It’s not yet known if the financial relief that has been proposed for independent restaurants and bars will make it through Congress, but Dan Jacobs said he’s encouraged that things are moving in the right direction.
The co-owner of JVR Hospitality Group in Milwaukee, which operates DanDan and a handful of other restaurants that have been closed during the pandemic, as well as catering and consulting businesses that are also closed, participated in a meeting with White House representatives on Thursday to discuss a proposed $25 billion federal grant program.
“They [at the White House] realize that independent restaurants have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and we need industry-specific help, and we need it now,” Jacobs told Nation’s Restaurant News. “They are making us a priority, and just hearing that on the call made me and the people that I work with very excited.”
The meeting was organized by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which was formed last year specifically to advocate for financial relief for independent restaurants and bars. Jacobs and about 300 other independent operators participated in a phone call with the White House Office of Public Engagement to discuss the Biden Administration’s plans for providing that relief.
The call was led by Erika Polmar, executive director of the IRC, along with Cedric Richmond, a senior advisor to President Biden and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Bharat Ramamurti, the deputy director of the National Economic Council.
The House Budget Committee voted this week to include the $25 billion grant program — modeled after the Restaurants Act — in the upcoming budget bill and COVID stimulus package. The program would award grants to restaurants and bars for eligible expenses, including payroll, employee benefits, paid sick leave, mortgage, rent, utilities, building maintenance and construction of outdoor facilities, personal protective equipment, sanitizing materials, food, and debt obligations to suppliers. Money not spent on eligible expenses would be returned to the government.
Jacobs said White House officials during the meeting detailed how the funds could replace the revenues lost by independent restaurant and bar owners.
“We need grants,” he said. “We can’t take out more loans.”
Jacobs said his company and others like his would use any relief money that came in the form of federal grants as “a bridge to better days.”
JVR Hospitality Group had about $5 million in revenues in 2019 and employed more than 90 people, but Jacobs estimates that revenues came in at less than $2 million in 2020, and the company currently has only 16 people on staff. DanDan is currently only open for in-house dining on Friday and Saturday evenings, and its other restaurants, EsterEv, Fauntleroy and Batches Bakery, are closed.
“That shows just how much the restaurant industry is hurting right now, and my story is not unique,” Jacobs said. “Almost every other restaurateur I know has had a very similar story.”
The company was able to receive some Paycheck Protection Program loans, which converted to grants, but it also had to borrow additional money that it will be paying back for the next 30 years, he said.
Jacobs said JVR Hospitality would consider reopening one of its shuttered restaurants for which it still pays rent, which he described as a “huge burden,” if the federal relief comes through. It would also help him toward his goal of rehiring his staff.
“To be able to bring our people back and make them financially secure again — I don’t think there’s anything better that I could do with this money,” he said.
For most operators, just having the ability to cover everyday expenses would benefit the industry and the economy as a whole, Jacobs said.
The meeting made it clear that the White House recognizes the independent restaurant industry “as the local economic engine that it is,” he said.
Jacobs said it’s important that relief targeted to the restaurant industry recognize the importance of independents.
“It’s [about] making sure the right people get relief, and that the money is going to independent restaurants and bars, and not just into the hands of fast-food chains and larger operators,” he said. “Making sure that the smaller operators — the ones that are the focal points of neighborhoods, and the gateways to different cultures — are the ones that are being taken care of.”
Richmond acknowledged the key role independent restaurants play in the economy.
“The $25 billion restaurant stabilization fund in our American Rescue Plan is a necessary first step for restaurants and bars, and we look forward to collaborating with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to ensure small businesses can access this relief," he said in a statement.
The Senate recently voted 90-10 in favor of creating an independent restaurant grant program in the budget bill.
“It’s clear that the White House wants to do everything possible to save independent restaurants and bars," said Polmar of the IRC. “We are grateful to the Biden Administration for listening to our community across the country, taking our concerns seriously, and building a plan that listens to our unique needs.”