Jon Seybold and Ron Kind speak
Jon Seybold, left, co-owner of Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub in Eau Claire, speaks Tuesday with US Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) about the importance of providing federal funding to restaurants to help them make up for financial losses incurred during the coronavirus pandemic. Seybold and Kind discussed the topic during a press conference at Houligans. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Demand for federal funding far outpaces dollars available for eateries because so much business was lost during the pandemic.

Wisconsin restaurant owners report the return of customers as coronavirus case numbers remain relatively low and vaccinations against the virus have grown, but those owners continue to face significant financial challenges if applications for federal aid are any indication. 

The application process for the most recent round of financial assistance for restaurants, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF), was shut down last week after more than 300,000 restaurateurs sought about $69 billion in just two weeks, almost triple the $28.6 billion that had been allocated to help cover COVID-19 related expenses, according to the US Small Business Association.

Honore Kaszuba, owner of Black Cat Coffeehouse in Ashland, sought RRF dollars to help pay for costs incurred during the pandemic, but she hasn’t heard whether she will receive the money and wonders whether she will because of the high demand. That money, which qualifying businesses are not required to repay, would help “provide a buffer” during upcoming months as Kaszuba prepares to reopen her restaurant to in-person status. Customers are using an outdoor dining area or picking up takeout orders as a remodeling project nears completion. 

“I have incurred a lot of extra expenses [during the pandemic],” Kaszuba told UpNorthNews Tuesday “and the additional money would really help.”

The number of applications for RRF assistance far exceeding available funding is a sign that Kaszuba is far from alone. Restaurant owners have been hit hard by the pandemic, with many saying they have struggled to keep their doors open as the virus first prompted closures, then limited occupancies in many locations, for more than a year. 

Previous help came to Kaszuba and others in the form of several rounds of federal payments. She and thousands of other restaurant owners were among more than 57,000 businesses statewide that received about $3.4 billion in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, money used to pay salaries, mortgage payments, utilities and other costs when little to no customer money was coming in. 

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But even with that assistance and other federal funding, and with more people beginning to frequent their businesses, restaurant owners say they need more financial help as they try to make up for losses incurred during the pandemic. In addition to RRF funds, restaurants also are eligible for money through the Wisconsin Tomorrow Small Business Recovery Grant program that is disbursing $420 million to small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

Kaszuba credits a PPP loan she secured last year with helping her keep afloat. Business at her normally busy coffee shop has been down significantly, and she said she has remained financially viable in large part by expanding takeout orders.  

“A couple months into this, I was definitely worried,” Kaszuba told UpNorthNews Tuesday. “Until we secured a PPP loan, I wasn’t sure I would make it through.”

Jon Seybold, who co-owns Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub in downtown Eau Claire, also applied for RRF money, but he doesn’t expect to receive any because the program was maxed out so quickly. Seybold also recently applied for a Wisconsin Tomorrow grant.  

Houligans received PPP funding previously, key to helping keep the business operating during the pandemic, Seybold said. Business was down by at least half during parts of the past 15 months, he said, and revenues at the restaurant he has helped operate since 2002 are down about $250,000 from normal since the pandemic began.

“We’re still way behind,” he said during a press conference Tuesday at his restaurant organized by the organization Opportunity Wisconsin to discuss the need for ongoing funding for restaurants. “We never did catch up.”

US Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), who attended the press conference, said despite previous aid to restaurants, more is needed. 

“We’re seeing demand [for funding] surge,” Kind said of restaurants seeking federal aid. “Obviously, that speaks to the need for this assistance.”

Federal lawmakers are discussing the need for more financial help for restaurants, Kind said, and where such funding could come from. Dollars for that purpose could be included in the federal infrastructure bill currently being debated, he said. 

“We still have some work to do on this,” he said.  

As COVID-19 vaccinations have increased in recent months and case numbers have dropped, business at Seybold’s eatery is picking up, he said. But additional aid would go a long way toward making up for significant lost revenues and provide a cushion against an uncertain future, he said.

Some restaurants are operating at reduced hours, he said, while a small number have not yet reopened. 

“Things are picking up,” Seybold said, “but the question is how quickly are people going to feel comfortable about coming back out in public again?”

Kaszuba hopes it happens soon. Remodeling at Black Cat is scheduled to be finished in a couple of weeks, she said, and she plans to resume inside seating after that. She credits previous federal funding with helping her and other restaurant owners stay in business during the pandemic and hopes more is available as needed. 

“Without the government support we’ve had, a lot more restaurants and other small businesses wouldn’t still be operating,” she said.