(Updates with detail on data source in 7th paragraph and lobbying disclosure data in 14th paragraph.)
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The restaurant industry is seeking to convince Congress they need an extra helping of federal relief despite the perception that customers are dining out again as coronavirus restrictions fall and the economy rebounds.
The National Restaurant Association and the Independent Restaurant Coalition are revving up a lobbying effort to get lawmakers to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund that was part of the pandemic relief package (Public Law 117-2) lawmakers passed earlier this year.
One of the main challenges for the advocates are images of restaurants reopening and welcoming diners, which gives the impression their situation is on the mend.
Although the Senate adopted the amendment to include the Restaurant Revitalization Fund in the stimulus bill by a vote of 90-10, it’s still unclear if there’s an appetite on Capitol Hill to hand out more funding.
“This bill is by no means a slam dunk,” Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs at the National Restaurant Association, said in a telephone interview. “If people see customers dining outdoors, it’s very easy to say life is back to normal. The reality for restaurants is, it’s anything but.”
Industry officials say the recovery is likely to still be bumpy for many restaurants. Many closed or severely reduced operations for more than a year, costing restaurants and bars over $280 billion in sales, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the National Restaurant Association.
As restaurants attempt to reopen, they’re facing months of debt, rising food prices, staffing shortages and, in 13 states, lingering dining restrictions such as capacity limits.
Since the Small Business Administration opened the application process for the federal funding on May 3, the demand more than outstripped the supply. More than 362,000 businesses applied, amounting to $75 billion in requests, according to the New York Times.
“Failure isn’t an option here. And neither is being anything but belligerently optimistic,” said Erika Polmar, the executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, formed by celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, head judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Naomi Pomeroy, a Portland-based chef, and Kwame Onwuachi, a former “Top Chef” contestant from Washington, D.C.
In addition to the high-profile support, the coalition has a network of more than 100,000 email list subscribers who are encouraged to reach out to lawmakers directly.
The National Restaurant Association has also activated its grassroots network to leverage the fact that restaurant owners and operators are constituents in every congressional district, Kennedy said. Its team of lobbyists is also working with the sponsors of the legislation to bolster support and rack up other co-signers.
“It truly is an office-by-office, door-to-door approach that we’re going to have to take,” he said.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition has two lobbying firms on retainer and spent $60,000 on lobbying during the first three months of this year, more than it spent in all of 2020, when it was formed. The National Restaurant Association spent $690,000 in the first quarter of 2021. The organization has four firms on retainer, recently bringing on top lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
The House bill introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) has 109 cosponsors. In the Senate, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) have nine cosponsors, though their bill was only recently introduced, on June 16.
In a media call held by the Independent Restaurant Coalition in March, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’d be there to help “if, God forbid, we need to renew” funding for the grant program. Industry advocates say Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been supportive as well.
Advocates say they don’t have a preference for whether the extra funding is a standalone measure or if it’s tucked into a larger piece of legislation such as an infrastructure package or an omnibus spending bill.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund has already been beset by issues, even beyond the overwhelming demand for funds.
Lawsuits filed against the Small Business Administration by White business owners — including one suit brought by an organization run by former Trump White House official Stephen Miller — claim that the provision to prioritize restaurants owned by women, minorities, and under-served groups is discriminatory.
Judges in Texas and Tennessee agreed with the plaintiffs, and nearly 3,000 people who were approved for priority Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants had them rescinded, the New York Times reported Monday.
Kennedy, of the National Restaurant Association, wrote a letter on June 17 to Small Business Administrator Isabel Guzman about the rulings.
“These 2,965 restaurants received a commitment from the SBA for federal relief, and they deserve every effort to achieve this,” he wrote. “We urge you to review all pandemic relief programs under your control for the prospect of any appropriate reprogramming of federal dollars to fulfill your prior commitments to them.”
In a statement to Bloomberg Government, Guzman highlighted the “hundreds of billions of dollars in economic relief” the SBA has distributed to help communities across the country.
“While the President continues to drive SBA and its sister agencies to use every tool available to support small businesses, we at the SBA will continue to work around the clock to get the nation’s restaurants, venues, and other small businesses back on track.”
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