Thousands of restaurants and bars decimated by the COVID-19 outbreak have a better chance at survival as the government begins handing out $28.6 billion in grants — money to help these small businesses stay afloat while they wait for customers to return.

Among those applying are the Pastime Restaurant in Baton Rouge and We Dats New Orleans Own Chicken and Shrimp.

The Small Business Administration started accepting applications for grants from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund on Monday. For the first three weeks only applications from restaurants that are majority-owned by women, veterans and “socially and economically disadvantaged” applicants will be processed and paid out, although any restaurant can apply. After that, grants will be funded in the order that they’ve been approved by the SBA.

Randy Wesley, owner of the Pastime Restaurant in Baton Rouge, said he’s applying for a grant to help pay off some of the debts the longstanding downtown pizza parlor accumulated during 2020.

“A lot of the restaurants I know were in the situation where we were using all available lines of credit, getting extensions from suppliers, using personal funds, credit cards,” he said. “We still have a deep hole to dig out of, but we had to dig that hole to stay open.”

"We started applying early this morning," said Gregoire Tillery, owner of We Dat's, which has four locations across the state, mostly in New Orleans. "We put everything in the portal and didn't have any problems. It is a very lengthy process," he said. "This is going to be huge just to be able to help out and get back on our feet. Whatever I'm blessed with, it's just going to go to bills."

We Dat's was closed for eight months last year, and had expanded to Monroe just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic prompted global lockdowns.

"The pandemic was very, very rough on us. It was the fear of the unknown," Tillery said. 

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We Dat's reopened to the public with safety measures in place in October and employs about 60 people.

Local restaurants saw their sales drop anywhere from 60% to 75% in the past year, due to capacity limits on indoor dining and people not being willing to go out to eat during the pandemic.

“This will help us in getting back to where we were,” the Pastime's Wesley said.

The fund is also open to caterers, bars, food trucks, bakeries, lounges and taverns, snack bars, brewpubs and breweries with onsite public sales, wineries and distilleries, and other related businesses that experienced pandemic-related revenue loss.

The grants, up to a maximum of $10 million, are aimed at replacing lost revenue at restaurant companies with up to 20 locations. Businesses with more than one restaurant can get up to $5 million per location, but each applicant is limited to a total of $10 million in funds. Any previous federal Paycheck Protection Program loans a restaurant received will be deducted from the maximum total they are eligible for.

Along with paying vendors, restaurants can use the revitalization program money for outdoor dining, supplies, back mortgage payments, past due rent or payroll.  

Restaurants don't have to repay the grant money if they provide proof the funds went for the intended uses. “This is not free money,” Wesley said. “There are going to be many, many hours of scanning documents.”

Louisiana Economic Development said employment in restaurants and bars peaked at 180,000 in 2019. The sector lost 80,000 jobs in the first half of 2020. Improved economic conditions, widespread vaccinations and the lifting of capacity restrictions has caused employment to rebound to 155,000 jobs.

The restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates the industry has lost $270 billion since the start of the pandemic. More than 110,000 restaurants shut down long-term or permanently and 2.5 million jobs have been lost.


Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.