Opinion: Congress Cannot Leave Restaurants and Bars Behind

Opinion: Congress Cannot Leave Restaurants and Bars Behind

By Rawlston Williams, Owner of The Food Sermon in Brooklyn

I closed my doors just last week, and I am not sure if or when I will open them again. The Food Sermon burst onto the food scene in 2015 with a dazzling New York Times review. We went from opening our doors to on the map within days, as people from around the city traveled to my small spot in Crown Heights to eat my food. Word about my business traveled to the City Council, which offered me a marquee position in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was a perfect situation — serving New York City’s next great working neighborhood.

Only seven weeks after we opened in February 2020, my dreams of serving this burgeoning community came to a halt. Those dreams were deferred for 18 more months and right when we thought things would turn around, the Delta variant paused the return to work all around the city. The small entrepreneurs, actors, and workers I served are not returning to the Navy Yard any time soon. My business is not the only one struggling with consumer hesitancy stemming due to the variant. Reservations in restaurants in New York City are down over 50% of their 2019 levels. People simply are not dining out.

This week marks a major hurdle in federal efforts to save businesses like mine. Congresswoman Velázquez and members of the Small Business Committee in Congress are reviewing the proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package and I was shocked to learn that this budget does not include more funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which has helped so many New York restaurants get back on their feet. Senator Schumer said the initial $28.6 billion in funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was a down payment, and we can’t wait any longer for Congress to fund this program. If this committee fails to recognize that my businesses and thousands like mine need help, we are going to close. There’s no way around it.

Unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, the situation for our industry is far more dire. Our businesses have taken on nearly a year and a half of debt and are dealing with the rising cost of food that continues to eat into our bottom lines.  

I have done everything I can to keep my business afloat during the past year and a half. I cut down our menu. My business is operating with a skeletal staff. I’m doing all of the shopping for the restaurant myself to avoid delivery fees. Along with the head chef, I became the dishwasher. But it has not been enough. For me and thousands of operators like myself, our pandemic-long battle has come at a cost — restaurants and bars have lost over $280 billion since the start of the pandemic.

For many of my colleagues, the immediate financial hardship imposed by the pandemic was simply too much to keep their businesses afloat. Over 90,000 had no choice but to close their doors, but those of us who are still open are barely hanging on. 39% of restaurants could not pay their June rent — these missed supplier, rent, and utility payments are creating a mountain of debt that will soon come due.

A few weeks of normal business were simply not enough for our industry to climb out of the hole the pandemic has placed us in, especially because running a restaurant at this time is so much more costly. We are purchasing more personal protective equipment than ever. Gloves are expensive and not always available. We bought a protective divider at the counter and more masks than I can count. I need support to recover from the past year and half and navigate the uncertain months ahead. According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition – who have been fighting for restaurants like mine since March – fully funding the Restaurant Revitalization Fund will save 50,153 New York small businesses, the 966,600 leisure and hospitality workers we support, and protect a $51.6 billion New York restaurant economy.

The over 101,000 businesses that received grants from the Small Business Administration are going to survive but more than 177,000 independent restaurants and bars applied and were left out of the first round of funding, including me.

Congress cannot help some business, but not all businesses. We can’t just “figure it out” on our own. That’s why Rep. Nydia Velázquez, my local representative, needs to prioritize allocating relief for our struggling industry. Congresswoman Velázquez has been a staunch advocate for restaurants during the pandemic, and as the Chair of the Small Business Committee, she is uniquely positioned to advocate for our survival.

Serving our community has been a tremendous privilege. If Congress fails to refill the RRF, my business will certainly close for good. There is no way we can sustain without help from Congress. Our representatives can save thousands of small businesses, keep Americans working, and reinvigorate the economy by refilling the RRF.

The road to build our restaurant took three years from beginning to end. We invested our entire life savings in our business. If Congress does not refill the RRF, we will lose everything we have worked so hard for.

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