As restaurants across the country face staffing shortages and empty tables thanks to the latest wave of COVID-19, the Massachusetts Conference for Women has dished out $400,000 in grants to 80 women-owned restaurants across the state from Boston to North Adams.
Each recipient was awarded $5,000 — money they could spend covering payroll, paying vendors, purchasing supplies, whatever they need to keep the doors open.
“When I received the e-mail, I felt seen,” said Katerina Iliades, owner of Greek International Food Market in West Roxbury. “It felt like a glimmer of hope.”
When COVID hit, Greek International lost all of its staff, leaving just Iliades and her chef to run the restaurant. She said she hopes to use the $5,000 to purchase a new grill and uniforms for employees.
A nonprofit dedicated to magnifying the voices of women in the workplace, the Massachusetts Conference for Women awarded $330,000 in grant money last year, which founding board member Marian Heard said was crucial to keeping businesses afloat.
The grant money is a fraction of the nearly $1 billion the federal government sent to Massachusetts restaurants in April as part of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. But thousands of applicants were shut out from these payments — and advocates are pushing for more federal and state funds to help the struggling industry.
Some recipients of the Conference for Women grants missed the deadline to apply for federal assistance or did not know how to do so, making the recent financial aid that much more essential.
“We feel it’s critical for women to support women, and we know quite honestly that last year we made a big difference in their business and their lives,” said Heard, who is also vice chair of the board.
The board voted to increase grant funding to $400,000 this year, and the selection process took months. In partnership with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, the Conference for Women encouraged female-owned restaurants around the state to apply, with a small form explaining how the grant money would impact them. The responses, Heard said, were “quite poignant.”
“People are suffering, they need money just to keep the doors open,” she said. “So the money this year and last year was critical to the survival of some of these businesses.”
An Nguyen, one of three female owners of grant recipient Sugidama Soba & Izakaya in Somerville, said business is down 50 percent since last summer and fall thanks to the Omicron-fueled surge in COVID cases. A majority of Sugidama’s employees are women, Nguyen said, and the restaurant will likely use the grant money to support them.
“Everyone is talking about labor shortages, but we’ve never had that problem,” said Nguyen. “I think if you treated your employees well before the pandemic, they will be loyal to you.”
Sandrine Rossi of Frenchie Wine Bistro in Boston has a similar vision of how she plans to use the grant money, and will put the funds toward supporting a manager’s maternity leave.
“I think one of the lessons of the pandemic is we need to take better care of ourselves and each other,” said Rossi. “[The grant money] gives us room to have conversations about leave and vacation time, so we can plan better and it’s easier on employees.”
Kelly Fernandes, a co-owner of Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, called the grant a “blessing.” She said one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been the rising cost of supplies.
“Dealing with higher food costs has been really tough, because that forces us to raise our prices,” said Fernandes. “We’re trying really hard to not make it expensive to have a cup of coffee or to get a salad or sandwich.”
Outside of the immediate impacts the grant money will have on the recipients, the $400,000 also reflects the importance of women-owned restaurants to the broader community, said Iliades.
“I just feel very fortunate to be offered this opportunity,” she said. “As a mother of two young girls, it’s often difficult to juggle work and home. And I feel that with this movement of women supporting one another, that it gives women and our daughters hope and pride to do what we’re really passionate about.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.