Another lifeline is coming for the restaurant industry. The Small Business Administration announced this week that it will soon begin taking applications for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund program, which was established by U.S. Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan.
Missy Kelleher is the owner of Bernice’s Bakery in Missoula, and she says without government support, her business probably would have had to let employees go — or even close.
Kelleher says, "We've retained every single one of our employees that have chosen to stay."
She says sales were down about 35% for the first two months of the pandemic. For safety, the shop was only open for curbside pickup through the winter. Right before their third busiest holiday, Valentine’s Day, an employee tested positive for COVID, and they had to temporarily shut their doors while the whole staff quarantined. But, with spring weather and declining case numbers, they’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
"We've reopened our doors, we're seeing our volume go back to normal, per se. And in fact, we're not even able to keep up with demand at the moment."
Kelleher says the bakery was approved for two Paycheck Protection Program loans, one of which was forgiven. It also qualified for three state grants and is currently applying for an Employee Retention Credit under the CARES Act.
She says that help might be enough to get the business through the year. But for restaurants that need a little more to keep the doors open, there’s a new program in the pipeline.
Director for the Montana District of the Small Business Administration Brent Donnelly says the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund program is designed to make up for lost revenue suffered by restaurants, bakeries, breweries and even food trucks.
"This is one of the industries that had a lot of restrictions during COVID, especially early on."
The $2.8-billion program targets small businesses. Operations with more than 20 locations aren’t eligible, but franchises are. It also prioritizes businesses owned by women, veterans and socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
There will be a pilot period where a small group of eligible businesses that have received PPP loans will get a first crack at the application process. Donnelly says the SBA chose to stress test the portal after the organization temporarily closed the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant earlier this month due problems with the online system.
Peter Lambros is the owner of Italian restaurant Caffe Dolce in Missoula and he says he plans to apply for the new program. He says they temporarily closed when the weather became too cold for outdoor dining.
"Our clients aren’t comfortable coming indoors and gathering in the amount we’d need to just exist."
The restaurant is preparing to reopen soon, with a new bakery section to hopefully attract more customers.
The SBA has not yet set a date to open the application, but Brent Donnelly with the Montana SBA says interested businesses can visit SBA.gov for more information and encourages them to begin gathering necessary documents.