Restaurant industry, hoping for relief in stimulus package, scrambles after Trump cuts off talks

The hospitality industry, in particular, has been lobbying hard to pass the $2.2 trillion Heroes Act, which includes a revitalization fund that would provide $120 billion to help independent restaurants and bars with fewer than 20 locations. Members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, an industry trade group, recently said 85 percent of their peers could close by the end of the year without federal relief.

The IRC sent out a statement following Trump’s decision to halt stimulus negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) until after the election on Nov. 3.

“If Congress and the president walk away from negotiations, even more of our neighborhood restaurants will go out of business,” the organization wrote. “Restaurant employment decreased in nine states in the last available report, and this industry remains the largest contributor to national unemployment. We cannot afford five or six more weeks of decreased revenue, more debt, and uncertainty about colder weather.”

Chefs and restaurateurs reacted with anger, frustration and resignation to the stalled talks. The timing couldn’t be worse for many operators, particularly those in colder climates, where patios are beginning to close and patrons must decide whether they feel safe dining indoors. The evidence suggests it may not be safe.

“People are getting screwed over because you have a group of people who are running our country who care more about power than they care about people,” said Tom Colicchio, the IRC co-founder and the man behind Crafted Hospitality, in an interview with The Washington Post.

“At this point, I’m losing money. Staying open makes no sense,” Colicchio continued during a break in “Top Chef” filming in Portland, Ore. “Maybe for the next month we can hang in there and break even. But once it gets too cold and everybody goes back inside and we’re at 25 percent inside — and, quite frankly, looking at the [infection] numbers in New York go up — there’s going to be a decision pretty soon to shut everything down again.”

“What are we going to do then?” he added. Colicchio said money from the revitalization fund would have supported his operations for six months, perhaps long enough to see a vaccine hit the market. He and his peers, Colicchio said, had been essentially banking on the stimulus cash.

“I’m telling people that we owe money to, like, ‘Hey, you know what? This is going through. We think we’re going to get something. Just hang in there. We’ll take care of you as soon as we get money.’ I mean, this is going to really hurt.”

David Chang, the chef and multimedia star, first lashed out with an expletive on Twitter, then composed himself for a follow-up comment: “Politics over doing what’s right…incredibly wrong.”

Pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, owner of the Buttercream Bakeshop in Washington, D.C., went through a cycle of emotions in one short tweet. “Anger followed by panic followed by diving deeper into pivot (I hate that word) ideas,” she wrote.

Chef, restaurateur and TV personality Andrew Zimmern, who has predicted an “extinction event” for restaurants without federal aid, was even more pointed in his remarks.

“This isn’t about you and your ego, your selfish desires, your trophy case… This is about the ECONOMY OF THE UNITED STATES and ALL her citizens!” Zimmern tweeted. “More sickening, it’s hostage taking, it’s the tool of the bully autocrat.”

Camilla Marcus, a founding member of the IRC, recently had to shut down West-bourne, her socially conscious cafe in New York’s Soho neighborhood. But she has not lost her faith.

“Restaurants cannot give up hope,” she wrote in an email statement to The Post. “It’s hard to imagine that our government turns a blind eye and refuses to help independent restaurants when so many are teetering on the verge of extinction. I was forced to close mine because there was no plan of assistance. But today a plan is within reach. The House passed our restaurant revitalization fund proposal, which also has the support of over 41 Senators from both parties. This is not political; this is about people.”

Marcus, who holds a business degree from the Wharton School, said the IRC will continue to fight for the revitalization fund so other restaurants won’t have to follow in the path of West-bourne.

“In a short amount of time, there will be no restaurant industry,” Tom Brown, a veteran bar owner in Washington, D.C., wrote in a Facebook comment. “Best bet? Make a business plan in the short term, look for cheap rents [in the] summer of 2021 and build out winter 2021/2022 for a spring 2022 opening. If there are investors left to court, that is.”

With a restaurant industry that has shed millions of jobs since the pandemic started, and is expected to lose $240 billion this year, some never expected the government to bail them out. “I gave up on the idea that anyone was coming to save us as an industry back in April,” Ian Boden, chef and owner of the Shack in Staunton, Va., wrote on Facebook. “We like always are on our own.”

Bobby Stuckey, co-founder of the Frasca Hospitality Group with restaurants in Denver and Boulder, Colo., sent an email statement to The Post, saying, “I have received countless texts from people in the industry who are crushed by this news. The uncertainty is killer for many businesses who have been accumulating tons of debt for months. With colder temperatures making outdoor dining impossible, no vaccine in sight and rising positivity rates in many states, many restaurant owners have no choice but to close.”

It’s hard for restaurateurs to know exactly where the Trump administration stands on a stimulus package, particularly after the president reversed course again late Tuesday in a string of tweets, saying he was ready to sign at least a partial stimulus package for Americans and small business. Trump previously said that “immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business,” but he is also trailing in the polls. Many speculated that, should Trump lose, an economic stimulus package may not arrive until after Joe Biden is inaugurated in January,

“There’s been no indication right now whether or not in a lame duck session, he would pass” a relief bill, said Colicchio. “You would think that the Republicans, even post-election, would want to have some sort of win, and they can say they pushed this through. But who knows?”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who introduced the original Restaurants Act, said he’s still working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get legislation passed in the House and Senate.

“Despite the tweets, restaurant relief is still very much in play as the administration tries to make sense of Trump’s incoherent positions,” the Congressman said in an email to The Post. “He’s already walked back some of his comments after massive blowback. I think we’ll see the same with restaurant relief given the broad bipartisan support and urgent need in the industry.”

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