Houligan’s Steak & Seafood Pub co-owner Jon Seybold has been forced to lay off about half of his 30 employees because of significantly decreased revenues as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Houligan’s Steak & Seafood Pub co-owner Jon Seybold has been forced to lay off about half of his 30 employees because of significantly decreased revenues as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

$45 million will provide a little relief to restaurants as the Legislature remains AWOL.

In a typical December Lehman’s Supper Club & Lounge in Rice Lake is a hub of holiday activity, with servers busily bringing food and drink to patrons packing the eatery and Christmas parties happening nearly daily. 

But this isn’t a typical December. 

So far this month the restaurant that has been a popular fixture in this Barron County community since the early 1930s is mostly empty, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has Wisconsin eateries and taverns struggling to keep their doors open. 

Gone are the holiday parties, the busy festive crowds. Gone too are the revenues the restaurant once enjoyed.

Business at Lehman’s is down more than 50% from this time a year ago, said the restaurant’s owner, Harold “Butch” Lehman, who operates the eatery with his wife Trudy. With income down significantly, Lehman said he has had to lay off 70% of his staff.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business a long time, and this is something I’ve never seen before in this industry. None of us have,” Lehman said Friday from his restaurant. “Normally this time of year we’re giving to various causes, helping out where we can. Now this year we’re the ones looking for help.”

Lehman and other restaurants received good news Thursday when Gov. Tony Evers announced that restaurants grossing between $1 million and $7 million annually will receive $20,000 apiece in grant funding intended to help them remain in business as the pandemic continues. About 2,000 businesses will receive that money totaling $45 million statewide as part of continued grants through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

A total of $185 million in CARES Act relief had previously gone out to Wisconsin small businesses, but those dollars did not include restaurants like Lehman’s that made more than $1 million in gross revenue last year. That figure sounds like a lot of money, Lehman said, but it isn’t given the relatively small profit margin in the restaurant business. 

Restaurants do not have to apply for the grant and will instead be automatically contacted by the state Department of Revenue, according to Evers’ announcement. The DOR will identify eligible businesses through tax records.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) offered rare praise for Evers after the governor announced the aid.

“I would like to thank the Governor for focusing on the hospitality industry just as the Assembly GOP plan released this week,” Vos said in a statement referencing the poison pill-stuffed COVID plan forwarded by Assembly Republicans. “Restaurants have suffered immensely from the local restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic. These establishments are important fixtures in our communities and I’m pleased that federal dollars are going to help them through these difficult times.”

Evers admitted in a Thursday call with reporters that the latest round of grants likely won’t be good enough for many struggling restaurants.

“Obviously they need more help,” he said. “There’s restaurants closing every day across the state. There are lots of people hurting in this business.”

But with his hands essentially tied due to a lack of action from the Republican-led Legislature, Evers said he is relying on the federal government to step in to help pull restaurants back from the brink of closure. He sent a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump and Wisconsin’s entire Congressional delegation pleading for federal aid. 

‘Ray of hope’

Ryan Clancy, who co-owns amusement center and restaurant Bounce Milwaukee with his wife and is co-founder of the Progressive Restaurants and Activists in Wisconsin Network (PRAWN), said it is both appreciated and frustrating that there is no application for the new grant. 

“It is nice that there isn’t an application, but it’s also terrifying for some folks that there isn’t an application because we don’t know entirely who qualifies,” Clancy said. “The details are still pretty light. People are speculating that because there only seem to be 2,000 grants available, some people [who qualify] will get them and some people won’t.”

Clancy, whose establishment barely qualified for the grants after grossing $1,000,250 last year, said the extra money is welcome, but it’s nearly not enough to keep restaurants afloat. Long-term federal and state aid is needed, said Clancy, who is also a Milwaukee County supervisor.

“A lot of people are still panicked,” Clancy said. “Ultimately, a one-time grant, whether it’s $5,000 or $20,000 will mean for most restaurants that we die more slowly. That’s a couple of weeks for many places and maybe a month for others.”

Restaurants across the state shut down on March 17 when the Safer at Home order was issued, and they didn’t reopen until late May. Many sold takeout orders during that time, but revenues from those sales were down drastically from normal, restaurant owners said. 

Since then they have operated at reduced seating capacity and under various public health orders and recommendations as Republicans have challenged in the courts a statewide mask mandate in public places and other state actions intended to slow the spread of the virus.

Jon Seybold has watched the number of patrons and corresponding revenues plummet at the Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub restaurant he co-owned in downtown Eau Claire as the pandemic continues. These days the eatery’s income is less than half of normal for this time of year, Seybold said, and the Christmas parties that normally fill the calendar this time of year aren’t happening.

Given that, the announcement of aid to restaurants is much-appreciated, Seybold said. Like Lehman’s, Houligans wasn’t eligible for previous state grants to small businesses. Seybold said he is “cautiously optimistic” his restaurant will receive that money, which would be especially helpful this time of year, he said. 

“It would be a nice booster shot for keeping us going,” Seybold said.

Still, Seybold worries about the months ahead. Shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday his restaurant was mostly empty, and on many recent nights the number of patrons has been even less, Seybold said. 

Lehman said he is similarly uncertain what to expect for the near future. For the last two weeks only employees were allowed inside his restaurant as it offered only takeout business after county health officials recommended businesses restrict public access to reduce virus spread. 

Lehman’s reopened this week, but with COVID-19 prevention provisions in place. He said he is thankful for the support of patrons but acknowledged he and other restaurant owners, especially those in northern Wisconsin, are struggling. 

“We certainly do appreciate it,” Lehman said of the CARES Act funding for his restaurant and others.” It’s a ray of hope. But we’d like to see all small businesses get some more funding. I think we’re going to need it.”

UpNorthNews reporter Jonathon Sadowski contributed to this story.