Erika Polmar spent much of Thursday counseling independent restaurant owners.
The U.S. Senate had just dashed all hopes of replenishing the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, whose organization spent months lobbying for the $48 billion aid package, shifted to listening mode.
“There are some people whose businesses are going to be forced to close,” Polmar said. “We’re expecting many of these businesses to be forced into bankruptcy. There’s a lot of peer-to-peer counseling going on right now. Simultaneously, there’s an immense will to fight.”
Passage of the bill would have added $40 billion to the RRF, a refilling of the $28.6 billion fund that ran out swiftly last year after only assisting just over 100,000 applicants among the more than 278,000 restaurants that applied.
Polmar’s group has estimated that more than half of the 177,300 restaurants that didn’t get RRF aid the first funding round would close in a few months.
“We heard for a year that the $28.6 billion was a down payment and that the Senate knew we needed help,” she said. “In the year that passed, while folks were hanging on, they racked up a tremendous amount of debt.”
On Twitter and Reddit and other online forums, operators around the country expressed their outrage that the RRF was not refilled, many calling out specific legislators for their “no” votes.
“Dr. Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran (both Kansas senators),” one person tweeted. “Hopefully you two are good cooks because you let the restaurants of Kansas down. You better not step foot in one while campaigning.”
Dan Jacobs, who co-owns three small restaurants in Milwaukee, spent Monday through Wednesday meeting with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. When he discovered that Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was on his plane, he confronted him on the RFF.
“He claims to really be a champion of small business in Wisconsin,” Jacobs said. Johnson voted “no” on the RRF replenishment. “These things are just incredibly frustrating.”
Jacobs’ restaurants received Paycheck Protection Program aid, along with RRF money and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Regardless, he said, his business remains “precarious” and subject to the whims of COVID surges, inflation and more.
“There’s no safety nets,” he said. “Everybody acts like the pandemic’s over. It’s not over for us. You don’t see the crippling amount of debt that goes on behind the scenes.”
Even though the RRF is dead, the ire of independent restaurant operators is very much alive.
“Restaurant owners are a tenacious group of people,” Jacobs said. “We’ve shown over the last two years we don’t take no for an answer.”
The IRC, which formed in the pandemic’s earliest days to protect independent operations, will now hold listening session with its members and others to determine its next fight, Polmar said.
“There’s a perception that the IRC is not the Independent Restaurant Coalition but the RRF coalition, and that’s simply not the case,” she said. “I’m looking forward to working on finding solutions to a lot of the problems that were laid bare by the pandemic on our industry.”
Some of those problems might include a re-thinking of the Farm Bill and lobbying around the employee retention tax credit, she said, noting that the exact scope of the IRC’s work is far from decided.
One thing is for sure, though, she said:
The pandemic has awakened a never-before-seen level of political engagement among small restaurant operators, and they are not backing down.
“I don’t know that the folks that voted against this know what they’ve created with the devastation in this industry and the competition in their races,” Polmar said. “Some restaurant owners are running for office. Closing the business and running in the next election.”
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.