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Nicklaus: With relief fund exhausted, restaurants say they need a second helping

Nicklaus: With relief fund exhausted, restaurants say they need a second helping

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Gerard Craft, who runs some of St. Louis’ best-known dining establishments, thought a $28.6 billion federal program would help him recover from COVID-related losses. Tiffany Tabron-Jones, who both opened and closed her downtown west restaurant during the pandemic, was counting on the aid to help her reopen.

Both came away empty handed, as did more than 2,400 other Missouri restaurant owners. The Small Business Administration announced June 30 that its Restaurant Revitalization Fund was out of money, leaving $43.6 billion in unfunded applications.

Restaurant owners are hoping Congress will replenish the fund. One bill, introduced by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, would allocate $60 billion more for restaurant relief.

The original money, part of this spring’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, was meant to help an industry that was hit hard by the pandemic. Many restaurants and bars had to close for weeks and then reopened at less than full capacity.

DINING DECLINE: Stunned by the closure of the Missouri Bar & Grille, a beloved newspaper hangout, Jim Gallagher and David Nicklaus look at how COVID-19 has hurt the restaurant industry. Nationally, one in six restaurants have closed this year.

Craft, whose Niche Food Group runs such restaurants as Cinder House, Pastaria and Taste by Niche, lost $758,000 during the first month of the pandemic, when his restaurants closed but continued paying staff for a while. Sardella, the group’s upscale Italian restaurant in Clayton, closed permanently.

“We ended up having to take out a pretty large loan to get through those tough times,” he said. “Being able to pay back some of that money would put us in a much better spot.”

Some people may assume that restaurants are doing fine now that capacity limits have been lifted, but Craft said that’s not the case. Revenue at Pastaria, his busiest spot, is still down 23% from 2019 levels.

“We are creeping back, but there’s a long way to go,” he said. “With cases rising again, there’s still a lot of uncertainty as to what the future looks like for restaurants.”

The future of Tabron-Jones’ business, the Posse on Broadway Lounge, is even more uncertain. It opened in June last year, only to close in October. She has reopened a couple of times, most recently on June 1 when she was confident that federal help was coming.

Two weeks later, after realizing she wouldn’t get the money, the Posse closed again. Tabron-Jones, who is Black, expected to be a priority applicant, because Congress had told the SBA to process grants first for firms owned by women, veterans and people of color.

In May, she had to refile her application to correct some information and by the time she did, a judge’s ruling had called the priority system into question. The SBA ended the preferences and rescinded nearly 3,000 grants that had already been approved.

Tabron-Jones wasn’t one of those, but she had been counting on the money. “I met all the requirements, I had my numbers right,” she said. “This was a chance for me to recover my losses and start off on a good footing.”

She now hopes to reopen in September or October if Congress replenishes the relief fund.

About 1,200 Missouri restaurants did get $284 million from the fund before it closed. The grants ranged from $2,000 for some food truck operators to $10 million for OHM Concession Group, a Dunkin’ franchisee.

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Craft and Tabron-Jones said they’re not resentful of anyone who got funded, but as a matter of fairness, they believe Congress should help all qualifying restaurants.

“I feel like this is only right,” Tabron-Jones said. “The industry most affected by the pandemic doesn’t get fully funded? If you’re going to keep losing places, it is going to be a very uneven recovery.”

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