When the federal government opened emergency and Payroll Protection Program loans to small businesses, the funding appeared to be a lifeline. But even for the lucky restaurant owners who got a share of the money, the hard part is just beginning.
Jennifer and David Uygur, the owners of Lucia and Macellaio, are finding this out now. They successfully secured not just a PPP loan, but also a grant from the James Beard Foundation, making their restaurants some of the best-supported in the Dallas area. And even the Uygurs have a seemingly endless series of difficult decisions ahead.
The decision to apply for financial aid — from anyone, for any amount — was easy. The very first day that they could, the Uygurs applied for an “economic injury” disaster loan.
“We were supposed to get a $10,000 grant within three days,” Jennifer Uygur says. “We filed for that back in March. Nothing. We had business insurance at both restaurants. One denied us right on the phone. It’s so frustrating. Admittedly, we were not looking to see if there was a specific exclusionary virus clause in our contract. But it was still crushing.”
Then came the James Beard Foundation’s promise of grants.
“I immediately applied for all of the restaurants, thinking, oh my god, if we can get just one, that will be helpful,” Uygur says. “And then we didn’t hear anything, so we assumed, that’s OK. We hadn’t heard anything by early April, so we were like, OK, that didn’t work either.”
Only it did work. The money arrived recently, and the Beard Foundation attaches no strings to it, which means the owners of a restaurant can use the grant in any way necessary to keep their business afloat. For the Uygurs, that meant restocking their empty kitchens.
“Our walk-ins were completely empty,” Uygur says. “We had to start over. That grant was wonderful because it allows us to get more inventory in and get started.”
The PPP loan — which the Uygurs only secured after asking for banking recommendations on Facebook, having been rejected by their longtime national bank — comes with considerably more red tape. It can be converted into a grant if a series of seemingly arbitrary conditions are met. If a business owner prefers a loan, the note comes due in just two years.
Macellaio's lamb sirloin.
The money can only be spent for two months. Only 25% of PPP funding can be applied to utilities and rent.
As David Uygur puts it: “25% for rent is pretty silly.”
Nevertheless, the PPP money did its job by allowing the Uygurs to hire back kitchen staff who can help prepare their restaurants’ new curbside carryout program. Now they face a whole new series of decisions.
Lucia, for example, is tiny: If it reopened at 25% capacity, as state regulations allow, that would be only nine seats. Instead, staff are using the dining room to roll and cut fresh pasta. And, in order to avoid filling the cramped kitchen with employees, they’re serving the same menu at both restaurants.
“I can have one sous chef at Lucia making pasta all day long,” David Uygur says. “I can have one sous chef at Macellaio braising pork all day long. That kind of thing, so that we can completely spread out safely.”
When David Uygur's asked how he's feeling about the future, he answers bluntly: “It’s a little too soon to tell.”
But the husband-and-wife duo have enjoyed getting to see regulars picking up their meals, and they cherish the human contact of their phone-dependent reservation system.
For the moment, Lucia and Macellaio are serving identical family-style meal kits, so customers can heat up food at home and create the restaurant experience for themselves. That way, the kitchens can keep serving fresh-made pastas without worrying about if they’ll be cooked and then microwaved, or if they’ll sit in a Styrofoam box for a couple days.
“That’s the way to have the Lucia experience at home, rather than sitting in a half-empty dining room and everybody is timid about it,” Jennifer Uygur says.
They are also considering — this should perk up some interest — a “salumi subscription” box.
When will customers be able to have the Lucia experience at Lucia? Nobody knows. And the next few months will pose fresh challenges for the restaurant, because the PPP loans must be spent within that eight-week window. The clock is ticking on the loans — but there’s no relief in sight from coronavirus, and the Uygurs’ restaurants are too small to open safely, they say.
“I think that we’re going to have to decide for ourselves” about opening, David Uygur says, “because the amount of guidance that we get is not sufficient.”
“It’s a very strange place as a business owner to be," she says, "trying to plan ahead where you don’t know what the world is going to look like.”