Without federal relief, some warn Richmond’s restaurant scene ‘could disappear’


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As another coronavirus relief package stalls in Congress, some restaurant owners fear they won’t survive without additional federal funding. 

Kevin Liu, co-owner of Richmond’s Carytown Cupcakes, The Jasper and The Tin Pan, was one of more than a dozen industry representatives to meet with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) on Monday. 

Seven months into the pandemic, Liu said their sales are less than half of what they used to be and The Tin Pan–a live music venue–is still completely closed. Liu said permanent closure isn’t imminent, though it’s possible. 

“Honestly this relief extends my lifeline for a few more months,” Liu said. “It gives us a chance at turning a profit and to decide that the business is worth running.” 

Sen. Warner assured restaurant owners that more relief is coming. He said the timeline and the amount are still unclear.

“If we don’t get to a hand shake by the end of this week, you’re probably not looking at a bill until after November 3rd,” Warner told the group.

“If we don’t provide additional federal assistance then the incredible restaurant scene that has been created here in Richmond could disappear and potentially not come back,” he furthered in an interview after the event.

Wrapped up in the latest federal stimulus package is a proposal co-sponsored by Warner that would direct $120 billion towards the restaurant industry, though that total could still fluctuate. The revitalization fund would give flexible grants to eligible businesses that could be used to cover things like rent, utilities, salaries or supplies. 

The idea of waiting until after Election Day for a cash injection has worried some industry experts who are warning of a mass “extinction event” between now and December. Those concerns were echoed by Richmond restaurant owners on Monday. 

“For everyday that they wait there is long-term, lasting damage being done,” Liu said.

Warner said the House and Senate are still split on how to make sure this money gets to small, independently owned businesses, rather than larger franchises. For example, Warner said the version that passed in the House caps eligible restaurants based on revenue whereas the Senate would exclude owners with more than 25 locations. 

“I don’t think restaurants should be penalized for doing well,” Warner said, criticizing the House’s approach.

Richmond Restaurant Group’s Michelle Williams represents eight eateries, including The Daily Kitchen & Bar, Barrio Taqueria + Tequila, The Hill Cafe and The Hard Shell. Williams fears the House’s criteria will leave them empty handed. 

“At $1.5 million per year in sales pre-COVID…even our smallest restaurant, which is about 50 seats, does more in sales in a year than that and so the thought that our smallest restaurant could be excluded if the Senate doesn’t do something to change that House bill is kind of frightening,” Williams said. 

The uncertainty comes as many restaurants relying on expanded outdoor seating are already preparing for further losses during the winter months.

Little Nickel General Manager Christine Kirsch said they’re planning to use relief funds to pay for outdoor heaters on their patio. Adding to the anxiety, Kirsch said they’re on backorder for six weeks.

“It is stressful. There aren’t any clear and concise answers so we can only do so much planning,” Kirsch said.

When asked about the relief delay on Monday, Republican Daniel Gade, whose running to replace Warner in the Senate, blamed both parties for putting “ideological purity” in negotiations over the needs of the American people.

“The RESTAURANTS Act has some bipartisan support but the problem is it has been poisoned by the larger negotiations,” Gade said. “Both sides have their views but the bottom line is families are suffering right now.”

Warner largely blamed Republicans for turning their focus towards the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

“We ought to not be jamming a Supreme Court judge through. We ought to be working out how we get this relief to the restaurants,” Warner said. “Too many Virginians are living right on the economic edge at this point.”

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