Like everyone, life for us has settled into a nearly hypnotic routine. Not bad mind you, just very different from my recent one as a chef and restaurant owner. Gardening, baking honest loaves in the outdoor oven and reading now fill our days. I make regular visits to our shuttered restaurant and long to hear the hum and bustle of our customers dining and our staff serving them. As I go about my new rhythms in the garden or the kitchen, I ponder what’s in store for the future? Will we ever return to “normal”? Can our vibrant restaurant culture be restored to its place in Portland’s wonderful cultural world?
Most people know that the CARES Federal Stimulus package has offered to help small businesses recover from the economic duress of this viral outbreak. Many know that the funds quickly ran out before most requests were fulfilled. Not surprisingly, it has come to light that the overwhelming majority of those funds went to corporate chains with loans in the maximum $10 million amount, not to independent small business owners. Fewer people are aware that that might ironically be good news.
In reality, the conditions attached to these Payroll Protection Program loans are not really feasible for restaurants to comply with. Once initiated the loans require the business to return to full staffing levels and maintain that level of full-time employees for eight weeks. Reasonable estimates vary, but it looks very likely that Portland-area restaurants and bars will not be able to start doing business until sometime in late July or August and even then, with dramatically reduced occupancy requirements. That will be long after the eight weeks of PPP funding has run out. At that point the loan calculations and payment schedule are determined. So, in actuality, we would be borrowing money to pay our staff when we’re not even operable and then would have to lay everyone off again.
The new Independent Restaurant Coalition is a group of chefs and restaurateurs who have come together to advocate for change in these PPP conditions and policies. CARES 3.5 has been approved but contains none of the considerations and rewrites we are requesting. It does include an additional $320 billion in PPP funds but without some modifications of the conditions, those funds will not help our plight. We have asked for two specific items: First, change the loan origination date to the first day of actual business. Second, extend the loan to three months after returning to full business levels.
The restaurant sector represents 11 million workers nationally and its $1 trillion-dollar annual sales are 4% of our country’s Gross Domestic Product. On our local level, it’s intrinsically tied to local agriculture and a myriad of food artisans, fishermen, farmers, ranchers and much more.
Our community of food folks is inseparable from the Portland and Oregon that we all cherish. We can’t let this stand as it is. The cost to our culture and existence is too high. I can’t picture Portland without our emblematic restaurant scene—can you? I urge everyone to contact our senate and congressional delegates and urge them to support these changes.
Independent Restaurant Coalition, www.saverestaurants.com