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Column: The lack of help for our restaurants is a national disgrace

Petit Trois
Small restaurants need targeted relief in the light of state-mandated COVID-19 shutdowns.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times )

Sandra Cordero, chef and owner of Gasolina Cafe in Woodland Hills, has heard the word “pivot” a lot this year.

“I’ll slap someone in the face if I hear that one more time,” she said, and laughed. She pivoted from a fully open restaurant to takeout and delivery, then veered to outdoor dining and has now pirouetted back to takeout again. She’s had to pivot while furloughing, rehiring and refurloughing many of her 30 employees, some of whom depend on the health insurance she’s started providing.

She’s tired of pivoting.

With the implementation of regional stay-at-home orders that prohibit outdoor dining in a majority of California counties, Cordero and other local restaurant owners feel that the last thin, frayed lifeline they were counting on to get them through the winter has been yanked from their hands. And with hope fading for restaurant-specific stimulus on a national level, many are at a breaking point.

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Whether or not you agree with an outdoor dining ban, one thing is abundantly clear: Our restaurants need money. They have been needing money: Approximately 110,000 restaurants have closed nationally since the beginning of the pandemic, and many more will fall without financial aid.

It’s beyond shameful for our federal and local governments to ignore them or feed them scraps, as has been happening for the last eight months. It’s pathetic for a country of our means, and it’s unspeakably cruel.

“It feels like you’re begging people for business,” Cordero said, referring to the endless ways restaurants have been forced to pivot (that word again) to save their businesses in the absence of meaningful state or federal aid: takeout and delivery offers; grocery sales; themed dinners; meal sponsorships for seniors.

“Buy this, sponsor this, a lot of people are doing GoFundMes,” Cordero said. “I just want to work. And my employees just want to work. We want to contribute to society.”

On a local level, Los Angeles has thrown a meager bone to restaurant workers: a one-time $800 payment to 4,000 applicants, a fraction of the estimated 185,000 jobs in restaurants and bars lost during the first two months of the pandemic, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. It doesn’t cover rent in L.A., where the average apartment costs $2,254 per month.

For restaurant owners, it’s not much better. The Keep L.A. County Dining program, a $5.6 million grant program designed to provide $30,000 to restaurants in need, was capped at 2,500 applicants — 8% of the estimated 31,000 restaurants in L.A. County. It quickly filled up and applications closed.

That particular grant program was, as Kwini Reed discovered, puzzlingly not available to her restaurant, Poppy + Rose, a breakfast and lunch place in downtown’s Flower District. She stayed up until midnight the evening applications went live, so she could best have a shot at getting a grant.

“I discovered my business, which is in downtown L.A., was not eligible,” she said and paused, incredulous. A look at the fine print on the county website indeed shows that to be eligible, you must be a small business “located in Los Angeles County, not including the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena.”

“It’s a very powerless feeling,” said Reed, noting that this shutdown actually feels more dire than the first shutdown in March. “Nine, 10 months into this, it seems like we should be more proactive than reactive.” Local and federal governments, she said, have been “very aware of the issues we faced.”

Reed and her partner put $10,000 into creating an outdoor space that felt safe to them. “We really thought it through,” she said. “What would make us feel comfortable? We live in a home with my parents who are 70 and 71.”

To be shut down again, suddenly and with no plan in place, was frustrating. Reed cited what she said is a dearth of direct evidence that outdoor dining, specifically, had caused any superspreader events (Superior Court Judge James Chalfant issued a tentative ruling Tuesday that the outdoor dining shutdown was “arbitrary”) but also acknowledged, “In the back of my head, I understand it [the shutdown].”

“I don’t mind closing,” Reed said. “But at least lend me some relief.”

(Responding to questions regarding the latest outdoor dining shutdown, a representative for the L.A. County Department of Health wrote in an email that it is “committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents from a deadly virus that has claimed the lives of 8,000 of our friends, family and neighbors.”)

For Reed and other independent restaurant owners, it’s been eight months since they’ve seen any economic relief on the federal level. The Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, was the centerpiece of the CARES Act, the $2.2-trillion stimulus bill signed into law in March.

But the program has failed to help on multiple levels. Rollout was spotty. Designed to aid small businesses, the program issued millions to chains like Ruby Tuesday, TGI Fridays and P.F. Chang’s; $10 million went to Ted’s Montana Grill, a steakhouse founded by billionaire Ted Turner, and an additional $10 million went to a law firm run by a personal lawyer of President Trump. All in all, 1% of loan recipients received an outsized 25% of the disbursed loan money.

