May 3—More federal aid is on the way for Maine restaurants, bars and other establishments still recovering from the bruising sustained during the pandemic downturn.
Starting Monday, food and beverage businesses could begin applying for grants from the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund included in the American Rescue Plan passed by congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Biden in March.
Establishments that demonstrate losses last year compared with sales in 2019, minus previous rounds of federal assistance, may be eligible for grants of at least $1,000 and up to $5 million.
More funding could help many in Maine's food and beverage industry who are beginning to recover from massive losses and disruption coronavirus caused last year despite ongoing financial support from federal, state and local governments.
"It is very possible that you could get two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program funding and still show a sizable decrease year over year," said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs at trade group HospitalityMaine.
"No one is supposed to be made whole," through the grant program, Dugal added. "This is trying to help through a disaster."
Grants could give eligible businesses much-needed capital to gear up for what many expect to be a busy season. Restaurant sales in Maine are highly seasonal, and even though summer 2020 was better than many expected, a rough winter left establishments cash-poor as they now try to ramp up again, Dugal said.
"It will take years to get back to normal, but if we can just have the summer we expect, then it will go a log way to getting us back to the same place we were before the pandemic," Dugal said. "This is just going to put people back in the game."
Grants are available to restaurants, food trucks, carts and stands, caterers and bars. Bakeries, breweries, wineries, distilleries and inns are also eligible if on-premise sales account for a third of their gross receipts.
Primo, a celebrated, seasonal farm-to-table restaurant in Rockland, had a rough 2020. Owner Melissa Kelly offered limited seating inside for a while until closing again when COVID-19 cases surged in autumn. A planned outdoor space wasn't opened in time, and Primo's cuisine doesn't translate well to takeout, Kelly said.
"Putting that food in a box is heartbreaking," she said.
Securing a revitalization grant could be the boost the restaurant needs to help recover its footing. The money could help cover the cost of its outdoor dining space, hire additional staff and cover costs for protective equipment, Kelly said.
"Everything is like opening a new restaurant on the same property," she said. "Any money we can scrounge at the moment is helpful."
Reopening makes Kelly and her staff nervous, but is the only option to keep the business going.
"We have bills to pay and mouths to feed — I have no choice," she said. "I need to open and I need to be busy."
Grant amounts can be calculated three ways. For establishments that were in business prior to Jan. 1, 2019, funding would equal their 2019 gross receipts — all revenue the business earned — minus 2020 gross receipts and all PPP loan amounts.
Businesses that opened partway through 2019 calculate their average annualized monthly gross receipts minus 2020 receipts and PPP loans. Places that opened from the start of 2020 to the beginning of March this year, or those that have not yet opened, can use the amount spent on eligible expenses between February 2020 and this March, minus their gross receipts last year and this year, minus the amount of their PPP loans.
The grant program includes set-asides and an application timeline intended to prioritize businesses owned by women, veterans and groups that have been socially and economically disadvantaged. All establishments were able to apply starting Monday, but those groups will be prioritized for review and funding in the program's first 21 days.
Small businesses with gross receipts of less than $1.5 million have priority access to $9.5 billion of the fund. That includes $500 million reserved for businesses that make $50,000 a year or less.
Grant money can pay for wages and benefits, rent, utilities, mortgage, protective equipment, food and beverage expenses, business supplies, outdoor seating construction and operating expenses. Businesses have until March 2023 to spend the money.
Krista Kern Desjarlais started applying for a grant minutes after the online portal opened at noon Monday. The pastry chef closed tiny The Purple House bakery and café in North Yarmouth in the early days of the pandemic last year and hasn't reopened since. She served ice cream from her other establishment, Bresca & the Honeybee in New Gloucester, for about two-and-a-half months last summer.
Desjarlais applied for a grant as early as possible, worried that funding would dry up. Staying on top of bills and debt while closed left her without much to spend toward reopening this summer, she said.
"I don't think we will have to close permanently if we don't get the funds, but it will help," Desjarlais said.
In the year since she closed, labor, food, equipment and other costs have soared. Desjarlais said she'll reopen even if she doesn't get a grant, but it will mean keeping the business small and lean.
"I want to be able to acclimate the business to the new normal — that is what the revitalization fund will really give me the ability to do," she said.