A few hundred of Idaho’s restaurants and bars just got an infusion of cash to help them get through the COVID-19 pandemic, but others are still hurting.
Earlier this year, 304 Gem State restaurants got a total of $47 million spread statewide through the federal government’s Restaurant Relief Fund to help cover the industry’s deep losses after over a year of shutdowns and then hesitant diners staying home worrying about infection. For the businesses who landed grants, some in the hundreds of thousands, it was a lifesaver. But, businesses whose applications weren’t successful are eyeing the coming winter and spiking case numbers with concern.
Dave Krick, with independent restaurant advocacy organization FARE Idaho, said multiple compounding factors have hit the restaurant industry hard. Things might look busy and back to normal in most restaurants since the vaccines became readily available. However, Krick said many are still not running at 100% capacity because of hiring difficulties, steep price increases, and uncertainty in the supply chain.
“It is tough for so many restaurants,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking, and that’s to me, who we are really fighting for across this country. Restaurants are important businesses not just because they employ a lot of people but because the industry provides a lot of economic support to a big part of our country’s economy. I think it’s unfortunate how tough our industry has been hit.”
Top Ten grant recipients in Idaho
- Twin Falls Golden Corral – $1,716,667
- China Grand Buffet – $1,189,317
- Juniper – $1,149,556
- Reef – $1,139,786
- City Buffet Nampa – $1,056,095
- Pacific Crest Concessions Caldwell – $969,773.96
- Bardenay – $958,167
- Certified Kitchen + Bakery $895,041.04
- The Balcony Club $767,906
- Mulligan’s Pub and Eatery $740,777
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Unlike the PPP loans, these grants under the American Rescue Plan package are not required to be repaid if they are misspent. Restaurants are still required to spend it on the things they said they would, but the program allows more flexibility to not only pay for costs to adapt to COVID-19 but also recoup their losses and move forward.
The relief was open to restaurants, bars, saloons, bakeries, nightclubs, distilleries, food trucks, snack stands, inns, and caterers, as long as they proved a certain percentage of their sales were to the public on-site or food and beverages. The bill gave relief to lots of small businesses across Idaho, but chain restaurants also recouped losses thanks to this program. The maximum amount any business could be awarded was $10 million.
The top grant recipient in Idaho was Golden Corral in Twin Falls, with a $1.7 million payout. Following close behind was the China Grand Buffet on Fairview Avenue with $1.2 million and downtown Boise’s upscale eatery Juniper with $1.1 million. Nearly all of the top ten Idaho grant recipients were local restaurants in downtown Boise, like Reef, Bardenay, Mulligan’s Pub & Eatery, and Balcony Club.
Of the 304 Idaho recipients, many establishments received much smaller amounts. For instance, Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin’s Idaho Falls restaurant The Celt received roughly $126,000.
Juniper and Chinese Buffet take home top Boise grants
Zhi Zeng, who works at China Grand Buffet and a former manager of the restaurant, said the grant was a big help to keep the business running. But, they’re not out of the woods yet. He said it’s been difficult to convince customers to feel safe to return, and prices for items like chicken have spiked. Plus, there’s the looming question of COVID-19 persisting to consider.
“What we have to do is probably look to increase our prices again,” he said. “So far since we first opened, we slowly increased our prices a little bit, a little bit, but we might have to increase again if we need to, which nobody wants. The Delta variant is definitely concerning, so we’ll see.”
Juniper might have gotten a big payout, but owners Shannon Lincoln and Kacey Montgomery didn’t get grants for their two other Red Bench Pizza restaurants. They said the grant helped them handle the uncertainty after they closed Juniper for months during the pandemic, but they hope more aid for the fund is released to help more restaurants.
“We urge Congress to pass the proposed measures to replenish the fund so that all restaurants have a chance to survive what continues to be one of the most challenging situations ever faced by the industry,” a statement from the owners said. “Restaurants are the beating heart of our communities, giving us a place to gather and break bread with our neighbors and loved ones.”
There’s been a lot of aid for restaurants and other businesses available since early 2020, but not everyone has been able to access it.
Krick said roughly 1,000 Idaho businesses applied for the Restaurant Relief Fund, but only 304 landed it. A spokesman for the Idaho office of the U.S. Small Business Administration told BoiseDev grants were given out on a first-come, first-serve basis until funds were paid out.
Inequities in access
Critics of the aid programs said they were most easily accessible to well-connected business owners who are well versed in complex bureaucratic programs. The complexity of the paperwork required and the narrow window of the application periods put lower-income business owners with less time and those who don’t speak English at a disadvantage.
In an extensive review of all Idaho businesses that received grants, BoiseDev could only identify 18 grants to Latino-owned businesses, even though Latinos make up 13% of the state’s population. BoiseDev could only identify three businesses owned by refugees who received grants.
Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Director of Programs Lisa Florenzen said the grant process was especially difficult for Mom and Pop businesses where the owners might not speak English as their first language. She said they often struggled to pull together the right documentation and learn about the programs in time to even be in contention.
“They were not clear on where they should go, and so we would point them out to go to the right direction, but they weren’t prepared with the documents they needed to get some of that funding processed,” Florenzen said. “Unfortunately, because a lot of them waited until the last minute to get assistance when the window might have already closed.”
Fighting to stay alive
Other businesses applied in time with all of the proper paperwork and still didn’t get good news.
Christopher Zahn, the owner of Zee’s Rooftop Cafe and event venue in downtown Boise, is facing potential closure on October 1st because he lost out on a Restaurant Relief Fund grant. His business mostly serves lunchtime business customers and caters for events on the 9th floor of the C.W. Moore building and has been slower to recover than eateries on Restaurant Row.
Zee’s lost 245 events in 2020 and slower lunch traffic as workers continue to work at home. This loss put him in the hole for over 6 months’ worth of rent, valued at over $20,000. He was told that he qualified for a $75,000 grant, but the government informed him the funds had been expended. If he can’t come up with the money by September 1, his business will close.
He is frustrated that national corporations, like McDonald’s franchises and Walt Disney World restaurants, could access the grants, while Zee’s and others are left out. Zahn said he would have instead like to see the government fill the grant applications for the smallest amounts first so the fund could have served the smallest businesses first and saved more restaurants.
In the meantime, Zahn and his fiancee are hustling to staff as many events, weddings, and catering for the Western Idaho Fair performers as they can to get the rent money and hold onto the restaurant. They don’t have any employees right now, leaving the two of them to cook, serve and clean for all of their events by themselves.
“We needed a simple $75,000 from the grant, and that would keep us alive for a year,” Zahn told BoiseDev. “Basically, with everybody canceling and being nine stories up in an office building with some of the offices not coming back until 2022, it’s kind of hard to sell people food when they’re not allowed to come to work.
Correction: A previous version of this story only included a portion of grant funds allocated to Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin’s Idaho Falls restaurant The Celt. It has been corrected to reflect the higher amount of roughly $126,000.