COVID relief grant eludes restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina and the United States
On Sunday March 15, 2020, my Bittersweet restaurant closed to an almost empty dining room. A storm was coming; I could smell it and recommended that the employees get groceries and supplies on the way home. They told me I was dramatic.
Covid 19 has passed like a hurricane, leveling financially and psychologically destroying the restaurant industry. He emptied our bank accounts and took our customers, our staff and our spirits. We have been abandoned by our government – with minimal health advice and no financial support.
After several months one of my businesses, Raleigh Provisions, an independent retail store, closed for good. But Bittersweet survived thanks to an understanding owner and the total depletion of my personal savings. Going from 40% growth in 2017-2019 to a 70% decline in activity during the year was a heartbreaking change. I didn’t know my problems were just beginning.
I was determined to bounce back. The staff and I were vaccinated as soon as possible and couldn’t wait to reopen our doors to customers. But we were still financially crippled, lacking the funds to update equipment, gather supplies, and hire more staff. And honestly, we were all tired. Over the past 16 months we have worked harder than ever to switch to take out and advise staff on unemployment and stress. Homeowners across the country were desperately rallying to help each other through grants and loans on Zoom and frantic text messages.
Finally, Congress heeded our calls for help and provided a lifeline through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) and $ 28.6 billion in grants from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to restaurants, bars and other catering businesses. A special priority application window has been created for women, veterans and minority-owned businesses. The grants were first come, first served, so I applied within the first 10 minutes that the portal opened on May 3rd.
I got nervous when other owner friends received the approval, but I didn’t hear a thing. On May 18, the SBA approved my request and indicated that the funds would be transferred to my bank account within three to seven business days.
Then things got dark again. A week passed, no money. Every other owner I knew got their money back within four days of approval. June arrived and I contacted SBA and received a reassuring second response. The agency said the funds would be in my account between seven and 14 business days. My relief was short lived and I learned that I was not alone. Discussions on Reddit had posts from thousands of approved restaurants between May 14 and May 20, which appeared to be trapped in some sort of black hole administrative error. Approved, but not receiving funds.
I had already made financial decisions based on my approval, including onboarding new hires and advertising. We engaged vendors on equipment upgrades and updated / upgraded our menu to welcome customers again. We looked forward to staffing and expanding our hours.
Then the worst news imaginable arrived. The SBA has informed thousands of restaurants that due to three lawsuits (one in Tennessee and two in Texas), thousands of women, veterans and minority business owners were not receiving promised grants. . Even though these lawsuits were adjudicated after my approval for the RRF, the money was not coming to Bittersweet and many like me.
Sadly, my efforts with elected officials were met with shrugs and a gross misconception exists that just because we have reopened things have returned to normal. A busy weekend doesn’t make up for 16 months of lost activity. Last month, more than $ 12 million in taxpayer money was deposited into restaurant accounts just blocks from mine. I’m thrilled for them, but how can those of us start competing?
I’m not looking for handouts or special treatment. I just want what was promised to me by the SBA and Congress. I feel like I’m being punished for the pandemic, a priority claim and a lawsuit – which I had no part in creating.
My parents raised me to recognize and appreciate the opportunities offered to entrepreneurs and women in this country – something that is not available in other parts of the world. Ironically, now I’m being punished for being both.
We are tired. We are beaten. And we have the impression that no one is listening. Congress must do the right thing and replenish the RRF, so that Bittersweet and nearly 200,000 other restaurant candidates can survive.
Kim Hammer is the owner of Bittersweet Restaurant in Raleigh.