It seemed Cheryl Straughter finally had something going for her.
The chef-owner of Soleil in Nubian Square spent months working with an “alphabet soup” of advocacy groups to push for the creation of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. And it worked: In April, the federal government allocated $28.6 billion in grants for restaurants in the American Rescue Plan, and put businesses owned by women and people of color first in line.
Straughter is both, and had her application at the ready. Yet seconds after she hit “submit” she was rejected. At issue, she says, was the calculus involved in the eligibility requirements. At the end of 2020, Soleil had received a contract to produce hundreds of meals for people in need. It didn’t replace nearly a year’s worth of lost sales, but it skewed her revenue numbers. “It appeared that we had this windfall,” she said. But that contract’s now gone, and so are her chances of getting the federal grant.
“The Revitalization Fund was supposed to help all these business get out of the quicksand,” Straughter said. “But it didn’t work for me.”
The restaurant industry lobbied hard for a grant program that would help eateries recoup losses from prolonged shutdowns during the pandemic. And the RRF was hailed as a victory when it was announced.
But its rollout was pockmarked with issues — foremost of which was a discrimination lawsuit brought by white business owners challenging the program’s 21-day priority period for businesses owned by women, people of color, and veterans. In June, the Small Business Administration rescinded grants that had been awarded to nearly 3,000 business owners in the priority categories, leaving many in the lurch. So this month, as the agency announced the closing of the fund, it left a bitter taste in many mouths.
“It’s just such a bummer,” said Irene Li, the owner of Mei Mei Boston and the program manager of CommonWealth Kitchen’s Restaurant Resiliency Fund. Li has been working to help a group of food businesses recover from the pandemic, including Slaughter’s, and three-quarters of them didn’t access the funds, she said.
“For these restaurant owners, it feels like insult on top of injury,” she said. “It’s like, ‘This was supposed to be for us.’ ”
Many advocates hesitated to speak openly about their frustrations — partly because Massachusetts fared fairly well, receiving $993 million, more than all but five other states. A total of 2,556 businesses here were awarded grants, out of some 6,867 applicants. And the average award was $388,000, the highest in the country.
On Friday, SBA released a full database of recipients. In Massachusetts, they ranged from a handful of large restaurant and catering groups that received $10 million apiece to food stand operators who got less than $2,000.
In all, the SBA handed out awards to 101,004 restaurants. It received 278,000 applications asking for a total of $72 billion. Now, 177,000 applicants who qualified are still waiting for over $43 billion in outstanding funding.
“I believe the Mass. Restaurant Association, SBA, Mass. Restaurants United, and Senator Markey’s office did a great job of educating, communicating, and teaching our restaurant community what had to be done and when, and it paid off,” said Bob Luz, president of the Mass Restaurant Association. “Now it’s rinse and repeat.”
Luz and others in the industry are pushing for an additional $60 billion to be poured into the RRF coffers in hopes that owners like Slaughter get their share.
It’s a sentiment echoed by those who did get grants, including Erik Hynes, who received funding for three of his four restaurants on the South Shore. “We’re all in the same boat. We were all forced to close,” he said. “I feel badly for restaurants that need to access additional funds that weren’t able to get it.”
Andy Husbands, who owns several Smoke Shop BBQ restaurants in Greater Boston, is among those who who qualified but didn’t receive a grant. He acknowledged he’s luckier than most: His businesses stayed open throughout the pandemic, received PPP funds, and sold barbecue, a comfort food that traveled well in a time of crisis.
But he believes that unless the RRF is re-upped, it may lead to more fallout — and closures — in the months ahead.
“There are people who owe back rent, and people who need to buy things and fix things, who counted on this for survival,” Husbands said. “It’s a bad situation.”