While small operations struggle, chains land PPP loans

The relief funds have flowed to operations such as Ruth’s Chris and Potbelly.
Photograph: Shutterstock

While mom-and-pops struggle to get a loan through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a number of sizable restaurant chains are cashing multimillion-dollar checks from the relief initiative, a cornerstone of federal efforts to help small businesses through the COVID-19 crisis.

The parent of the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse chain collected $20 million by applying through each of two subsidiaries. Taco Cabana qualified for a $10 million loan, and Potbelly Sandwich Shop landed a $10 million loan, the largest advance permitted per applicant under the PPP.

Kura Sushi, a 25-unit sushi chain, qualified for a loan of just under $6 million. CEO Hajime Uba told investors Tuesday that a portion of the money will be used for owed rent, as permitted under the PPP program.

The funds will also be used to continue paying the chain’s chefs, who were not furloughed as the chain temporarily closed all of its restaurants. Management decided that Kura’s menu doesn’t lend itself to takeout and delivery, but opted nonetheless to keep the kitchen staff on payroll. “We made this decision because we believe the near term extent of retention will be lesser than the cost of retraining staff and loss of sales from delayed reopenings,” Uba told financial analysts.

“We want to make a best faith effort to use the funds as intended, which is keeping people on payroll,” said Benjamin Porten, Kura’s investor relations manager. “So keeping that in mind as well as the regulations surrounding forgiveness, our labor costs are higher than they would be if we hadn't applied for the loan.”

The PPP was part of the $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package, popularly known as the CARES Act, that was enacted in late March. The program calls for lending $349 billion to small businesses through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). A small business is defined as an establishment that employs fewer than 500 employees at that one location, a qualification included specifically to help restaurants that are part of a chain or multiconcept group.

Places that fit the bill can borrow up to 2.5 times their payroll, up to a maximum amount of $10 million. The loans come due in two years and carry an interest rate of 1%. But the CARES Act specifies that the loans will be forgiven if the borrower meets certain criteria, including spending 75% of the funds on payroll.

The program began on April 3 and almost immediately ran into problems. Banks complained that they were not provided with guidelines for screening potential borrowers. The volume of applications crashed lenders’ websites. Places ran out of money in short order.

SBA Jovita Carranza and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a joint statement issued Wednesday that it "the SBA has processed more than 14 years’ worth of loans in less than 14 days...The high demand we have seen underscores the need for hardworking Americans to have access to relief as soon as possible.  We want every eligible small business to participate and get the resources they need.”

Some restaurant operators have complained about a requirement that furloughed employees be rehired within eight weeks of the loan being awarded. Many establishments are completely closed or offering only takeout and delivery. Why ramp up staffing if sales are low or nonexistent? Yet failing to do so will threaten the forgiveness of their loans.

The National Restaurant Association and other industry groups have voiced hopes that restaurants will be provided 60 to 90 days to rehire.

Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Potbelly, Taco Cabana and Kura were required to reveal their receipt of the loans because all four are publicly owned and obliged to report material developments to investors. Privately owned chains are not obliged to post notice if they qualify for PPP loans.

The approach taken by Ruth’s Chris’ parent—having subsidiaries each seek a loan—is likely to be followed by other big restaurant companies, according to Stifel, a brokerage and investment banker. It aired the possibility in a communication to clients that Chili’s Grill & Bar parent Brinker International might take that route to secure $100 million in PPP loans. Brinker is also the parent of Maggiano’s Little Italy.

Taco Cabana is a subsidiary of Fiesta Restaurant Group, which also owns the Pollo Tropical brand.

The SBA has not revealed how much of the original $349 billion has been lent to date. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already proposed the appropriation of another $250 billion for the program, but Senate Democrats blocked the measure, saying they would prefer a follow-up that provides assistance to hospitals and states.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in that chamber, have since suggested that an additional $500 billion be channeled into the program.

“We urge Congress to appropriate additional funds for the Paycheck Protection Program—a critical and overwhelmingly bipartisan program—at which point we will once again be able to process loan applications, issue loan numbers, and protect millions more paychecks," Mnuchin and Carranza said in their joint statement.

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