With the application process ready to break at any moment, the restaurant industry needs to take pause and recognize who went to bat in Washington to come to the aid of the industry.
For the past year, The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) and National Restaurant Association campaigned tirelessly to gain passage of the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
New York City restaurateurs Amanda Cohen and Tom Colicchio joined a team of culinary stars that descended on Washington, D.C. With Erika Polmar coordinating their efforts, the IRC gave the movement a face as early as late Spring (April 2020).
“Nobody believed this was going to be a short-term problem,” Polmar, IRC’s executive director, said. Chefs and owners determined last March “that we needed a voice as independent restaurant operators in the places where policy and decisions were being made. And so, the IRC was born.” Within two months of the coalition’s founding, the IRC scored a meeting with former President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and it has since grown its mailing list to upward of 100,000 people.
The original funding bill was dubbed the RESTAURANTS Act (Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive) in May 2020. The restaurant industry found allies on the Hill in Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who were the chief sponsors of the RESTAURANTS Act, which formed the basis of the restaurant grant program.
The aid package passed through the support on both sides of the aisle. In addition to the sponsoring legislators, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Lindsey Graham (R-So. Car.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Joe Manchin (D-West Va.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), and Dick Durbin(D-Ill.). The timeline of the bill in many ways followed the national election cycle. The original proposal was included in the revised HEROES Act, the Democratic-led relief bill that passed the House in October 2020, but it died in the Senate.
In November 2020, as a result of the national election the push for the bill was reignited. Restaurants’ prospects changed when Sen. Chuck Schumer became majority leader. As a New Yorker, Schumer was an on-going supporter of the restaurant industry’s plight. He was in fact was a regular on both Andrew Rigie’s New York City Hospitality Alliance and the New York State Restaurant Association’s Zoom calls. With a $5 million cap for a single restaurant, many would say that the grant program is New York centric.
The National Restaurant Association’s Sean Kennedy, the restaurant association’s top lobbyist called Schumer “absolutely critical” in making sure the grant program was included in the relief bill after Biden’s initial proposal left it out. In a recent news conference organized by the IRC, Schumer noted that an amendment calling for direct relief for restaurants during a vote-a-rama in February 2021 was the first thing he put to a floor vote as majority leader; the amendment passed overwhelmingly, 90-10.
Blumenauer and Schumer have heaped praise on the IRC, as an advocate for smaller restaurant owners and operators, as opposed to the National Restaurant Association, which also counts a number of major chains as its constituents and has “broader” financial interests, Blumenauer said.
“The independent restaurants found their voice” last year,” Blumenauer said in an interview, recounting his interactions with the IRC. “It was the independent restaurants who willed [the proposal] into existence, who did the legwork, who helped us refine the legislation and who provided energy,” he asserted. Schumer said this morning that “without the IRC, I don’t know if it would have gotten done at all.”
Blumenauer and Schumer both predicted that the grant program would need to be replenished at some point, vowing to spearhead that effort, while both the NRA and IRC said their focus will now turn to ensuring the grants go out smoothly. Keep in mind that the IRC has initially pushed for $120 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund that would have been run through the U.S. Treasury.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) has a late April or early May target for the application process to begin the industry is hoping that restaurants will be able to seamlessly apply through a website.
Certain types of businesses will be prioritized. “The first 21 days are going to be set aside specifically for women- or veteran-owned businesses or people in socially or economically disadvantaged businesses,” added the NRA’s Kennedy. $5 billion will go to restaurants that made $500,000 or less in 2019.