Anthony Suggs, a food truck owner I profiled in June, was unable to receive a loan because he had opened his business too recently. Debby Takikawa, a farmer I interviewed last month, is bracing for a huge tax bill: Per the IRS, business expenses that would ordinarily be tax-deductible cannot be deducted if paid for with PPP money.

For Reed, who received a PPP loan, the program was poorly thought out. The funds “felt like a waste of money to me,” she said, due to the restrictions business owners faced in spending the loan — 75% of the money was mandated to be used for payroll expenses (which was later reduced to 60%). “You’re telling me I have to pay employees who aren’t here,” she said. “It would have been better to say, ‘We’re giving you money to pay your rent. We’re giving you money to pay your vendors.’

“Give us an audit, fine,” Reed said. “But let us spend the money on what we need. We know best how to keep our business afloat.”

Cordero’s experience with PPP was similar to Reed’s — the parameters of the loan made little sense. “We were told, ‘You have two months to spend it,’” Cordero said. “So I hired everybody back. I was a little overstaffed, really.”

In Washington, our senators and congresspeople continue to play with the livelihoods of our restaurant owners and workers in a noxious game of chicken. The $3-trillion Heroes Act stimulus package was passed by the House in May but was never considered by the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now threatening to jettison a pared down $908 billion bill, because he would rather prioritize protecting corporations from lawsuits related to COVID-19.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition, a trade group composed of chefs and independent restaurant owners, helped lobby for passage of the Restaurants Act, a $120-billion aid bill authored by Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer that targets restaurants. It would favor those with less than $1.5 million in annual revenues and businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Sherman Oaks Democrat and cosponsor of the bill, wrote in an emailed statement, “We introduced legislation in the House to specifically assist independent restaurants, and the House included it as a priority in the slimmed-down relief package we passed over two months ago. However, President Trump and Senate Leader McConnell rejected it.”

“Right now it is kind of in limbo,” explained Caroline Styne, L.A.-based restaurateur and member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition advisory committee. McConnell and the Senate, she explained, wouldn’t pick it up. “They were very against industry-specific solutions.”

Styne, whose restaurant portfolio includes A.O.C., Tavern and the Larder at Maple Drive, is dismayed at the “pretty poor” federal response to the crisis. “The fact that here we are, in December, still begging and pleading for them to take care of restaurants is incredibly frustrating,” she said.

“Other countries have supported their restaurants and businesses pretty impressively, and we’re the only country that has not.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled his L.A. Al Fresco dining program in May, inviting local restaurants to invest in expanding their outdoor dining spaces. Styne, like other L.A. restaurant owners, poured money into furniture and equipment. At A.O.C., Styne’s team invested $20,000 in their outdoor dining space and put a $10,000 down payment on a roof to shield the patio from rain. “Five days later, they shut us all down,” Styne said.

The whiplash and mixed messages from local authorities, Styne said, “has put all of us in a tailspin and a more vulnerable position than we were before.”

Cordero echoed that sentiment. “Three months ago, you told us to build these crazy outdoor situations, and now you’re like, ‘Sorry, that wasn’t such a good idea,’” she said.

For Reed, Cordero, Styne and others, a long winter approaches and the hope for targeted relief is waning. “The only way we’re going to get through it is if the government passes something specifically for restaurants,” Reed said.

The toll is not just financial — it’s mentally and emotionally taxing as well. “We walk into our restaurant every day, and it’s empty,” Reed said. “All the hard work you put in; it’s like walking into an empty home with no furniture. And you live there.”

She described the feeling as being at war but having no weapons to fight with.

“They need to pass the Restaurants Act,” said Cordero. “Like, yesterday.”

I’ve reported extensively on the struggles of the food industry and its workers. As a columnist, it’s my job to find the words to show the state of affairs. But the callous inaction of our public officials has left me speechless and questioning whether they have any clue at all about what’s happening to our restaurants and, frankly, if they even care.

The 1993 action film “Demolition Man” projected a future where Taco Bell was the only surviving restaurant. It’s meant to be humorous, but it is, honest to God, where we are headed as a country. And when it happens, I can guarantee you’re not going to like it.

Pass the Restaurants Act. Do it, as Cordero said, yesterday. For many restaurants, it’s unfortunately already too late. But there’s still a chance to stanch the bleeding. Our small restaurants, which drive our economy, give our cities character and provide us with memories and opportunities to celebrate, mourn and get together with loved ones, are on life support. They are disappearing.

And we will be sorry when they’re gone.


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