Caras said, referring to the restaurant groups that won millions of dollars. "There needs to be more funding and it needs to be equitable, so the little guys get something."
On Long Island, the average grant amount was $248,250. About 40 businesses received more than $1 million each, while nearly 500 got less than $100,000, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which Newsday obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Whether additional RRF money will be in the federal budget bill remained uncertain on Sunday.
"I’m fighting hard now for additional relief for mom-and-pop restaurants, but we need more Republican support to pass the bill," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the majority leader who championed the first round of RRF. "I hope our colleagues across the aisle get behind these common-sense measures to help thousands of restaurants that sit at the heart of every Main Street."
Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), a member of the House Small Business Committee, said, "The final details of the funding bill are still being determined, but at this time, it’s unclear if additional funding for RRF will be included. It is absolutely imperative that Congress acts quickly."
Lawmakers need to do more than refill the RRF coffer, two restaurateurs said Sunday. They said Congress needs to make more eateries eligible for grants and streamline the application process.
Mike McElwee, a co-owner of six restaurants and bars, including three Local Burger Co. outlets, said he didn’t apply for the program because sales at four of his businesses didn’t drop enough in 2020 compared with 2019 to qualify. Two others weren’t eligible because they opened last year.
"We just missed the criteria to receive any of that federal money, which is unfortunate because we could use it," said McElwee, adding his workforce totals 120 people.
Jay Grossman, owner of The Refuge in Melville and K. Pacho in New Hyde Park, waited to seek an RRF grant until after the 21-day application window for businesses that are owned by minorities, women and veterans had closed. When his turn came, the program was oversubscribed.
"We followed the rules and then they were out of money," said Grossman, who has a workforce of 125 people.
Grant recipients have a competitive advantage.
"They have the resources to compete for employees, to pay the higher prices for supplies," said Mario Saccente, president of the restaurant association’s 500-member Long Island chapter. "A lot of the family-owned restaurants cannot wait much longer for help."