Just over a year ago, Henry Manice and Naveen Pawar of Mighty Squirrel brewery were feeling giddy. Having recently opened their massive taproom in Waltham, they were putting the finishing touches on the space — in particular, plans for a function room — when the pandemic stopped them in their tracks.
Today, they’ve hit a new stride. Working with their landlord, they created a huge turf-covered patio over their parking lot with more than 300 outdoor seats. QR codes let people order beers from their tables. The lines get so long on weekends that they hand out frisbees to customers to entertain themselves on a nearby lawn.
The duo joined Representative Katherine Clark at their brewery on Thursday to acknowledge Small Business Week, where they credited the Small Business Administration’s aid programs with helping them keep their business afloat.
“We were in a pretty serious financial jam in order to continue making good with our employees and our landlord,” Manice said, explaining that he was able to use Paycheck Protection Program funds to pay his workers while he invested in HVAC equipment and the patio build-out. “Having the government offer that funding and the belief that we could power through things . . . it’s just absolutely critical.”
Clark hosted a roundtable event with Manice, Pawar, and other local business owners, who shared stories of the past year navigating both the pandemic and the various funding programs the government offered as a life raft. While the SBA programs were frustrating at the start — a good number of small businesses fell through the cracks at first — many attendees said they were grateful.
“I didn’t know how we were going to make it,” said Jeff Abellard, owner of Bistro 781 in Waltham. He said the federal funding, plus the willingness of Waltham’s civic leaders to open up its main artery, Moody Street, to pedestrians, created “a ripple effect” that helped businesses throughout the town survive.
And Lorenzo Tereiro, owner of La Qchara in Melrose, said the Paycheck Protection Program funds allowed him to keep his staff on payroll and helped him keep paying his vendors. “I cannot be more thankful for having the opportunity to receive such funds, and for them to be forgiven,” he said.
Clark said it was heartening to hear from small business owners who have contorted themselves to make things work throughout the past year.
“We know that we’re not out of the woods, but to hear the stories of how small business owners are able to use those funds and to have them described as a lifeline — which is a word I hear business owners use over and over — is gratifying,” Clark said.
This week also marks the start of the application process for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the $28.6 billion grant program that was created as part of the American Rescue Plan. The SBA reported that in the first two days since it opened to women, veterans, and socially and economically disadvantaged restaurant owners, it had received 186,200 applications, 61,700 of which were businesses with under $500,000 in annual pre-pandemic revenues.
Some business owners said they were seeing hiccups, however, in the early days of the new fund.
Jen Ziskin, the owner of three restaurants in the area, Heritage of Sherborn and La Morra and Punch Bowl in Brookline, said she had been eager to apply to the fund. “We were preparing for this for weeks,” she said. So she was surprised to learn only two of her three restaurants were eligible, as the Heritage did well enough revenue-wise last year that it didn’t qualify.
Ziskin said it was frustrating that the application didn’t account for all the expenses she had to lay out last year to create outdoor dining for the space. “I’m just fearful that there isn’t enough money and we need to make sure everyone gets what they need,” she said.
Clark acknowledged that creating funding opportunities for small businesses has been a series of fits and starts in Congress, but she said she’s committed to ensuring they get the long-term support they need to see economic recovery in the years ahead.
“I think it is our job in Congress to continue to look at the systems of how we got here and how the pandemic caused this almost instantaneous collapse,” she said, stressing the need for more fundamental support for child-care, transportation, and job programs.
“We can’t turn away from that now that we are starting to get vaccinated and consumer confidence is returning,” Clark said. “We have to make sure that we’re addressing those systemic pieces that so many of these owners talked about.”