The omicron variant has had a devastating impact on the dining industry, especially restaurants passed over last year by the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) reports.
In a Zoom news conference on Monday, the NRA announced that a poll of U.S. restaurateurs found that almost half that didn’t get RRF funding in 2021 say they likely won’t survive unless the fund is replenished. This could result in the loss of 1.6 million jobs nationwide, NRA spokesman Sean Kennedy said.
“The Restaurant Revitalization Fund has been a critical lifeline for so many but far more remain on the sidelines,” said Kennedy. “Omicron definitely has had a negative impact on restaurant operations. Effectively, the restaurant recovery continues to move in reverse.”
The poll, completed by 4,200 restaurateurs from across the nation between Jan. 16 to 18, found 88% of restaurants saw a decline in indoor dining due to the omicron variant; 76% report business is worse now than it was three months ago, and 74% report their restaurant is less profitable now than pre-pandemic. Also, 94% said a grant would let them retain or hire back employees.
Connecticut-specific statistics were not available Monday.
Kennedy said the RRF funding last year saved more than 900,000 jobs nationwide and helped 96 percent of grant recipients stay in business.
Kennedy cited the industry’s average 3 to 5% percent profit margin, and the fact that before the pandemic, the average restaurant had just 16 days’ cash on hand in case of emergency. “The needs of the restaurant industry have never been more dire and never been more clear right now,” he said.
At the news conference, Kennedy said NRA wrote to Congress to encourage the replenishment of the fund. “The timing of this is critical. Congress is facing a Feb. 18 deadline to pass a government spending bill,” he said.
Hudson Riehle, a research specialist with the NRA, stressed that the dining industry is the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer, after health care.
“There are too many restaurants that are jeopardized right now. … Too many jobs on the line. Failure is truly not an option,” Riehle said. “Every light for our industry is blinking red.”
Kennedy and Riehle were joined by two restaurant owners, including Tricia Martin of TJ’s Burritos in East Granby and a pancake-house proprietor from Plano, Texas.
Martin’s restaurant was not qualified for a PPP loan because it opened in 2021 and was passed over for a RRF grant. She said TJ’s is “not any better off now than we were three months ago.”
The timing of the omicron surge was a blow, she said.
“When we had outdoor dining, and they eased up on the restrictions on seating capacity, all of a sudden the summer was great,” she said. “Then omicron hit when it got cold and we lost the whole patio at the same time. We were able to keep everyone on, but we had to reduce hours.”
Martin said consumer confidence took a hit, too. “Our town didn’t have an indoor mask mandate but other towns did and that made people scared, not comfortable. Our foot traffic decreased,” she said.
Martin described TJ’s earnings as “flat,” due to increases in food, supplies and the cost of wages. She said the restaurant hopes to add more seating this year, and is hoping for an RRF grant to help them.
The $28.6 billion RRF was part of the American Rescue Plan. Nationwide, 278,304 restaurants applied for a total of $72,233,280,031, and 101,004 were granted a total of $28,574,979,472, according to the Small Business Administration. In Connecticut, 3,369 Connecticut restaurants applied for a total of $790,818,094 in grants from the federal fund. A total of 1,303 received funding, totaling $301,164,069.
Susan Dunne can be reached at email@example.com.