Now, the effort appears to be paying off, as an independent restaurant bailout bill wends its way through Congress, garnering uncommon bipartisan support.
“Restaurants are the backbone of so many of our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, during a half-hour Facebook live roundtable she convened Thursday on the topic. “We’ve got to make sure we keep them strong.”
In March, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) sprung out of the need to give voice to the 500,000 non-chain restaurants in America, many of whom felt they’d been left out of the conversation over stimulus funding despite making up most of the industry’s business.
By April, the newly formed trade group had commissioned an independent study that found 85% of independent restaurants across the country could close by year’s end without government intervention.
In June, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced the RESTAURANTS Act of 2020, shorthand for Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive. To date, the bill has garnered 80 co-sponsors in the House, including two Republicans.
In the Senate, it was Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Missouri who introduced a mirror bill in July. Three Democrats and two Republican Senators including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham have signed on as co-sponsors.
The nearly identical bills both aim to establish a $120 billion restaurant revitalization fund at the U.S. Treasury Dept. earmarked for grants that would go to independent restaurants.
Any independent restaurant that suffered year-over-year losses in 2020 would be eligible for a RESTAURANTS Act grant, but those with annual revenues of $1.5 million or less would be prioritized during the first two weeks of the program. Priority would also be given to restaurants in marginalized and underrepresented communities, with a focus on those run by women, veterans and minorities.
The fund would run through the end of the year and any grants not used up by then would be converted to low-interest loans – an inversion of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Publicly traded companies and franchises with more than 20 locations would not be eligible.
Dingell, a co-sponsor of the House bill, convened the Facebook Live panel to bring awareness to the legislation and hear directly from folks in the industry.
Joining Dingell were Rep. Blumenauer; Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor; Ping Ho, owner of Marrow and Mink restaurants and The Royce wine bar in Detroit; and Melvin Parson of We the People Growers Association and We the People Opportunity Farm in Ypsilanti.
“You can’t imagine our communities without the independent neighborhood restaurants,” Blumenaeur said during the panel. “It’s a place where we gather. It’s the place where there is opportunity for economic advancement.”
According to Blumenauer, a full half of all the unemployed in April came from independent restaurants.
Blumenauer said the RESTAURANTS Act was crafted “arm-in-arm” with the Independent Restaurant Coalition and cited a number of statistics from the IRC’s report in the discussion. One key figure: a $120 billion stabilization fund would provide $248 billion in net economic benefit through the supply chain.
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“Ninety-eight or 99 cents out of every dollar that would be invested in restaurants through this bill is almost immediately, within a week or two – and I’m not joking – will be passed to the vendors and the community,” Weinzweig said. “This isn’t going to some distant office somewhere and disappearing. It’s going back into the community.”
During his remarks, Weinzweig fought back tears as he described how disheartening it is to dedicate so much time to creating an institution that prides itself o…